PAUL PEREIRA: Social spending works in life skills projects
YOU can imagine how, when faced with the need we see around us, never mind the obvious challenges in social development, people responsible for making social investment decisions can feel at a loss. Unless they're one of that tiny minority - the independently wealthy philanthropists - they're almost always in the business of giving away other people's money. Very often the spending of these moneys for good causes seems to get us nowhere - challenges seem to grow, if anything, rather than diminish.
We can't begin to imagine, for example, how much money has been poured into upliftment efforts in Sandton's Alexandra township these past 20 years with little apparent effect. Never mind the massive private investments made in righting a public education system that continues to flounder. Still, education, health, then welfare are the areas that receive the largest corporate social investment spending every year. But I wonder if we're not all missing a trick here. Why not start with the basics?
The best you can hope for in any social investment work is to increase the number of people who have greater control over their lives, especially through being able to make choices rather than have these forced on them by mere survivalism. It's about expanding horizons of opportunity, with people moving from dependence to independence. And there are many channels through which this can happen.
But to achieve their potential, all interventions boil down to the ability of people to make use of opportunities that present themselves, and create a bunch of their own. That's why social investments are about real partnerships, and often these play out at the most personal level. "Communities" are never uplifted and never do the uplifting. Some people are and do. The trick is to work out why and how, and then how best to support this.
Remember that to be rootless makes growth difficult. Yet whites are often enjoined not to be proud of their history because it is based on dispossession and oppression. Blacks must have no pride in their history for they were victims.
Think on these things, and you get to wonder that we function at all, never mind that we're on the up on almost every measure that counts. We should have 40- million people "going to see someone", instead of just getting on with it. SA needs a therapist. Which brings me to what social investors often overlook but which is crucial to upliftment - "life skills".
You'll know, through your own hard knocks, the importance of a healthy self- esteem; that to respect others you need to respect yourself. Of the importance of things like self-discipline, goal-orientation, teamwork, time-keeping, presentation of self, competitiveness and sound values. Without these things there is little on which to build. Which is a big reason never to underestimate the value of the work being done in the life skills space.
Some examples: Johannesburg's City Year nongovernmental organisation takes on mostly poor youngsters for a gap year after school. Apart from a small stipend for things such as transport, they are not paid. But drilled into them are the things I have mentioned. Once they're through the "basic training", they gather daily for morning parade and exercise in their red wind jackets, khaki trousers and hiking boots, and then "deploy" across schools, youth centres and other such places, where they mentor younger children in how to approach life. They undertake community work and act as exemplary examples while they build their own foundations in life.
US-born Grassroot Soccer works throughout SA and uses local soccer tournaments to teach discipline, teamwork, values, HIV awareness, lifestyle choices and self-esteem.
One of my favourites is the Field Band Foundation. Giving an original African twist to the worldwide marching band concept, this organisation uses mass brass and drumming bands, with dancers, across 38 townships in SA, to bring home the life skills that children need. About 250 children are taught at each location three afternoons a week. Miss band practices and you get expelled. Stay on and joy, travel and new skills are your lot.
We can't be sure just what will become of each of the youngsters who passes through the projects I've described. But we can be fairly sure that they have been equipped to face a fast-changing society and to make rational choices about how to respond to life's chances and foibles. That empowerment, I think, is better than any other more easily measured outcome.
- Pereira is public affairs executive at Tshikululu Social Investments.
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