Fresh Perspectives in Community Development:Community and Economic Development—Around the Globe and Back to the Mississippi Delta Region
In 2015, I began working as a regional economic and community development officer for the Delta Regional Authority (DRA), a federal-state partnership created in 2000 tasked with building communities, creating jobs and improving the lives of the people living in the 252 counties and parishes in the organization’s eight-state region. Previously, most of my professional work had been primarily focused on international development. Since my return to Mississippi, I have considered how my past experience—the challenges and struggles, strategic approaches to problem solving and potential solutions—may be applicable to domestic development work.
For a bit of context, my work as a development professional began when I became a Peace Corps volunteer. The three goals of the Peace Corps are pretty straightforward and have guided me in my professional approach to development:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women;
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans; and
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
My first placement was in the coastal city of Malindi, Kenya, at Malindi Handicrafts Cooperative Society, the second-largest woodcarving cooperative in the country. Over 600 wood carvers were keeping this skilled craft alive and thriving as a profession and art form. My job was to increase market access for wood products, gain new international clients and improve exporting efficiency. Shortly after my first year of service, a contested presidential election caused major civil unrest throughout the country; hundreds of thousands of people were killed or displaced. For the first time, Peace Corps Kenya had to temporarily suspend the program; volunteers were evacuated from the country.
I returned after eight months to a new placement in Marikani, Kenya. LifeWorks Shukrani was part of a larger public-private partnership that included General Motors East Africa, Unilever, Deloitte, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Family Health International. The partnership was created in part to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
One of the first income-generating activities set up was a textile factory, LifeWorks Shukrani. “Shukrani” means “thanks” or “appreciation” in Swahili. The factory name included this word by design and was chosen by the first factory workers. These individuals were very much in need of assistance and were committed to the positive impacts a successful factory could bring to them, their community and the region. The factory was created as an alternative livelihoods component of the USAID-sponsored Regional Outreach Addressing AIDS through Development (ROAD) program. It aimed to provide alternatives to risky behaviors and survival strategies through education, training, skill creation, protection and alternate income-generating activities.
My last placement was with the Samburu people at PEAR Innovations (Participatory Education, Awareness and Resource Innovations) in Maralal, Kenya, a small yet thriving city in the northwestern part of the country. The Samburu are a seminomadic tribe. As with many nomadic people of the world, the Samburu suffered from a lack of government investments in their home areas. Since the very nature of nomadic people is to roam from place to place, governments are usually not able to tax and collect much revenue from them. In response, governments often do not invest back in the areas where these people live.
At PEAR, my primary job was helping Samburu women improve, market and export the particular type of basket for which the tribe is well known. PEAR clients engaged in food security and economic growth activities such as basket weaving, beading, camp site management and website design. Additionally, I had the opportunity to work on tourism with women’s and community groups throughout the north.
After my Peace Corps service, I became a foreign service officer working with USAID in Afghanistan. One of my roles was serving as the USAID infrastructure officer for 14 eastern provinces. It was in this role that I learned just how important and critical various infrastructure systems are for a nation. Effective transportation infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, rail) and utility systems (e.g., electricity, gas, phone, broadband, water, sewer) are the bones of a successful, healthy and economically competitive place. They provide the foundation on which economic development, public health and almost every other development sector activity can build.
After my service in Afghanistan, I settled back in the U.S. and began work at the DRA, where my experience allows me to make observations about development work in general to further build my body of knowledge. In many ways, my work mirrors what I have been doing over the last eight years around the world.
Development work means many things to many people, and it can be applied in a domestic or international context. The development may be focused on economic, health, education, gender equality, rule of law, governance and/or agriculture sectors; the work may seek to solve local or national issues and provide solutions to communities of all sizes at a micro or macro level. Often, development solutions require a multisector approach to solve or address complex challenges or even prepare or recover from conflict or disaster.
From Kenya to Afghanistan to the Mississippi Delta, I have observed many of the same issues plaguing cities and towns of all sizes. An area in Kenya may struggle with food insecurity created by ongoing drought. A community in Mississippi may have food insecurity because the lone grocery store moved out of town and people have limited resources and transportation to get to the next closest market. The lack of a paved road for an area in Afghanistan may shut off that part of the country from economic, health, education and other opportunities. In the U.S., lack of critical infrastructure may present the same outcomes for small and large towns and cities. Solutions that work for one place may not work for another because the cultural or societal norms and perspective are not properly aligned, or because all the other required tools are not in place to properly address the problems.
In my experience, first assessing these challenges and developing successful models to overcome them are somewhat similar, no matter where in the world the challenge presents itself. A few principles that I have learned internationally that have helped to guide my work in the Delta are:
- Be culturally aware and immersed in the community as much as possible to gain perspective and context.
- Build trust and work with community leaders and influencers as much as possible at all steps of project/program development and deployment.
- Partner and collaborate with as many different stakeholders as feasible.
- Consider and include all development disciplines (economic development, education, health, agriculture, etc.) when developing strategic plans as these areas may often overlap.
- Focus on community-led solutions.
- Transfer skills and diffuse knowledge.
- Think sustainability at every phase of project development and deployment, and work to secure local buy-in.
- Know community strengths and assets and utilize them.
Many international models can be replicated and scaled up or down to allow for targeted and impactful development to take place in the U.S. The development and improvement of an economy or society takes time, dedication and a concentration on understanding the context of the area where development is being discussed. Models, projects and programs can be adapted and lessons learned can be used just about anywhere, but the development intervention should be aligned with the needs of each targeted area or community.
Both internationally and domestically, I continue to be inspired by the work of dedicated people working to define and improve their communities. With every business recruited, every worker properly trained and every city center beautified, these leaders and community stakeholders are establishing the conditions necessary for success today and for future generations, in the Delta and beyond.