Teaching Lifeskills May be More Empowering than Other Social Investments

ngos corporate social investment youth empowerment lifeskills social investors
Wednesday, 16 February, 2011 - 10:45

Social investors often overlook the important role that lifeskills development could play in empowering communities. Lifeskills have the potential to empower young people to build their own foundations in life and to create their own opportunities

You can imagine, how, when faced with all the need we see around us, never mind the obvious challenges in social development, people responsible for making social investment decisions sometimes feel at a loss.

Unless they’re one of that tiny minority – the independently wealthy philanthropist – they’re almost always in the business of giving away the money of other people. If they’re responsible for the corporate social investment (CSI) decisions of companies, this will tend to be the money of owners, shareholders along with the sweat equity of staff.

If they’re endowment managers or trust fund managers, it could be the moneys built up for this purpose by generations in a family or its business. 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 into righting a public education system that continues to flounder (barring some notable exceptions, including the former Model C schools) and whose effectiveness is mockingly surpassed by the achievement of our Southern African neighbours.

Still, education, then health, and then welfare are the areas that receive the largest CSI 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 for increasing numbers of people to gain greater control over their lives, especially through being able to make a greater amount of choices than those forced by mere survivalism. It’s about expanding horizons of opportunity, with people moving from dependence to independence. And there are, of course, 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 indeed to 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. It’s worth remembering that ‘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.

To even begin to grasp the significance of this, we need to be blunt and honest about our situation. Fewer than one third of African households contain both parents. Think about that. Think hard about that. And think also about the effect of telling most people for generation after generation that they’re simply not up to govern, or even to have a say in how we’re governed.

Reinforce in people’s minds every single day – and do it often in every single day – through ways obvious and subtle, through the statement, or the non-glance – that they matter less. Think about the subliminal nature and effect of this. And think hard. Racism is not always obvious, yet it is omnipresent and its personal effects are brutal.

Then think about a political struggle for change that attacked every form of authority, whether policeman or teacher or tax collector or parent, and understand the insidious mental effects of ‘ungovernability’. Are you still thinking hard?
Remember that to be rootless makes growth difficult. Yet whites are enjoined not 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 always, victims of perfidy and conquest.

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. South Africa needs a therapist. Which brings me back to what social investors often overlook but which is crucial to any upliftment effort. It’s called ‘lifeskills’.

You’ll know through your own hard knocks of 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, timekeeping, presentation of self, competitiveness, and sound values. Without these things at a minimum, there is little on which to build. Which is a big reason never to underestimate the value of the work being done in the lifeskills space.

Some examples: Johannesburg enjoys a NGO called City Year that takes on mostly poor youngsters for a gap year after school. Apart from a small stipend for things like transport, they are not paid. But drilled into them are the things I have mentioned. Once they’re through the ‘basic training’ of the course, 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 of all sorts, and act as exemplary models through the power of example, while they build their own foundations in life.

Grassroot Soccer is American-born, working throughout the country, and using local soccer tournaments, open to all, whether of sporting talent or not, 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 32 townships in South Africa, to bring home the lifeskills that children need. About 250 children are taught at each location three afternoons a week. Miss band practices, and get expelled. Stay on and joy, local heroism, travel to other places (sometimes even abroad) and new skills are your lot. This thing works magnificently and you have to see one of these bands in action to grasp just how much.

Two of the bands supported by De Beers are to be found in Kimberley’s Galeshewe community, and in nearby Beaconsfield. The former band has won the keenly contested annual National Championship for several years in a row, the latter has won the First Division.

We can’t be sure just what will become of each of the youngsters who pass 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 – for good or for ill – about how to respond to life’s chances and foibles. That empowerment, I think, is better than almost any other outcome that can be more easily measured.

- Paul Pereira, Executive: Public Affairs at Tshikululu Social Investments

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