A Cautionary Tale of Out of Town Experts, White Elephants and Erosion of Authentic Communities

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It is an age-old story, out of area well-meaning experts descend on a community bearing big ideas, big money and big projects to improve things for the natives. They build a road, dam, or a well or a school and fundamentally change the dynamics of things that were working in those communities before their arrival. As they are experts, they do not ask the locals what their needs are, how they may assist the local communities to strengthen what is already in place or even how to complete projects in ways that strengthen the local infrastructure or workforce over the long term.

The project may actually improve functioning within the community in the short term. But the local resources end up withering away as the new project meets some need. In other instances, the project has no real use of the community as it was something that we developed and implemented without community input. Some of the projects may be what are called white elephants, and the upkeep of them takes resources away from some other local need and further erode the functioning of the community. Either way, there is great fanfare for the projects and the out of area experts congratulate themselves on the great things that they have done for the locals.

As there was a lack of engagement with the community, the projects inadvertently fostered dependency and were not developed in ways that leveraged and strengthened these communities. The community begins to rely on the school or the dam or the well for their community needs and abandon how they did it before the experts came, forgetting lived experience. The locals are no longer autonomous, they are in a dependency role, reliant on the out of town experts and their projects.

No local knowledge or local capacity is expanded. This is perhaps because it seemed easier for the out of town experts to do it themselves, or perhaps the money was seen as better spent internally between the experts and not externally within the community. Or perhaps they even looked down on the locals, believing that their ways were better and the locals not properly enlightened.

Sooner or later the money dries up and the well-meaning experts roll out of town as quickly as they arrived. As there had been no real engagement with the local people on these projects, the projects  begin to deteriorate. As the communities have begun to rely on these projects for their needs, the things that they were doing before the arrival of the out of town experts is no longer in place. Resources that had been used to support other needs in the community before the arrival of the out of town experts are further diverted to support the white elephant projects, further reducing the available resources within the community.

The projects end up failing over time and the local community no longer has either the new (and now failed) projects or the skills or infrastructure to support the way that they were meeting the need before the out of town experts had arrived. The out of town experts are long gone by this point, they are on to the next project and descending on the next group of natives. Sadly, the community ends up in worse shape than they were before the out of towners had come. The money, that could have been used to support the development of those communities in an authentic way are frittered away, the well dry, the road washed away, the school empty, the dam no longer operational and all the money long gone.

How does this relate to authentic recovery communities, all the federal money coming down to the state across the nation and why we have our basic ethos of “nothing about us without us?”

Perhaps you can tell me.

2 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale of Out of Town Experts, White Elephants and Erosion of Authentic Communities

  1. Thanks for this post. It reminded me of this from Bill White:

    In 1995, John McKnight wrote a book, The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits, with a most provocative premise. McKnight suggested that the proliferation of helping agencies and paid helpers inadvertently undermined the natural web of supportive relationships provided by families, extended families, neighborhoods, churches, labor unions, other voluntary associations and whole communities. McKnight concluded that as a country we suffer not from a lack of professionally-directed service agencies but from a lack of community (pp170-172). He suggests that we need to “distinguish between services that lead people out of community and into dependency and those activities that support people in community life” (p.123). An example from the addiction/recovery arena illustrates McKnight’s point. To the extent that the interventions of addiction counselors have replaced Twelfth Step calls, the “culture of recovery” has been weakened rather than strengthened (White 1990, 1996).

    Source: http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/pr/dlm_uploads/2002-Addiction-Counseling-as-Community-Organization.v2.pdf

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  2. In my years as a licensed counselor, in a range of diverse communities, I have literally witnessed this, time and again. One note I would add: this generally happens under the rubric of “liberal” or blue policy. Yet, however well-intentioned, it fails. This Tale told here points out how it even hurts said communities. We might ponder this as we wonder where trumps support comes from.

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