High performance comes from leveraging strengths, not weaknesses


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By Charles Dhewa

Contrary to approaches promoted by most development agencies, African communities cannot be developed by fixing weaknesses but tapping into existing strengths.  No wonder most interventions focusing on vulnerable households have failed to lift people out of poverty despite pouring millions of dollars. Every community has champions whose strengths need to be harnessed in generating local solutions. Besides destroying social bonds, projects that target the poor and vulnerable tend to entrench segregation and lower the confidence of those targeted to develop themselves.

The curse of vulnerability assessments

Over the past few years it has become traditional for countries in the SADC region to conduct annual vulnerability assessments whose reports are then combined into a regional vulnerability assessment. While weaknesses must not be ignored, too much focus on vulnerability completely ignores existing potential in the SADC region. Continuous use of vulnerability language leans on weakness, reinforce doubts, limitations and negative self-talk which portrays the SADC region as lacking capacity to change its fortunes.

Conversely the way African countries have positively dealt with COVID19 should be extended to other sectors including the economy and nutrition.  That can only happen through strength-based reports which trigger forward movement by revealing opportunities. Weakness-based language narrows perspectives and drains hope. Instead, positive language that expresses gratitude associated with creatively dealing with COVID19 should remind African countries of their advantages, opportunities and potential.

Vulnerability speak contaminates the environment and gets in the way of generating solutions. Strengths-based assessments that focus on progress and energize forward movement are long overdue. Organizations and institutions that conduct and produce assessments reports should realize that they have a huge responsibility as leaders to speak with the future in mind and use progressive language. Every knows malnutrition and stunting has been worsening in Africa. So what?   Is it not ironic that organizations that are supposed to provide solutions are claiming big achievements when numbers on poverty, malnutrition and stunting are telling a different story?
Choosing words is akin to choosing destiny

African countries should realize that their choice of words is akin to choosing their destinies.  It is very important to choose words that express progress, strengths, solutions and a better future as opposed to language that focuses on weaknesses and complaining.  Everybody knows there is too much food insecurity in Africa as data shows how much the continent has been importing from outside before COVID19.  However, a missing story is how COVID19 has triggered a huge experiment across Africa among local communities and companies that have started stepping up local production to fill the gap created by the closure of borders as part of measures to contain the spread of the pandemic. Suddenly many African communities have realized they can do what they thought was previously impossible. Such positive narratives should receive more media coverage as opposed to hopeless vulnerability narratives.

More importantly, many Africans are beginning to ask deeper questions that lead to sustainable solutions. For instance, they mention that many interventions by governments and development agencies have been supporting smallholder farmers for years with no meaningful change. They are seeing strong need to shift to a strong agribusiness angle in order to stem over-dependence on food imports.  This could be achieved by assisting farmers and traders who bring a business mind set to agriculture. There should be incentives for the private sector to invest in agriculture as part of shepherding African agriculture to meet African needs.

One of the fundamental questions repeatedly asked across Africa is: To what extent can we continue putting the burden of feeding Africa on smallholder farmers?  Smallholder production will not be enough if Africa hopes to relaunch or transform food systems.