03 April 2015

Cross-cultural Partnership - Two Critical Questions That Never Have Answers

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have been working on a major assignment for Lahash: reviewing all past partners and projects to see if there are lessons that we as Lahash could learn.  This involves reviewing ten years of blog posts, memos, reports, email correspondence and photos to piece together a story of what made one partnership work while another partnership failed.  It's interesting and also intellectually exhausting.  I just finished the six-page report on our first failed partnership and had
In my more naive days - August 2007
some embarrassing moments along the way as I saw my own reports from my early days with Lahash saying things like "I trust [this person] and [this person] entirely with money.  I think they have shown themselves to be very responsible and transparent," only to find out later that they were a few months away from stealing money from clients to fund some illicit activities.  I look back and shake my head at my own naivete, but at the same time, there's a small part of me that misses the days when people would give me reports and I didn't immediately question "who was this for?" and "why this vendor?"  Nowadays I hear stories and a very cynical filter pops into place.  "You say 300 people responded to an altar call at your youth group's evangelism event?  Was the pastor's wife one of them, by any chance?"  I could get into many examples of situations in which the rose-colored glasses of the visitors prevented them (and me) from seeing the real situation.

I've learned a lot since I came to live in Tanzania, and much more since I've been married to Fred, but there are two questions which become more complicated, not less, the more I learn.

1) Where is the line between grace and justice when accusations of wrongdoing arise?
One problem we encountered in that failed partnership was an accusation of sexual impropriety by the founder.  Although the leadership of Lahash (I was just a lowly first-time traveler at the time) took wise and responsible steps to investigate and address the accusation, the man continually denied that he had done this thing, in spite of witnesses and photographic evidence.  At the time, I was very inclined toward grace, believing that there must have been some mistake somewhere.  Now that I've been through a couple of similar situations (though not with Lahash partners), I have realized that full and flat denial in the face of all evidence is the cultural norm.  

Think how hard it is to determine the truth between two different stories when your kids bring you a conflict to resolve.  Now add totally different cultural values, including a different perception of acceptable sexual behavior, a different definition of honesty, different gender roles, economic dependence, and a myriad of hidden motives and back stories totally unknown to the "judge and jury".  It is extremely difficult to determine truth and appropriate consequences when one can't trust that one's own worldview is the same as that of the parties in the dispute.  Eventually a call has to be made, and whichever choice is made, for grace or for justice, sometimes it turns out to have been wrong.  The consequences of that wrong decision might be future embezzlement and victimization of others as a culprit receiving grace continues on a bad path, or it might be unjust termination, economic hardship, and broken relationships for one innocently accused.

Having been called in to judge in a couple of these cases now, having to do with financial or sexual impropriety or falsified reports or the true nature of relationship between person A and person B, I hate it every single time.  I never feel like I know the truth, so I'm just choosing the "truthiest" sounding story.  My gut is better trained than it used to be, but it still makes some dodgy calls from time to time.

2) Which partner's vision is more important, the donor partner or the implementing partner?
In cross-cultural partnerships between Westerners and Africans or SE Asians or South Americans, there are always sensitive power dynamics at work.  The donor partner (usually the Americans or Canadians or Europeans) have money on their side, and they need projects and clients to spend that money on, usually within the confines of a specific vision.  For example, Lahash International's confines are holistic care for vulnerable children in East Africa served by a Christian partner organization.  The implementing partner, in our case the Tanzanian or Kenyan or Ugandan or South Sudanese organization, has the projects and the clients, but they need the money.  So, the people with the money give it to the people with the need, and everyone is happy.  Sounds like a pretty simple match, right?  


Although the donor partner has money and a specific vision for how to use the money from their donors, they are usually lacking language skills, understanding of power structures, cultural context for assistance, to name just a few factors.  Implementing partners have their own agendas based on a complicated mixture of community, family and personal needs.  If a donor comes to me and wants to give money, my priority is to find a way for their square peg to fit into the round hole of the needs that I want to meet.  In the best case scenario, I work for a transparent process to find middle ground for the donor who cares about the global water crisis and the HIV+ widow I'm trying to serve.  

What if there is no middle ground, though?  If I know a child in desperate need of a school uniform, but my donor has stipulated that money is for water, then what?  What if there is no water crisis in my community?  It takes a strong implementing partner to say no to a donor partner because their vision for their money does not fit the needs of my community.  Some donors make it harder by insisting that the implementing partner just tweak their vision, by saying things like "We really want to work with you, so couldn't you just..." fill in the blank.  In those cases, it's even harder for an implementer to say no.

A well-intentioned implementer who set out to promote girl child education takes money for HIV orphans and then has to pay for the girls who are HIV orphans out of this pot while raising other money for the girls who are vulnerable for other reasons.  Then the day for school fees arrives, and the partner is in an ethical dilemma: is using the money according to its express intended purpose (Western values) more important than arranging for all needy girls to continue their education (African values)?  Maybe you can tell me what the right answer is, because the longer I live here, the less I think I know the answer.

Sometimes, despite all the obstacles to cross-cultural partnership, something truly beautiful happens.  This widow and her grandkids were living in a falling-down, leaky, too-small house, but God orchestrated an untrained social worker, a frustrated and cynical development officer, a visiting Canadian woman and generous American relatives of an acquaintance of ours (people we've never even met) to build them one of the nicest houses in the whole village, just in time for the rainy season to start.

1 comment:

erin said...

This is kind of amazing Leisha. I realize I'm way late in reading it, but these are such important questions. I feel a bit like the further I get into my degree, the less I feel like I have answers on similar questions. I'm still working through what to do with all of that and appreciate hearing a bit about your journey here.