05/26/2011 05:21 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

Kenya Dispatch: Foggy Ideas

I arrived in Africa in the middle of the night a couple of days ago, but I don't know exactly why. I do know that I am affiliated with The Great Globe Foundation, a theater arts organization that brings workshops to youth in the world's largest refugee camp, whose program takes place in agreement with Filmaid International, Save the Children and the UNHCR (the Refugee Agency of the United Nations), and that I am here for seven weeks to do creative work with young women who are refugees in Nairobi. But that's all I know; I am here to do some work, but of paramount importance to this work is a willingness not to define it too clearly going in. I don't know what exactly I am doing here, and that makes me either a lazy and uninformed development worker or one who is enacting the latest trend, the next step in conceiving of and implementing projects in the development sector.

A common story of "failure" for development projects in Africa -- and, I am sure, in other places -- is that of the well dug by non-governmental organization (NGO) employees with good intentions in a village where they teach the residents how to care for and use the well (in shop talk, "capacity building"). A few months or years later, the well has become a broken-down site of violence where desperate residents of neighboring, less lucky villages have stolen or attempted to steal the water. The NGO workers often have long since moved on. Ultimately, NGOs lose credibility and residents lose trust.

This is where that all-important word, "sustainability," comes in. Even with capacity building, it's difficult to make sure a project's good function is maintained over time in the face of new and/or unexpected factors. Happily, by now we've all heard the word "sustainability" so much, everywhere from our grocery stores to our televisions to real estate brochures, that its desirability as a component of development work does not come as a surprise. We owe this largely to the enormous efforts of grassroots-on-up advocacy and education efforts made across sector and government lines over the last quarter-century. My question is, what comes next? We've identified sustainability as a real need for this kind of work; can my generation make it more of a reality, take it further?

I posed this question in February at a dinner in Washington, D.C. to Micah Ziegler, an environmental policy analyst, when it became a possibility for me to implement a project in Kenya over the summer. "Innovation," was his simple response. In other words, it's not just the knowledge of how to maintain the well, given current circumstances, that village residents have a right to: It's the confidence and creative capacity for solving new problems with the well regardless of who has come and gone from the village. It's "the ministry of imagination" that's called for here, the creative act of conjuring a new plan on the spot, the off-spreadsheet business of working with what's there.

One tension inherent in this step for the development sector is that according to current practice in funding, a good project proposal includes specifics: the identification of goals, stages for assessment and implementation, budget breakdowns. Clarity is important to any successful project and certainly, knowing the facts is a good thing. Research is a good thing. What worries me is when the means of attaining the funds and permissions of access necessary to implement a project require proposals and spreadsheets that don't allow for those with applicable skills and a desire to help to show up, shut up, and listen -- and only then proceed to implement.

I worry also about imposition: the imposition of a scholar's ideas about what a group of people need according to his or her research (and there are stories there too, about foreigners arriving with great ideas for research on farming, for example, but the ministry of agriculture won't allow its records to be shown) or the imposition of plans that the actual environment on the ground might not practically allow for -- plans that look so good on paper that they secured the funding requiring such specifics, but which are impractical in action. What about unexpected factors, or the event of "ruptura," as Paulo Freire called it, when, for example, an emotional outburst occurs in the middle of a training workshop with refugees? I don't want to plan a program for these young woman before listening to them, and my ability to do things in that order is the gift of my small-time volunteer status.

What I am doing here is refusing to plan ahead very much with my arts work with these girls, which is wise in some ways, but indubitably foolish in others. What I am doing here is making room for the ministry of the imagination. We'll see over the next six weeks where the path, obscured for now by the not-unfriendly shadow of uncertainty, leads. Stay tuned.