It's been just over a year since I returned from my first foray into International Development, training library staff at a vocational school for nurses in regional Papua New Guinea. I then went on to complete another assignment in PNG, and one in Vietnam. At the heart of International Development work is the principle of capacity building, and it's a concept that's definitely influenced my attitude towards my work as a librarian since returning.
Traditionally, international development has been fraught with attitudes that could be described as somewhat colonialist in nature. Western countries initially went into developed countries, build roads and facilities, and say, "There you go! Now you can succeed, like us!" When that obviously failed, the model developed into one of "Let us show you how to build infrastructure, and then you can succeed, like us!". Of course, this never really took into account non-western knowledge systems and modes of decision-making in the future.
Furthermore, there would sometimes be unintended consequences - e.g. building a road from a coastal village to the city would impact drastically on the local economy, and not necessarily in a good way. If people can sell produce for more money down this new road, then they're gping to sell it down there. Oh wait, who's going to find skills, resouces and knowhow to rebuild this road when it gets washed away in the next monsoon season?
The principle of capacity building, on the other hand, centres on guiding and empowering people to develop their understanding and skills within the context of their own culture, and allow them to take ownership. In my projects, I would consult with my counterparts on what they wanted to achieve, and then I would work alongside them in developing processes that were sustainable in the long term. Ideally, they would be able to take ownership of the work and develop it further independently, rather than perpetuate a dependent relationship between developing countries and their wealthy neighbours.
Of course, I have over-simplified the concept for the benefit of the uninitiated. However, as a librarian, this is also how I start to feel about my library's users and its community. Instead of simply doing, I'm spending more time guiding and showing. Instead of giving them the answers, I'm giving them the tools to find the answers themselves. Instead of telling them what they think they want to know, I'm helping them find the real questions that they need to ask. Furthermore, it's another way of breaking down the power-relationship between the librarian and the user. I'm not here to be a gate-keeper that you need to justify your existence to, nor am I somebody to serve your every whim. I'm here to help.
We're not about establishing a system that becomes a secret code for the well-educated and privileged. We need to find ways to communicate with our users on their terms, and train them to be informed and skilled with information, in ways that are relevant to their lives, and helps the community grow through inclusive and altruistic attitudes.