Stop Being Clever

by Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

  • Project: Disaster Risk Reduction Program
  • Location: Rift Valley, Ethiopia
  • Sector: Community Infrastructure
  • Professional Designation: Academia


I was starting up a disaster risk reduction program in the rift valley in Ethiopia in 1988. The Derg military “Albanian Marxist” style government was still in place. The local government controlled women’s association asked us to help with buying a small grain mill for them, to cut down hand grinding, or paying extortionate prices to the local mill owner to grind their grain. At the time, when I ran the numbers, I thought this was a marginally useful investment. It would have a hard time making a profit and would not really save the women that much cash or labor.
Btu, when the military regime fell and looting was wide spread across the area, the women took it in turns to mount a 24 hour guard on their mill, forming a cordon around it and safeguarding it.


The true value of the mill was not financial but through the sense of empowerment and hope if bestowed.
The lesson: Start by dropping your own preconceptions and try to see things though the eyes of those you seek to assist. Taking the time to listen and understand rather than being enamored with one’s own cleverness is a good starting point.


Select three phrases that describe this failure.

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  1. Jennifer Lentfer says:

    I work primarily in organizational development with grassroots organizations. It’s also been my experience that while local groups may lack the “program logic” and formal structure that are easily identifiable using our Western-trained deductive powers, we can too often miss the strengths that grassroots groups do have, like their deep contextual knowledge, community embeddedness, resourcefulness, language and cultural capacities, and the ability to operate in a responsive manner to local needs, all of which are those that INGOs and donors often lack.

    Luckily, I see many more practitioners seeking to challenge and abandon the vestiges of “expertise infusion” leftover from modernist and racist perspectives of aid and development. Indeed, we must continue learning to keep our minds, but more importantly, our hearts open to the possibility of results that strengthen communities and social capital in unimagined and unanticipated ways.

  2. kevin Mbewa says:

    This is very interesting….

    I ama kenyan who lives in London, I moved here 2 years ago as a student.Before moving to London, I use3d to work in slums of nairobi in HIV projects working mostly with women.

    Here in London, I have been able to do internship with 3 different organizations who supports communities in Africa countries. In my time here, I cannot help to notice how development practitioners here in the ”west” percieving local beneficiaries as ”don’t know and need help….” I have been able to attend several donor meetings and every time I leave those venues with discomfort. why do people(or most people here) think beneficiaries are illiterate and don’t know? When I was working in kenya, I experienced the initiatives from local communities and commitments.
    Sometimes during my internship, people would challenge me on what I knew about my community,my country….
    Perhaps may be when controller of resources ‘donors’ start respecting and treating beneficiaries as equal, then poverty might be defeated.or may be, it is because of attitude here in the ‘west’ that makes beneficiaries don’t care about programmes and just take what they can.
    I am sure there are success stories and I have witnessed incredibe changes of lives but lets work as partners.

  3. Rob says:

    Kevin I think your post says it all. Way too much of the aid is controled and projects managed by people who think they know better.
    Its the good old paternalism coming out of the west.
    Just read the first comment here and think of a person looking to get an NGO to buy them a mill but wanting to do some research on prior failures first.
    The first post here would have them needing a dictionary to understand the point.

    If there is to be benefits gained from learning from the failure the learning needs to be put into simple terms.

    I think the original post here says it all. Just because someone has an university degree and is intelligent does not mean they understand the motives of people on the ground living with the problem. How the heck can they there are two entirely different background at play.

    Kevin i think your post says it all.

    Iliterate does not mean stupid or unable to create or execute a project or know what is needed.

    We know enough of historical cultures all over the world and their resultant artifacts and ruins to see evidence where people were capable of doing things themselves with the “western education”.

    Time the western people woke up to empowering people rather than controling or trying to make them clones.

  4. Cook says:

    what does “British thermal unit” as in last paragraph:

    “Btu, when the military regime fell and looting was wide spread across the area, the women took it in turns to mount a 24 hour guard on their mill, forming a cordon around it and safeguarding it.”

    I do not understand – please clarify.

    • GG says:

      I think it might just be a typo to “but” rather than “1055 joules”. Perhaps you should pay attention to the title and “Stop being clever”…

      On the topic. I agree- it’s not what a project delivers in numbers, for you, but what it means in all dimensions to them.


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