I receive all kinds of reports and updates from Nicaragua every week. My colleague there, Mark Lester, does a phenomenal job of staying in touch with our partners, our consultants and the general assistance community so that those of us Foundation members in North America can keep up with the twists and turns of events. And there are many! But Mark’s frequent translations of partner progress serve as a consistent and accurate barometer of just how things are developing (or not) and how we might best respond to realities.
After serving Winds of Peace in Nicaragua for more than five years now, I’ve had enough reports, time and meetings to have developed relationships with many of our partners. Even though my trips to Nicaragua are limited and relatively short in duration, Mark has made sure that the opportunity for relationship-building has occurred through frequency of visits and the content of our conversations. It’s an important part of the Foundation’s methodology as well as my own “development.” And in the process, I’ve met many organizations for whom I have developed a great deal of admiration and respect, and a lot of people that I just plain like. It’s been one of the highlights of this work.
So I am not at all surprised that I have formed emotional attachments with some of these partners, feelings that I have some kind of personal stake in their lives, even though I suspect that they may not always sense it. To be candid, I have my favorites. There are some organizations and individuals who, for whatever reason, have resonated with me in ways that feel very personal, almost family-like. I can’t help but pull for such people with the same intense concern that I feel for my own family members. It’s an investment that I have no choice but to make; it comes from inside somewhere. It’s a good feeling. But it comes with a risk attached.
My fondness for many of our partners is born out of my profound respect for their persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, for their oftentimes humble and gentle spirits when there is so much to be outraged about, for their friendliness and hospitality when there are so many reasons to behave otherwise. But I have sometimes found myself considering my Nicaraguan acquaintances generically, characterizing them in my own mind as “honorable, persevering martyrs,” victims of a global conspiracy to defraud them of their livelihoods, their rights, their dignity. In certain ways I have elevated the Nicaraguan people to a status upon a pedestal, where their histories, sufferings and oppressions all come together to create a mythic nobility that is neither entirely accurate nor even fair. For when I find myself thinking of our partners this way, I have set them up for certain failure.
The reality is that no one can live up to a glorified, generalized persona created by someone else. Our partners are no closer to perfection than any of us. To establish expectations of them that are based upon an exaggerated notion of their temperament and tendencies is as unfair and unreasonable as attributing no potential to them at all. And those of us in the assistance business are as guilty of it as any.
About the time I become excited about a particular cooperative or association, something inevitably occurs that was not according to expectation or plan. A leader might falter. Borrowers might default. Performances may fall short of plans. There could be all kinds of reasons offered as to why objectives were not met. In the face of these realities, if I have conjured some vision of higher-than-reasonable expectations which do not come to pass, our partners will inevitably fall short, my own disappointments to follow, and the shortfall will be of my own making. It’s a vicious cycle that I risk creating without the slightest intention or awareness of doing so, one more unfairness that we in the “developed world” foist upon the less lucky.
Our neighbors in Nicaragua and in other struggling communities of the world are not better or more deserving of our attention and assistance because they are pedestaled heroes. They are something less than perfect, as are we all. Their stumbles and false starts are not more disappointing, more frustrating nor any more condemning than our own. They are human beings, mostly doing the best they can with what they have and what they know. In that light, perhaps the best I can do is to share what I have and what I have come to know, striving to learn with others, to recognize and graciously accept the imperfections that we all carry with us every moment of our lives….