02/10/2012 02:36 pm ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Dependency Is Like a Walking Stick

Checking in from Hermanus, South Africa! Our 7000 mile walk across Africa for clean water (through charity:water) has nearly just begun; we are only a week in, taking a rest day in a backpacker's hostel. My comrades, Marty and Aaron are out for a little walk, while I am purposefully NOT walking at all today, if I can help it.

The other day while camping, Aaron found a great branch to use as a walking stick. He whittled it down to the right size and took the external bark off, covering it with a coat of wax to make it smooth. Looks just like something you would buy at the store. As he walked the next day with the walking stick, I noticed the drastically different approach it meant he took while walking. While we were on straight shots of the road, he would walk normally, and you hear the rhythmic clicking of the bottom of the cane against the pavement as he took each stride. But when we approached hills, he would lean into the walking stick, using it and the strength of his arms to propel him up the hill, as to be less taxing on his legs.

Now see, I don't use a walking stick. Because although I know Aaron could just as easily walk up the hills without his walking stick, I think I would become too dependent on one. And if one day, I didn't have the walking stick, the hills would become more challenging for me. It would not be more challenging because my muscles would ache necessarily; although the walking stick does help redistribute the stress to more muscles in your body, the problem is not a physical one. But when you learn to become dependent on something, or expect something to help you, not having that "thing" makes whatever task you are facing immensely harder, mentally.

People have been saying this for years, but perhaps not enough: this dependency is something that we in the nonprofit realm need to focus on more, and something that has been increasingly obvious to me during our time here in South Africa.

I asked our friend Craig at the Warehouse, a local charity in Cape Town about the unique challenges that he finds in working with impoverished communities here, and dependency was at the top of his list. When the common thought is that 'someone else will take care of my needs' there is no motivation for people to try to get out of poverty; they don't think it is their responsibility. To support that further, we met a man named Joe last week who runs a fruit stand. He doesn't make much, but enough to live on. He said that he has tried to offer to others before to buy a bunch of fruit from him and go door to door to sell it so that they can make money. This is a GREAT small business plan that could help him and others in the community. But although he offers, he says people don't want to work for it, that they just want it to be given to them. Dependency.

This attitude in South Africa does not just stem from local NGO's, it's also from the government, the history of apartheid, many contributing factors. But the point is, we cannot continue to just give people the necessities; they need to be involved in the process of their own development. That's why we work with charity: water, because they value sustainable, community-driven approaches to solve the clean water crisis. That's why Craig does great work at the Warehouse, because his volunteers don't just give, but they help to empower and support people building themselves up in long-term, sustainable ways. Although this is something we have noticed here, dependency is a problem all charities must face, all government programs need to consider. We must be BETTER at making people INDEPENDENT.

If we just give blindly, it's like giving people a walking stick that will eventually break or be lost. And when people get to the next hill, they won't move forward. Instead, we need to teach people how to walk WITHOUT one or perhaps how to MAKE them themselves, like my friend Aaron. Then when they reach a hill, they know what to do, and can teach others to do the same.