“Don’t know much about history…”

The author's visit to a Ghana school teaches her a lesson in the building blocks of development


“Don’t know much about history/Don’t know much geography…”

I’m sure I’m dating myself, but these lyrics went through my head as I visited Ghana for the first time last month. Instead of not knowing history or geography, however, I realized how little I know about non-Western cultures. Over the past few months, I’ve had occasion to travel to both Rwanda and Ghana to visit projects that Pears Foundation has invested in over the past decade. It was eye opening for me to spend time with survivors of the Rwandan Genocide, to meet with Ghanaian graduates of Hebrew University, and to visit a MASHAV primary school where the headteacher is studying early education pedagogy in Haifa.

Each time I encountered someone, I felt a deep sense of just how little I knew of their lives, their culture, and their challenges. And if I didn’t know that, all the more so I didn’t know what I could offer in terms of wisdom about how to solve those challenges. So I listened and learned and tried to engage as best I could. But mostly I felt that I was the one being enriched and gaining from the encounter.

This feeling came to a head when I arrived at Kanvilli RC primary school in Tamale. The students were expecting us, as they are part of a twinning programme run by Tzedek, a UK-based NGO that connects and educates the British Jewish community about the developing world. My children’s Jewish primary school has been twinned with Kanvilli primary school in Tamale for several years. The current year 3 students had been undertaking a shared curriculum with their Ghanaian peers at Kanvilli School, writing letters back and forth for several months. And I had been asked to deliver the latest round of postcards.


The children were delighted to receive the notes from their British pen pals, as were their contemporaries in London when I delivered similar notes back to them. To be honest, I had harboured some scepticism about whether a school twinning programme could really make a difference. Sure, it was lovely and made everyone feel good, but with all of the challenges in the developing world, was a pen pal scheme really the best use of energy?

I may not know all that much about history or geography. And I certainly don’t know much about international development. But what I realised in my travels is that no one really knows how to do development. There is no silver bullet that will magically allow Western interventions to solve issues of severe poverty and deprivation in the developing world. What became clear to me, however, is that “good” development meant partnering with local communities and empowering them to solve their problems, not parachuting in with an answer and imposing it. And if that is true, then the first step in good development work is connecting with people and recognising that, while we share a common humanity, our cultures  and our contexts are often wildly different.

The children who participate in the Tzedek twinning project start out their curriculum by drawing a picture of what they see outside their window. They exchange these pictures as a way of sharing their worlds and starting a conversation about their common humanity and their very different contexts. It’s not a bad place to start when you are thinking about international development. Yes, you need to learn some history and some geography (which are also part of the curriculum), but to make progress in development work, you need something more; you need to learn some humility and recognise what you don’t know.

I’m now convinced that Tzedek has it right. By connecting young people and letting them teach each other, they are building a solid foundation for international development, in a way that allows for development of all of us everywhere.

This piece also appears on Pears Foundation’s blog. Republished with permission from the author and Pears Foundation.

Inspired to engage? Volunteer with Tzedek in Tamale, or find more opportunities for action on OLAM‘s Take Action page.