‘What is your hope?’
At the end of the panel on ‘The rise of key agents: women and youth’, Marie-Gabrielle Cajoly, executive director of the Sinopec-Addax Petroleum Foundation, hosting the second Addhope Forum in Geneva on 22 May, posed this question to me and the other panellists. This, to me, was a profound question, which I believe lay at the heart of the rich conversations that we had during the forum. After a minute of thought, I shared mine:
‘That young people will have the freedom to create the futures they envision regardless of their backgrounds.’
Indeed, it is that hope that drove me to establish Lead Us Today in my home country of Zimbabwe, where many young people’s desire and ability to live full, productive lives have been curtailed by years of difficult economic circumstances. After the forum, my passion to translate my hope into reality was heightened; I left eager to work so much more to create opportunities for young people to believe in themselves and build their capacity to create bright futures.
However, as speaker after speaker emphasized during the forum, it is dangerous for us – people with opportunities to serve others – to be enamoured by our own hopes for other people. The world’s history, especially with the rise of the ‘development’ paradigm, is littered with examples of incredibly well-intentioned people who had noble hopes for others but eventually did not do nearly as much good as they had anticipated. Dysfunctional wells, donor-dependent populations and distorted markets in the Global South are testimony to how fixation on a hope that disregards those of the people we serve is, at best, self-indulgent and, at worst, destroys other people’s capacity to have their own hopes. It is based on this realization, I believe, that one key message coming out of the forum was for philanthropists and development practitioners to listen, with sincerity, to the hopes of others.
Based on these reflections, I arrived at the point where I recognized that the question ‘What is your hope?’ cannot be directed only at the people who were privileged to attend the Addhope Forum but should be extended to the people we serve. Only that way can we make a real, sustained impact in their lives.
Yet, extending the question and truly listening is not a foolproof way of ensuring that the people we seek to serve, and who we have hopes for, are fully included in our work. What happens when you extend the question and in return you receive a blank stare from a disillusioned young person in Zimbabwe who confesses, ‘I have no hope’? Do we then impose our hopes on such people and their communities? Do we simply ‘give’ hope?
Here is my biggest takeaway from the forum: we cannot act based solely on our self-indulgent hopes. We cannot simply impose our hopes on people who often have their own. Even when we are confronted by seemingly hopeless people and communities, we must earnestly strive to recognize them as intelligent people who we can partner with to create conditions where their dormant hopes can be enlivened. Our responsibility as people who are privileged in different ways is to constantly balance our hopes against those of the people we serve and ensure that we are continually creating more space and opportunity for others to – at the least – hope, dream and envision as boldly as we do.
Thinking more about my own work with Lead Us Today, through which I develop the leadership and entrepreneurship skills of young Zimbabweans, I left the Addhope Forum with a fresh perspective. The easy path for me to take would be to descend from my place of privilege and exposure, dishing out hope that may, a few years from now, be meaningless. Thanks to the forum, I have renewed my commitment to listen first and then, based on the experiences of the young people I work with, build their capacity to hope more boldly and more fiercely than I ever would.
Dalumuzi H Mhlanga is founder and CEO of Lead Us Today, a non-profit organization that mobilizes Zimbabwean youth to be socially responsible citizens.