Whether an international project or a US-based project, we have all watched this situations unfold, and some of us have been a part of it. We have witnessed well-meaning, compassionate people walk into a community, assess what they believe the shortcomings and struggles of that community are, and then we have watched those people create a plan to address the shortcomings and struggles. And we have watched difficulties unfold through this. Some of these efforts do more harm than good, unintentionally rob locals of their dignity, and ultimately, these well-intentioned people have frequently been unable to complete the projects they once believed were infinitely important. At World Orphans, we have learned hard lessons, and we have grown from those experiences with the help of our local teams.
Is there another way? Is it possible to do good, care for the vulnerable, and empower a community in a healthy, productive way? Is it possible to honor the dignity of people while simultaneously equipping them to find work, supporting them through the process of saving money, or helping them learn other valuable skills?
And it starts with letting someone else take center stage. It starts with a listening ear, a spirit of humility, and a willingness to learn. It starts with local leadership—the pastors of the local churches, the matriarchs of the villages, the highly esteemed elders. The value of investing in local leaders cannot be overstated.
1) They know the local culture.
No amount of research can equate to the knowledge a local person has about the vast amount of idiosyncrasies within their own community. Traditions that may be considered perfectly acceptable and normal within a Western culture may be deeply offensive within another culture, and sometimes a Google search doesn’t quickly explain this. For instance, if you traveled to India, you would never eat food with your left hand, as this is considered unclean. This is a simple example, but a handful of offensive actions can keep an outsider from building relationships. By choosing to come alongside a local leader rather than trying to supersede that leader’s authority, you demonstrate a humility and a willingness to learn about the community. Additionally, you are suddenly equipped with a wealth of knowledge about the culture.
2) They know the people.
Local leaders know what the local people eat. They know the beliefs they carry. They are aware of the customs and traditions. Certainly, a local leader will not know every intimate detail about every single person within their community. People are intricately woven by their location, circumstances, and upbringing. However, a local leader will carry a wide array of knowledge about both the struggles and triumphs people in their area may be facing, as they too have perhaps faced those same struggles and triumphs.
3) They know how to manage work flow, establish and address priorities, and deal with the nuances of their culture better than anyone else.
When you live outside the community, it is difficult to anticipate interruptions in projects, prioritize daily tasks, or even understand why a certain program is not meeting expectations. Local leaders are vital to establishing reasonable timelines, properly prioritizing, and creating innovative solutions.
Domestic Church Partnership Director Lindsay Allen shares the following about her own learning experiences working with our smart and talented team in Haiti:
I may ask our team members to meet with a pastor to discuss an upcoming team's itinerary. What I don't anticipate when I give a deadline . . . is that the church might not be accessible. If it rains, it might be too muddy to drive to the church, or the bridge to the church may be collapsed, or the pastor may not have any more minutes on his phone, so he can't be reached. In the US, we are accustomed to instantly accessing people through text messaging, phone calls, and even safe roads to travel. Local leadership can help set more reasonable expectations of when and how something can be done.
I’ve also learned that many Americans tend to have a very specific idea of a family/home structure—one or two parents plus children. But in most developing nations, the people in a home can be very fluid. Sometimes grandparents are there. Cousins, aunts, and even non-relatives might live there for a time. The number of people in a home can change year to year or month to month. As we focus on caring for a family, sometimes it's even difficult to know who exactly that includes. Our local leaders—who regularly visit homes and build relationships with families–are able to help us gather information on individual needs.
4) They are known and trusted in the community.
Local, established leaders have spent time pouring into their communities. They have attended birthday parties and weddings. They have visited the sick and grieved with those who have lost loved ones. Consider your own friendships for a moment. Who is in your inner circle? Who do you confide in the most? Which friends do you call when you feel like everything is crumbling before your eyes? The person who held the door for you at the grocery store yesterday probably didn’t come to mind. The person who unexpectedly paid for your food in the drive-through line didn’t suddenly pop in your head either, did he? Though you undoubtedly appreciated those acts of service, the people that know you—those that have invested in you and have taken time to build your trust—are the people that you reach out to when you need a friend. Likewise, in communities around the world, mothers have best friends in the community that they can contact when parenting or running a small business is hard. Fathers have friends in the community that they can contact when they need an extra hand on a project or when they suddenly face unemployment and need work. The local leaders we partner with are the friends that show up for others in their community.
5) They have a pre-existing investment in the community, and it is likely that they will continue being invested for the long term.
By supporting local leaders that have already invested in their local community, it’s possible to help those leaders capitalize on the investment they have already made rather than trying to create a new program without the support of local leadership.
World Orphans Middle East Director Billy Ray shares the following:
We have had the fortunate experience of being led by the Kurdish people here in Iraq, and they have brought about all the success that we have had up to this date. God forbid we ever turn from that philosophy and bow to pressures from the outside to focus on this or that or to do this or that. World Orphans champions local solutions and local leaders. World Orphans is the organization that places their trust where it matters the most—in the local people.
Authority is granted, nay earned, by those who take the most risk. So, how could we subject ourselves to be led by those who take no risk at all, have no compulsion to understand local laws and customs, and hardly venture beyond the shores of America? [ . . . ] Trusting local leadership is the only way to get it right.
Supporting local leadership is not only wise. It’s a far better investment than attempting to create new leaders from scratch.
6) They are able to network and partner with other local leaders.
Local leaders—unsurprisingly—know other local leaders. And as you pour into one leader, you ultimately end up pouring into other leaders, creating a ripple effect. Empowerment never stops with the first person being empowered, but it inevitably is passed from one person to another. Perhaps this is never more powerfully witnessed than watching leaders from local communities work together to care for those around them. At World Orphans, we have watched our international team members endlessly pour into, cheer on, and rally around the local pastors that are caring for vulnerable families in the community. And as those pastors are supported, families begin empowering other families, sharing the knowledge they have learned about savings, small business ownership, or taking care of their children.
7) This approach helps create financial integrity.
Working in partnership with local leadership creates a system of checks and balances that allows for financial visibility and creates accountability between the local leadership and the external organization. By allowing multiple partners to have knowledge of how the funds are received and how they will be used, no one person is left to manage funding—a situation that can be compromising. World Orphans is dedicated to using finances with integrity. As part of this dedication, World Orphans works with US church partners, international church partners, board members, and international team members to ensure money is being used to its full potential.
8) This approach is Biblical.
Throughout the Bible, we repeatedly see examples of local leaders being poured into with intentionality. Perhaps the most notable example was Jesus pouring into the twelve disciples. Could Jesus have accomplished his work otherwise? Certainly. But, Jesus cared about people. He valued relationships, and he saw that infinite worth in celebrating what the disciples could offer to the ministry. Likewise, as the early church grew, we watched small churches pop up as Paul traveled, investing in leaders as he went.
Unlike Jesus, we cannot do the work we seek to do without our local leaders. They are vital to our efforts, as we seek to care for the orphaned and vulnerable. Without local leaders, World Orphans would not be the ministry it is today.