Five years ago we landed in Burundi. Around the small capital I noticed signs everywhere – signs of other NGOs present in the city with logos plastered on their large Land Cruisers, big placards at their local offices and signs out in the countryside wherever they had a project. The rampant self-promotion turned my stomach sour. No one could do any good thing without erecting a sign to mark it, to prove their worth and claim their territory.
For the first season I nursed a secret sense of pride over our unmarked cars that criss-crossed the city, often full of Burundian friends who shared in this development adventure. We didn’t need signs to validate our partnership or announce our project; we just did the work that needed to be done with our friends.
We managed to work in one community for three years without a single sign, but watched thirty families move steadily toward a viable and vibrant community.
Right about that time we began work with another community of 660 families in a different province. We started planting hundreds of trees together, advocated for identity cards for all the adults and birth certificates for the children. Soon we began constructing an elementary school. And somewhere amid all this activity the local officials made a strong recommendation – that we put up a sign.
Everything in me resisted the idea of a sign. We don’t need signs to do our work, we had three year’s of proof in the province next door, I reasoned. But my husband felt there was some practical wisdom in the recommendation, and decided to order the sign.
I’ve since learned the reasons for signs, at least ones from our own experience.
1. Signs protect your project from other organizations that would try to encroach on your hard work. It’s sad to say, but some organizations will try to take a short cut by using the infrastructure you’ve labored to build for their own project. They will see the community you’ve gathered and walk right in and hold court, telling about their livestock program or health initiative. The relationship you’ve cultivated for years they will usurp for their own work, saving them the time of hard-fought connections, leadership development and the forging of trust. I’m not exaggerating – this happened before my very eyes one summer. With no sign, they felt free to come and begin their pitch.
2. Signs act as a reminder to your own staff. Sometimes the hardest thing is recognizing that your own staff will try to skim a little something extra for themselves. They will take people to visit the project and pass it off as their own initiative so they can bolster their image or increase the chance of a better job offer in the future. Sometimes they will make small contracts with other agencies to come in and give chickens or offer some training – taking the finder’s fee for their pocket. We’ve worked with many good team members who we trust deeply, but occasionally our best discernment takes a hit or a good staff member has a moment of weakness. A sign reminds the staffer, and the people coming to meet with him or her, that the larger team of our NGO manages this project.
3. Signs help your partners remember that you are in this together. When people have lived in poverty for generations it isn’t easy to shed the fear that all this help could go away tomorrow. One of the long-term affects of the impoverished mindset we’ve witnessed is a scarcity mentality. So what often happens in the early life of a project is that the families we work with will take hand-outs from any NGO who offers, often claiming that no one is helping them or, even worse, that we are not offering the help we’ve promised. While trust develops and scarcity reflexes linger, things can get messy as other NGOs start supplementing your project with unnecessary or untimely contributions.
What the sign does is serve as a reminder that we are partners; we’re putting our name right alongside yours to show that we aren’t leaving you. The presence of that sign also means they can’t keep living from all these various handouts, they’ve agreed to engage in a trusting partnership with us and we have made the same promise to them. Together we’ll see the community move toward sustainability – but uncomplicated by the insertions of other organizations that might compromise our plan for sustainability, breaking the cycle of dependence.
I want to be clear, we partner with these families and also collaborate with many other organizations who have experience and expertise to offer to these communities. But we do so strategically, knowing what and when the community needs season to season. We also care about the credibility of the organizations we invite, ensuring we offer the best services to the families. A sign keeps it clear – if you want to partner with us here, call the number on the sign and let’s begin a conversation to see how you can work with us for the sake of this neighborhood.
I still wince when I see our signs. I know they’ve provided some necessary functions within our team and to the world outside. But I still wish the signs weren’t necessary. As an idealist, I wish trust was enough.
This is the sign that matters most – walking into Bubanza and seeing women filling basins with clean water, watching a man water the fruit trees and a few more at the piggery feeding the animals. Or seeing kids play on the swings and being greeted by their parents as friends in the transformative work afoot across the community. These are signs I cherish, evidence of a partnership brimming with goodness, deeper than any signpost.
Do any other development workers out there struggle with the use of signs?
What are other benefits you’ve discovered in the use of signs in your communities – or set backs?
Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi