A kind soul asked if I would share some positive examples of NGOs doing their work. That was a fair request.
The affirmation I give here does not mean that everything is perfect. For the moment I just want to focus on aspects that they do do well, things that make me happy.1
So here’s a story.
There was a young man from the city who loved wildlife. So he traveled to one of the most remote corners of his country to try to find animals that had gone extinct everywhere else. And find them he did.
But while he was there he fell in love with the people of the region. Their experience was totally unlike anything he had grown up with, him coming from an upper-middle class urban background while they were hunters who lived a two day hike from the nearest road. But he saw a simplicity and connection to nature in their lives that had been missing in the lives of many people he knew. And he realized that their fate and the fate of the animals in their jungle were bound up together.
The young man began spending more and more time in the jungle with the people. While there he was totally at their mercy – they knew how to live in the jungle, he did not. They were several days travel from any stores, any government water supply, any professional medical attention. For weeks at a time he had to learn to live like them and see their side of life.
Many of the heavily endangered animal species he wanted to preserve were being hunted by the locals. This wasn’t the main reason for those animals’ near extinction, their greatest threats by far were development and the loss of their habitat. But it was clear that hunting could be the final blow for many species which only had a few individuals left.
At the same time, the hunters whom he wished to stop were incredibly poor. They had few sources of protein, and hunting was the only lifestyle they had known. It didn’t seem fair to ask them to sacrifice due to the past sins of the rest of their countrymen.
To their credit, the people knew there was a problem. They knew that hunting in many cases was not even worthwhile anymore, that the population of some creatures had diminished to the point where they were rarely encountered anyway. They knew that if they hunted them to extinction, there wouldn’t be anything left to hunt. They also knew that they faced imminent threats from the rest of society, which was threatening to cut down the jungle, build roads to allow corporate interests in to take resources. They knew that they had little experience or knowledge of that world with which to combat those threats.
So the young man and the people began working out a series of compromises. First, he began taking some of their best hunters and asking them to work for him as ecological researchers instead. He trained them to take pictures, to take data, to make measurements and record GPS points, to set up motion-detecting cameras along wildlife paths. They would use their long-built knowledge of the wildlife to find them for his project. He would pay them for this, and in turn they would give up hunting.
The biological insights came soon and often. One after another, the new para-ecologists were able to document species that academics in the urban centers had thought extinct in the country, or at least so difficult to find that they couldn’t even say for certain where they were.
You can’t save a jungle just by changing the habits of a few people, of course. You have to find ways to effect change in the entire community. So the young man began speaking to the elders of the people and asking them, “What do you want? What do you need? I know that you see how some animals are disappearing from your forest, but I also know that your families have needs. How can we work something out?”
“Schools,” the people replied. “Give us schools so that our children can learn and be able to engage with and stand up against the new threats that are knocking at the door.”
So they worked out a deal. The people of the village would agree to set up certain community conservation areas, large tracks of the forest associated with their village which they would be responsible for maintaining and conserving. They would agree not to hunt a dozen of so of the most vulnerable species, the ones that had the least chance of persisting if hunting continued. And for each village that set up such a conservation area, the young man would get together the funds and training to help them build a school for their children, one that would teach not only reading and mathematics but also conservation values. The teachers for these schools would be chosen from the most educated persons in the villages themselves, as they knew their own people best, but the funding which would allow them to devote themselves to teaching the youth comes from outside.
As they have continued to engage with each other, they keep building new paths to meet their shared goals. The young man has helped the communities to begin new income generation projects that don’t rely on unsustainable depletion of forest resources. These have included the production of local crafts for sale in specialty shops in the big city, or the production of sustainable cash crops that integrate with the continued well-being of the forest instead of destroying it. They have started nurseries to grow plants and trees for replanting in degraded areas of the forest, increasing both the high-quality habitat available to wildlife and the area from which the people can procure resources. And the ecological and scientific work continues, with the most engaged hunters-turned-ecologists traveling to other villages to spread the message of conservation and do what they can to engage more villages in their work.
Throughout all of it the young man from the city continues to work in the outside world to do what he can to preserve their forest, engaging in public advocacy and meeting with government officials to try to ensure that decisions made regarding the forest are made with the interests of the forest’s residents front and center.
I believe this is what partnership with the poor looks like. We all have our own interests and causes which we bring into any engagement. Truly interdependent service does not mean that we eliminate our own agenda, especially if we have worked to develop a good agenda with noble roots. But it means learning to listen to other people’s agenda as well, spending enough time with them to understand where they’re coming from and how their desires for their lives fit with your own, and working together to bring everyone involved more of what they are looking for than they would have had working alone.
God willing, the forest, the village hunters, and the young man from the city will continue to grow up together, and as time goes on the interests of each will become shared at an ever-deepening level.
 As in the earlier articles, I am not identifying the NGO or the people involved here. One reason for this is that I wish the focus to be on what is being done right rather than who is doing the right thing. I’m looking for models to adopt or improve upon, not heroes to idolize.
Second, and in line with that, there might come a time in the future where I feel the need to critique this same NGO, and I wouldn’t feel good about that if I had already identified them in a previous story.