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  • Writer's pictureRoss Young

Reciprocity: The key to a successful international relationship


Zigong asked: “Is there any single word that could guide one’s entire life?” The master said: “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

Analects of Confucius

Last year, when Martin and I began discussing our plans to set up The Zuri Project Uganda, I read an incredibly thought provoking article by Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American author who presents a scathing critique of what he has defined as ‘The White Saviour Industrialised Complex.’ Written in 2012 after Invisible Children’s world famous Kony 2012 campaign went viral, his article [] questions the role of Westerners in the development of African nations, and implores people to consider their actions before delving into seemingly philanthropic ventures in developing countries. Rather scornfully, he writes: “A nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a Godlike saviour, or at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of ‘making a difference’”.

Cole’s article is extremely contentious, and calls out the elephant in the room that has arguably been sitting on the sofa since the days of colonial pre-independence for many African nations. It raises many questions about Western interventionism in Africa, and requires people to appreciate and consider the vast cultural diversity of African nations. It is part of a wider comprehensive negative discourse within international development circles, that suggests that some initiatives can do more harm than good, particularly those that have been engineered in Western countries. Citing Band Aid 30 as an example, James Schnieder from New African magazine attests that, “those involved may well have had good intentions, but the whole initiative presented an offensive image of Africa and Africans […] It denied African agency by suggesting all the continent needed was for the West to save it.”

Whilst such a contestation is not necessarily an opinion shared by many people in the West, I understand the point that Schnieder is making and agree to a certain extent. Often, the media infantilise African people and portray Africans as hopeless chattels, reliant on the altruistic good grace and expertise of Western people to lift them out of endemic poverty. This simply isn’t the case. Whilst poverty and inequality are widespread across Africa, anyone who has visited any of the 54 countries of the continent is more likely to tell stories of the entrepreneurial ingenuity, the self-awareness and the hard working nature of many different African peoples. Generalisation and oversimplification of impoverishment is naïve and often downright offensive to the people who live in these communities. People, impoverished or otherwise, are mostly very capable of articulating their vision and goals for their own families and communities. Cole writes: “if we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Of fundamental importance to this ‘due diligence’, I would suggest, is to actually find out what people want and how they would like to achieve it. It’s such a simple notion, but every person should have the choice to make their own decisions about their own future.

Cole’s article can be perceived as a radical relative of much of the literature surrounding participatory approaches to international development, propagated and popularised in particular by Robert Chambers throughout the 1980s. Chambers has been influential in ensuring that development practitioners include the beneficiaries at the very centre of any project or policy that is engineered to support them, and his seminal work Rural Development: Putting the Last First, has been incredibly influential in shaping the philosophy of The Zuri Project as an organisation.


It has helped us to realise that a development project is nothing without input from the people it is intended to support. And this input should not be tokenistic. We believe that local people should be involved in every stage of the project cycle, from the birth of a project idea, the project design & implementation, as well as the monitoring and the evaluation. Having spent the last month in Uganda, I have been incredibly fortunate to have met some wonderful community based organisations that educated me about what development projects they currently support, as well as ones that they are hoping to deliver in the future. I was also welcomed into people’s homes to discuss with them their aspirations for the future, as well as the challenges they face in their every day lives. As a result of this visit and our discussions with local people, and in conjunction with Opportunity Africa, our main partners based in the village of Kihembe in SW Uganda, we have been able to start co-designing some incredibly exciting projects, that are all engineered to support the improvement of community wellbeing in different ways.

Our model of operation is very simple, and more so than anything else, it is based on the concept of reciprocity. We form partnerships with local people and local organisations, and assimilate our skills & strengths to work towards social change. As an organisation, and as individuals, we thrive on the fusion of local knowledge, hard work and expertise, with the financial and resource support from international donors. Organisations based in western countries can access opportunities that for many reasons, may not be available to community based organisations in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet community based organisations in sub-Saharan Africa have a wealth of expertise and local knowledge that is unique to their community.

Jonathan Haidt, the author of a wonderful book called The Happiness Hypothesis, writes: “Reciprocity is a deep instinct; it is the basic currency of social life […] it is like a magic wand that can clear your way through the jungle of social life […] Used properly, it strengthens, lengthens and rejuvenates social ties.” This ‘currency of social life’ I would suggest, could be a panacea to Cole’s complex. Reciprocal, international partnerships are wonderful to be a part of. As a western based organisation working in Uganda, we cherish our working relationships with local NGOs and local people and have learned so much from them. It is only fair that we reciprocate, and find ways in which we can support them in a similar way.


Ross – @rossoross

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