Part of our purpose in braving the car-swallowing potholes, bloodthirsty giant mosquitoes and surreal Mid-Western-ness of these odd German settlements was to talk with a Mennonite man who’d [at least according to legend] developed a system to organize the indigenous communities around him into a successful co-operative, something Fundacion Paraguaya has been trying [pretty unsuccessfully] to do for the past several years. It ends up being a bit like “redlining” in the mortgage industry—you simply don’t loan to “indigenos” because you’re not likely to get your money back. Nobody likes the situation, but nobody’s found a way to change it either.
Nobody, that is, except this Mennonite.
After several more hours of bumping along surprisingly wide dirt roads in our now completely mud-encrusted car, we arrived at a beautifully-kept house with a lovely yard and several ingenious mechanical improvisations [dad, you would have loved this guy] for the capture and purification of rainwater as well as the cultivation of temperamental plants, the storage of unwieldy seldom-used bits of equipment and the simultaneous opening of a rather heavy garage door and front gate. In short, everything about the house testified to the keen minds and industrious hands of its stewards. As I mentioned before, the contrast was stunning.
We had a really lovely conversation [and a truly delicious lunch.] He talked openly about the challenges and successes of what he’s doing, as well as the deeper questions of why…and how. And, when lunch and the tours of both the house and the milk cooperative they’re currently running were over, and we were bouncing over still more muddy roads toward the Ruta Trans-Chaco, we all lamented the same conclusion: It wasn’t a system.
It’s never a system. Whenever you find someone who’s doing something and it’s working, particularly with indigenous communities, it’s not a program you can adapt. It’s not a model you can implement. It’s not a system you can standardize and package for international distribution.
I think sometimes in all our big dreaming, in all our exhaustive research, tenacious planning, and tireless [we try] work, we forget that change is, always has been, and always will be an individual matter. The people who succeed in fostering change succeed because they work with individuals; constantly, patiently, genuinely. They don’t come in for six months, or three, and think they’re going to implement a “system” that will not only sustain itself, but grow after they’re gone because they held a weekend training with tribal leaders. They don’t draft reams of protocol and processes that then sit on a desk and collect dust for the next decade. They don’t spend all their frequent flier miles on late-night intercontinental flights in hopes of finding “the secret to successful development projects” half way around the world.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with models, or programs, or systems. There’s nothing wrong with working to uncover the principles under-girding a successful system, or with the observations and theorizing that help others learn from an outstanding case. But, I seem to keep coming back to the realization that there’s simply no substitute for good old-fashioned work. In all the successful change efforts I have seen, somebody or some group has simply gone in and worked with individuals—worked to understand, worked to integrate, worked to adjust, worked to enable. Often for years.
So while I’m not going to stop pondering and analyzing and generalizing, I’ll try not to forget that the best [and really only] way to change the world is one person at a time.