Charity – there is a better way. Vol 4

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If only life was linear! If only life was as simple as knowing that if we wanted D we first need to do A, then B, C and voila, there is D! Even though our thinking is often linear, we know that life never is! The first of January is upon us where many of us will vow (again) to make 2018 our year of achieving our ideal weight goal. All we need to do is A – eat healthily and B – exercise. Life unfortunately is never that simple but rather like a ball of twine, where it crisscrosses, with no clear beginning and if you pull on it, knots form! I will start with my exercise and healthy eating, but then comes all the traveling for work, that sprained ankle, pizza and the cake at kids’ parties.

Most charities, interventions and prevention programmes in South Africa approach the development stage as linear. For example, an unskilled person will not be able to find employment, thus they end up just sitting around, getting bored, and resulting in using drugs and falling into a cycle of crime. And so the answer to all problems must be “skills development!” Or, kids can’t learn on empty stomachs, which means that they will fail, be unskilled, unemployed….steal…and kill people! So, clearly the solution is: if we feed kids at school, the violence in their communities will stop!

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The messiness of life however has no straight lines. The few kids out of the whole class that really haven’t got anything to eat every morning or lunch time, are the consequence of a series, or multitude, of factors that include a drug addict single mom, a failing social services system, ineffective government, failing church structure, and abuse of a grandmother 50 years ago. To approach intervention by identifying what we believe went wrong, hoping that it will have a A-B-C-D knock on effect, is as ridiculous as saying, all I need to do is to make a new years resolution about my weight, sign up to the gym and in three months’ time I will have changed!

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This approach, of identifying and addressing what we believe the problems are, is called a deficit-based approach. For many, many years this has been the only approach we knew and the foundation of most charities. In the late 80’s some researchers became interested in the concept of resilience, as an investigation as to whether methods of intervening for positive change could be improved. Their premise was simple: what causes two people, living in the same negative socio-economic environment, experiencing the same trauma or abuse, having the same opportunities, to make decisions and deal with issues so differently. Why would the one person rise up and make a success in life and the other one just become another sad statistic? Clearly, it was not the lack of skills, food at school or employment that was the issue. The study of resilience steered researchers to start looking for what factors were present in the lives of those that rose from their circumstances, and suggested that intervention and prevention programmes should focus on how to implement these factors in communities and the lives of those identified as vulnerable. Focusing on what factors that should be part of a person’s life to make them resilient and thrive, will protect them from, and even help them overcome, the threats they face.

Resilience theory focuses, therefore, on developing various protective or promotive factors in a vulnerable child, youth or community. The greatest protective factor, known to researchers today, is having healthy relationships (have a look at this video on the longest study done). It is when healthy bonds and relationships are formed, that resilience is built in the lives of people regardless of where they live, what skills they have or how negative their socio-economic environment.

It sounds so simple, but in fact building healthy relationships with people, especially if they are not from the same ethnic or socio-economic group proves to be one of the most difficult things! We are designed to stick to our comfort zones, and that gangster or addict or beggar on the street is just not someone we feel comfortable spending time with. And don’t forget that that person’s need for relationship is due to not having had healthy relationships in their lives in the past, and so they are not even confident in how to relate maturely to others. If we want to see communities change and a better South Africa, all effort, by all South Africans, should be poured into tackling the most difficult task there is – reaching out to one person, and commit unconditionally, to build a healthy relationship with him or her.

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