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By Mpho Mpofu Founder and Executive Director, The Voice of Africa Trust and Youth Partner, Wellbeing for Women

The #WomeninDev conference brought amazing women from various developmental sectors together and sparked conversations that were long overdue. It challenged the status quo and left everyone in shivers from the raw, diverse and important conversations that where taking place. It evoked in me questions that l have had for the longest time when working in various African countries as well as in northern America and Europe. It made me question the ideologies of feminist leadership, programming we have been doing and our various interactions with beneficiaries. Were we really doing development work? There seems to be a similar trend regardless of where you are and we as development practitioners need to stop personalising development work.

There are gatekeepers of development. Those who personalise the movement. Those who only want to enjoy the flights and foreign travels without doing the work. Those who will not share opportunities with young people because they are a threat. Those who see other practitioners as enemies. Those who have circles within the space and circulate invitations based on their own circles. The list is endless. Development work has been lost in travels and Instagram posts. It has become something for a few select activists who have been in the game for a while. Many movements have been lost and forgotten because of the personalisation of the struggle. I can name a few movements that started well but today are just a statistic because of wanting to personalise the struggle.

This disease is also a part of NGOs and INGOs, and this in turn affects programming and sustainable development. We sit and watch as experts are flown in from the global north to respond to issues that they have no clue about. Zero knowledge of the context and issues being addressed, but because they are from the north they are qualified experts. During #WomeninDev l listened to Alimatu Dimonekene speak profoundly of the importance of hiring people who speak the same language as us, who look like us and who are part of the movement. That hit home. Why haven’t we been engaging with local FGM experts? Why do we have to call them survivors and activists regardless of the countless years of experience they have in the field.

During my work in Uganda, l had an encounter with an agricultural programme beneficiary. It was her first time seeing me and she had no idea who l was. Asking her why she wasn’t fully engaged in the programme, her response sent shivers down my spine and made me wonder if indeed we were doing development work. In her words “your organisation doesn’t pay us for being here, so l will wait for organisation ABC because when they come, they pay us”. My first question was “pay you to come and receive agricultural tools and seeds for your farm?” and “Inputs that have already cost us thousands of dollars?” That conversation left me thinking that ‘beneficiaries’ had realised our disorder and were ready to milk programmes dry. We were busy fighting for beneficiaries in order to get more funding. The focus had shifted from development work to getting funds. It was a question of who pays more for us to engage in their programming and this was bad. What happened to collaborative work in communities to achieve the same aim? You have 100 organisations in one community with similar programming and all responding to the same problem. It is imperative that we change the way we do development work or we will forever work in circles.

Another conversation that hit home at the #WomeninDev conference was on feminism, with a particular focus on the role of white feminism. Black feminists spoke highly of opening up the space and l couldn’t agree more. For decades white feminism has been at the center of gender equality and that has made gender seem like a hegemony. In all our work we must acknowledge intersectionality and our privilege. In order to adequately respond to gender issues, l must also acknowledge that even as a black woman, l am more privileged than other white and black women. Thus my response should also be to bridge the gap of inequality between myself and the person l am trying to uplift.

The conference was the best of its kind, it opened up spaces to young people in development and afforded everyone a voice. “What’s your story”, was the key highlight for me because at that moment everyone was stripped of their titles and all they had was a story of why and what they are doing. Youth voices amplified. If only we could take up that approach we could find ourselves redirecting to the reasons we are doing development work. To all INGO’s, activists and philanthropists  I ask “What’s your story!!!!”