In Search of a Meaningful Life

A Historical Description of the Various Approaches to the CHOICE Humanitarian Model of Leadership Development (Village and District)

My journey of discovery searching for a life of meaning and purpose has blended two dimensions of life:  one religious and one secular. My religion has taught me the importance of faith, hope, and charity, the eternal possibilities of family and friends, and a set of precious values and principles to guide my life. The secular dimension of my life reflects a career in university teaching, management consulting, and village development programming. For me the search for a meaningful life has involved four types of experiences:

A-Moment-of-Awareness.pngFirst, I have experienced a sense of gratitude as I had the opportunity to travel throughout this world and gradually to comprehend how blessed I really was. In visiting over 100 countries, I quickly noticed that a significant percentage of the world’s population did not have access to clean water or electricity, adequate food or housing, and would never go to school as children or visit a hospital when they were sick. In my world of comfort and prosperity, I could not shake those images of poverty and suffering, and a seeping sense of gratitude and a determination to do something burned in my soul.

Second, over time I have developed a sense of peace as I have come to terms with who I am, my strengthens and weaknesses, and the reality that we all have special skills and talents that are given that we might find joy and happiness in all aspects of our lives (spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical). This sense of peace comes only gradually as we realize we cannot change all things, but we can change some things, that life gives us challenges, not to tear us down, but to build us up.

Third, a meaningful life requires some sense of mission and purpose. Life becomes richer and more fulfilling to the extent we find some way to make a difference in this world. Those of us with the resources to pursue meaningful goals have a responsibility to help make this world a better place to live, especially among the truly poor and disadvantaged of this world. Finally, when we see things that need fixing, we must ask:  “If not me, then who, and if not now, then when?”

Fourth, I have learned over the past many years that a life can be passive or active. People may be observers acknowledging there are problems but are unwilling to act. Others become participants, seeing a problem and actually doing something about it. A life with various opportunities to share one’s gifts, talents, and resources with others can be one of the most profoundly fulfilling experiences we can have in this life.  

 My life in village development started in Egypt in 1965-66 when I arrived as a graduate student with a Fulbright Scholarship. Living and researching in three different villages over nearly a fourteen month period opened my eyes to the challenges and the opportunities of village development. As I began teaching at the University of Utah in 1967, my thoughts and ideas about how best to solve the problems of world poverty changed dramatically. In my early career, I did consulting with many different development organizations (USAID, United Nations, UNESCO, etc.) and I was convinced that such large organizations, using centralized, top-down approaches, were the key to poverty alleviation efforts in the many countries where I consulted.

In 1983, I was fortunate to become acquainted with a young dentist by the name of Tim Evans. He had heard me speak at a local Rotary Club, outlining some of my frustrations with the present systems of rural development. We quickly became fast friends as he described some of his recent work in Peru and Bolivia. He had organized a private foundation, the Andean Children’s Foundation, and was seeking donations of food, clothing, medicine and other supplies for the poor villagers in that part of the world. He invited me to become a member of his board of directors and thus began the special bonding of his humanitarian spirit and energy and my village development experience and expertise. It was a special partnership that eventually led to the establishment of CHOICE (the Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Inter-Cultural Exchange). Later, the organization’s name was expanded to CHOICE Humanitarian. The strategy used by CHOICE has evolved through three distinct approaches to village development during the 1980s and 1990s.

 (1) The Single-Village Humanitarian Approach.

During the late 1980s, CHOICE sent out various expeditions to Bolivia and Peru that were generally organized to enter a village and to help the villagers build a school, a health clinic, a water system or whatever other needs they might have. Generally, expeditions tended to go to one village at a time, but seldom going back to the same village more than once or twice. The participants would work with the villagers for a week or two on the construction of the needed project, often distribute free food, medicine, school supplies and other donated materials. While much good-will for CHOICE was generated through this single-village approach, unfortunately, without a formal process of follow-up and long-term support, many of the projects were short-lived and limited in their impact on these visited villages.

 (2) Multi Village Project Oriented Approach

In the early and mid-1990s, there was an attempt to have a more long-term impact on the villages visited. CHOICE began to recruit local rural development specialists (RDSs), who, while they did not actually live in the villages they served, were available to follow-up with the villagers over a longer period of time. After the completion of several CHOICE expeditions, an RDS was then able to follow-up in a number of villages in a given area, to ensure that past projects were maintained and to help villagers identify other projects that future CHOICE expeditions might support. One of the unintended consequences of this multi-village project approach was the tendency for projects to be implemented more on the basis of the RDSs own field of specialization. For example, RDF's trained in water systems tended to encourage water projects; RDSs trained in literacy or public health, seemed to emphasize education and medical care. While these RDSs were working with great skill in the implementation of projects, too often, it became apparent that the villagers were becoming a bit too dependent on the RDSs, generally waiting until the RDSs would come up with the next set of projects for their village.


A Change in Paradigms for Village Development 

A significant change in how I had assumed village development should be implemented began to take form in the early 1990s. Historically, development agencies have assumed that the key to development was the establishment of projects through which resources, technologies, and services could be distributed. This was a “service delivery” paradigm in which the poor were considered “beneficiaries,” who needed to be taken care of, who needed to be given free food, clothing, medicine, and supplies, with little or nothing expected in return.

Gradually I began to realize that a different perspective or paradigm was needed. The old paradigm of development assumed outsiders knew best what villagers needed, that if you provided them with free services and resources, they would respond with gratitude and appreciation. Unfortunately, many development programs of the past tended to spawn the opposite: increased dependency, increased frustration, even animosity, and a kind of fatalism and welfarism that breeds apathy, disillusionment and certainly a lack of pride and dignity.

Over the years I had gradually determined that the old ways were not working, that giving services and resources was having the opposite effect of what we wanted. In my mind, a new paradigm was needed and gradually I began to argue that when people learn to mobilize their own resources when they see themselves achieving results based upon their own efforts, there is pride, a sense of self-esteem and dignity that is infectious and self-perpetuating. The old paradigm emphasized people’s physical and material needs and entitlements, suggesting that people improve when someone takes care of them. The new paradigm emphasizes, first, that there is a motivating force from cultural and moral values and responsibilities and local people must be allowed to design their own development programs based upon their cultural values and traditions. Second, there is a power unleashed when people are free to choose for themselves, suggesting that people improve when they are allowed to participate in their own processes of decision making and when they can align their lives to a set of cultural values and moral principles that they find meaningful and significant. Mahatma Gandhi in his work among the poor of India, argued that development devoid of human values and principles that motivate people to a higher standard of ethics and morality (tolerance, service, generosity) will seldom generate the social energy (sometimes called social capital) and individual responsibility needed to implement a sustainable process of societal development.

The CHOICE approach today is based upon a “resource mobilization” paradigm, in which the poor are encouraged to develop the skills, competencies, and attitudes of self-reliance needed as they learn to help themselves. Over the past decade, a new self-developing village program based upon a Rural District Networking and Empowerment strategy has evolved through the efforts of several key people, especially Chris Johnson, Juan Alducin, and Rita Lagogo.

CHOICE is not the creation of any one person but has emerged through the efforts of many hundreds of volunteers, villagers, staff, and friends of CHOICE. I am proud to have played some small role in its establishment, growth, and development. From my perspective, the true test of CHOICE’s success is what the villagers do by themselves after we leave. Self-Developing Villages are able to plan and design their own futures, reduce poverty through better education, health services, and hopefully eliminate poverty through their own income generating projects. For me, this is the message of CHOICE Humanitarian!

James B. Mayfield, PhD
Professor Emeritus, University of Utah
Present Member, CHOICE Humanitarian Board of Directors