Light Bulbs and Lessons in Empowerment

As a development organization, we believe that empowerment is essential to our work. Empowerment sits in contrast to paternalism, which creates dependency upon a giver, who can often be development worker themselves. In our attempt to empower and develop individuals to be self-sufficient and able to solve problems critically, it is necessary for us to initiate processes or systems where they are empowered to do for themselves. These processes are not limited to, but do include the ability to make good financial decisions.

 Mike (middle) sits with Antonio and Willian to walk through a system of deciding when and how it is appropriate to use ministry funds.  

This past week, I had the opportunity to work with our cooperatives and several core youth in El Salvador who are interning with our organization. An observation that I made on a recent prior trip was that one of our campus facilities in El Salvador had working light bulbs in every socket, but in the other two facilities, half of the light bulbs had been removed, and the sockets were sitting empty.  My suspicion was that light bulbs were being removed from the two facilities that are infrequently used, to be replacements for those in the house in most frequent use.  The question became apparent: why are these light bulbs in the two facilities not being replaced?  

With the maintenance of public facilities, it becomes important that no one individual feels the responsibility to utilize personal funds to meet needs, especially when those funds are in limited supply.  It can inadvertently put an individual in a difficult position to have to dig into their own resources which may have been set aside for food, to buy a light bulb that is for public use. I realized that this concept needed to be taught, and then implemented on a practical level, so that our interns and cooperatives aren't unnecessarily burdened.

Taking opportunities to teach and empower those with whom we work goes a long way in developing friendship as well.  

This past week we initiated and implemented a system in which funds can be used for ministry opportunities.  It’s a simple system, with checks and balances, to ensure that no one person obtains too much power or authority over the allotted funds. The system is designed to encourage responsibility and awareness of their environment, and to empower our interns and cooperatives to purchase needed program materials, without feeling shame or embarrassment for continually having to ask for more funds. Utilizing our example, those responsible for the day-to-day operations should know that working light bulbs for all of our facilities is a needed material.  The implementation of the system allows them to feel empowered to make decisions that take minimal resources.  

As development workers, it is important that we acknowledge that we do have to make purchases and spend money to maintain facilities. However, it’s imperative that we are accountable in our spending, and that we do so based upon the biblical principles we have learned that would indicate things like not taking more than we need, considering our neighbor above our ourselves, and being honest in our exchanges. These principles must be integrated into our efforts to train personnel in practical ways, and this new system is one way we can teach our values in a real life context.