The River Code

My first month in South Africa was spent trying to figure out clockwork. I had a mission: to integrate myself into South African society without causing too much commotion. This involved subsiding any indicators of culture shock, attempting to contextualize everything I’ve ever read or heard about colonialism, and working out the logistics of my job at Ukulapha. It has now been over two months, and I can safely say that I’ve discerned my surroundings. Throughout this process, I found myself subconsciously returning to something I read some months ago: the river code.

The river code is essentially a two-scenario model: The first scenario involves a development practitioner carrying someone on his or her back across a river. The second portrays a development practitioner holding someone’s hand to assist him or her across a river. Here’s the interpretation of the scenarios:

The Charity Approach to Development

  • Giving everything to the person
  • The person gets everything done for them
  • Inability to do own work
  • Creating dependence
  • Giving handouts without always consulting the recipient
  • Creating a power imbalance between donor and receiver

The Human Rights Approach to Development

  • Mentoring
  • Giving moral support
  • Facing challenges together
  • Showing appreciation and partnership
  • Encouraging communities to use their resources
  • Planning and moving together
  • Advise the community
  • Help half way and let them do it on their own
  • Increase in ownership, capacity building
  • Allowing communities to identify their own problems or needs
  • Analyzing causes and effects together to find solutions to those problems
  • Using local knowledge to combat problems and needs

The river code has everything to do with sustainable development. Though I am essentially here as a resource mobilization coordinator, my underlying goal being to raise as many funds as possible for Ukulapha, the more I suss out my surroundings, the more the question of sustainability seems to be my greatest challenge. In my quest to unravel how Ukulapha works as an organization, I’ve had to confront the organization’s approach to development, using the river code as an example to fall back on when preparing proposals for improvement. Currently, my work involves creating a strategic structure for Ukulapha’s operations so that the organization’s objectives, message and mission are intelligibly communicated to its publics. With strong communication also comes a necessary re-structuring of the organization’s many functions… a tricky feat with a grassroots non-profit organization. Especially with an organization like Ukulapha (positioning itself as a human rights NPO), which takes on so many projects that follow the charity model of the river code.

Instead of discussing all of Ukulapha’s projects and how there is much room for refinement (where sustainability is concerned), I will use one project in particular as an example of how to change the narrative from giving handouts to working in partnership and collaborating …falling back on the river code once more. Currently, a number of Canadian donors (many of whom are big organizations) have partnered with Ukulapha for a variety of different food programs. These programs include: providing extra nutritional supplements for school lunches, an end of term wholesome lunch for every learner, and a milk program for the younger learners. A Canadian donor also established a vegetable garden on the school premises last year. It is undeniable that these partnerships have filled many [otherwise empty] stomachs over the past few years. The question, however, does arise about the sustainability of these sorts of programs. Because the global partners of Ukulapha are all individual entities unrelated to one another, the result is that a lot of money and effort is being spent but no sustainable work is accomplished.

This sort of thing tends to happen in the charity model of development, which is what has happened at Ukulapha where food projects are concerned. As an intern who is new to the development sector, but not to the communications sector, it has been hard tackling this issue head on. It’s clear to me what needs to be done, but navigating the obstacle of boards, donors and a passionate executive director with a slightly different focus can be complicated. So the big question then arises, how can Ukulapha follow the river code, creating ownership, confidence, empowerment, self-reliance, sustainability and independence without getting rid of/offending its many global partners? I believe the answer to this question lies in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. If we fast forward to goal 17, which is to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development, you can see how an organization like Ukulapha need only connect the dots to turn its many endeavors where food is concerned into a holistic, sustainable, human rights based project.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

My proposition is that Ukulapha finds a way to combine its many food programs into one project so that the SDGs are being addressed, following the river code. Food handouts will soon be digested, forgotten, and are ultimately ineffective development catalysts. Claire, a fellow intern who has a Master’s degree in Social Work and Food Security, has started a “Garden Club” at the school. The Garden Club will allow learners to be engaged with the school’s vegetable garden, which currently sits as an uninteresting exhibit that is intangible to learners. Teaching the learners, educators and community members about sustainable agriculture is important, and can comfortably be implemented by Ukulapha. Actually using the vegetables from the garden in the school lunches instead of receiving extra supplements from Canadian donors is also something I see for the future of Ukulapha, which encourages the community to use their resources, increasing ownership and capacity building.

Global donors who wish to support holistic programs are critical for organizations like Ukulapha. That being said, partnership with the local community is just as important. This means that global partners who want to support grassroots NPO’s like Ukulapha must be more responsible and accountable in implementing their overseas programs, being careful not to fall into the trap of carrying someone on their backs across the river bank. If partnerships start and end with a cheque, sustainability can’t be achieved. Goal 17 is especially important not only for achieving food security, but for so many of the SDG’s. Strong, human rights based global partnerships are vital in addressing [and ultimately achieving] all of the SDG’s, therefore it is especially important that organizations like Ukulapha choose their partners wisely (and vice versa), employing the river code when undertaking such projects.

*The river code is a theory presented by Women for Change in collaboration with Irish Aid*


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