by John Borst, Communications Director, District 5550
The most important thing to know about this book is that its author, Marilyn Fitzgerald, is a Rotarian. It is possible without that experience the book may never have come into being.
For Rotary, its timing is most fortuitous because, as Rotary International rolls out its new Global Grants model, the concept of “sustainability” is front and centre during the grant writing and approval process.
If I had a Water Buffalo is divided into three sections. Part 1 is Fitzgerald as the all too typical Rotarian. Big of heart, wanting to do good in the world, driven by strong emotions, with little planning; focused on raising donations for extremely worthy causes but with little thought to either the causes’ sustainability or its effect on the cultural life of those receiving her largess.
Fitzgerald tells her story in straight forward language, nothing fancy, just good story telling, often with a good dose of bitter-sweet or self-deprecating humor. Along the way she shares early projects in which she worked. She doesn’t say they were with Rotary but they easily could have been.
Two questions stand out in the book. Both transformed Fitzgerald from old style Rotarian donor, to an unwitting, apostle of the new Global Grant model. The first question is in the title of the book. Marilyn was involved in a project raising funds for uniforms so impoverished children could attend school in rural Indonesia. The project grew from the need to raise $1,200 to $30,000 to $72,000 without any thought about how the money would be raised. Then on one visit, to her surprise, a wise farmer asked her for $250.00 to buy a water buffalo.
Learning he could triple his rice production and pay for his own childrens’ uniforms revealed an alternative way to educate children, one with many other social, cultural and economic benefits to boot. It was a view she had never considered.
Part II is Fitzgerald as the continuous learner. Already in possession of a BA in psychology, a Masters in clinical psychology and a MBA plus the successful manager of her company, Common Ground Solutions, she decided to return to the world of academia to pursue a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
Continuing her concise and readable writing style Fitzgerald neatly shares the key learning outcomes buried in her thesis without ever falling into the trap of academics. Where it does manifest itself is in the extensive bibliography at the end of this rather short book. A real plus in my opinion!
If it was Nyoman’s (the farmer on the cover) question that taught Fitzgerald about the meaning of sustainability, it was a professor who provided the second prong which should drive humanitarian effort when he asked, “Do your think the provision of resources in the form of humanitarian-aid projects ever causes conflict for the people you are trying to help?”
Of particular relevance to Rotarians is Fitzgerald’s brief description of the different ways in which “sustainability” is defined, especially in the humanitarian area of “basic education and literacy.” In particular I found her discussion on the benefits of “integrative negotiation” (pages 102-3) particularly useful during a discussion in the preparation of a Rotary Global Grant upon which I happened to be working.
“Lessons Learned, Lessons Shared” is the subtitle of Part III where Fitzgerald pulls the literature together with shared experience. She is adamant that the beneficiaries’ participation at all stages of the management process in the delivery of the aid is essential, if sustainability is to be realized. Her critique of the lack of assessment of projects is deadly accurate, whereas her very brief solution found through “appreciative inquiry”, provided a positive assessment tool and for me was an entirely new idea.
Speaking of appreciation, Fitzgerald ends each chapter by listing the 3-5 key ideas from that chapter. A reader would get more than their money’s worth if that was all they read.
If you are planning to start work on a Rotary Global Grant application, read this book as a primer. It will surely increase your understanding of “sustainability” and thereby increase your likelihood of success.
Fitzgerald’s greatest talent may be in her ability to take complicated academic topics and distill them down into common English. In so doing, through Rotary, she may just have reached through to hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of beneficiaries as her fellow Rotarians apply her “lessons learned, lessons shared” though out the world.
©John Borst, may be shared under common license with appropriate recognition of the author.