... an organisation of weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled and committed people, seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope-drained people become agents of attitudinal and social change

Acceptance speech – Servol (Service Volunteered for All)

A long time ago, we in SERVOL looked at the world around us through the eyes of the poor, the disadvantaged and the minority groups and we were appalled and saddened by what we saw.

We saw a world which had contemptuously brushed aside the accumulated wisdom and experience of aboriginal people and had allowed itself to be seduced into a type of development that was largely motivated by greed and financial gains and governed almost exclusively by science and technology. As a result, we are slowly waking up to the unpalatable truth, that we are gradually turning a planet of wondrous beauty into a polluted environment in which billions of people are struggling to survive under the lash of unimaginative economic programmes.

We saw a world which had glibly categorised nations into undeveloped, semi-developed and well-developed using standards and criteria which were quite arbitrary.

We saw countries spending enormous suns on education only to face the realization thirty years later that the educational edifices they had built were collapsing.

We saw all this and, in our naiveté, we were convinced that the vast majority of the problems of our world stemmed from two main sources: first, our inability to listen to each other and second, the lack of respect we exhibited even when we sincerely tried to help one another. We resolved, twenty years ago that we would not make the same mistake and we built the entire philosophy of SERVOL on three basic principles:
First, a philosophy of ignorance which means we never assume that we know the needs of people we are trying to help; we begin by asking them how they wanted to be helped.

Second, we must listen attentively to what they tell us and make it the cornerstone of the developmental programme.
Third, we must not barge into the lives of people filled with the cultural arrogance of so many do-gooders; rather, we must try to help them through a process of respectful intervention in which everyone becomes a partner in this journey to true development.

With this philosophy in mind, it is easy to understand that our efforts to serve disadvantaged and neglected people, all converge in a process of allowment in which every programme is designed to help poor people take charge of their lives. It is said that those groups of people who are poor and uneducated choose to remain that way. Those who subscribe to this view quote statistics to prove that though increasingly large suits are being spent on poverty and educational programmes, the gap between the rich and the pour is widening. This argument conveniently overlooks the critical mistake that governments and lending agencies persist in making: they are trying to help people with very little input from the people themselves. To begin any type of ecocentric or educational development without consulting the people for whom it is intended is the height of cultural arrogance.

Let us be honest: can any one of us in this roan deny that more than we would like to admit we have been guilty of this cultural arrogance by assuming that simple people are too ignorant to know what is good for them? If this is so, then our project, whatever it may be, is tainted from the outset.

Surely, the only way to begin is to spend a considerable amount of time listening to the people speak of their problems, their difficulties, their hopes, their dreams, their ideas. It is only after this process of attentive listening that we can respectfully intervene in the lives of others.

With this as a foundation, it soon becomes apparent that education should start from the time the child begins to develop in its mother’s womb. Medical experts tell us what happens to a child, at this age, is absolutely crucial for its intellectual, emotional and physical development. It makes good economic and educational sense, to start any national system of education with parent education which should include parents-to-be who may often be adolescents.

Again, we must pay heed to the chorus of psychologists who tell us that by the age of three, the character of the child is substantially shaped and by the age of six it is largely resistant to change and we should pour considerable resources into early childhood education when intervention could really make a difference. It is a curious fact that we attach more importance to expensive, marginally successful, remedial programmes for adolescents, rather than initiate positive, preventative programmes to lower the incidence of their problems.

Again, why do we continue to equate expensive with high quality as if education and human development were consumer items? This type of supermarket philosophy has done untold damage to the self-esteem of parents and communities who have been persuaded that the bringing up and education of children is an esoteric process best left to professionals.

As for financial costs, it is acknowledged that billions of dollars are wasted on educational programmes by unenlightened, centralised programmes. Because of this, donor and lending agencies are insisting that an increasing percentage of their financial support be channeled through nongovernmental organizations which often have a track record of being far more cost-effective than bureaucracies. Could we not extend this process by giving parents and communities an important say in deciding what kind of schools they want, what type of teacher should be used and what is a relevant curriculum?

Such a process would also lead us to ask whether the word professional should be limited to those who have performed adequately in academic circles or whether genuine professionalism can also be found in the experience and expertise of grass-roots people who have acquired wisdom from life itself.

You see, when push comes to shove it all boils down to whether or not we are willing to listen. Have you ever placed a stethoscope on the abdomen of a pregnant woman and listened to the heartbeat of an unborn child and asked yourself, what is that child trying to tell me? Have you ever listened to the prattle of one to five year old children and asked yourself what is going on in their minds as they pass through the crises of childhood? Have you ever listened to the suppressed anger and anguish of adolescents and asked yourself, how did it all start in the first place?

Because we in Servol are in both early childhood and adolescent programmes, let me tell you what we hear and what we feel. We hear the children saying: why did you ignore me when I was too small to talk or to walk or to express myself and wait until I am wrecking vengeance on myself, my family and the world around me to cane up and say “How can I help you?” As for feeling, as we struggle with our adolescents whom we love so dearly, we feel: Why didn’t someone give then to us at early childhood when building self-esteem and helping them cope with insecurity would have been infinitely easier and a hundred times less costly?

Ladies and Gentlemen. Today, millions of people, ordinary people are standing up and telling those who have dominated them for generations: We have had enough! We want a say in how our lives should be lived.

Isn’t it time we include parents communities and the children themselves in a partnership in this moment of freedom, so that together, listening to one another, we may move with hope and confidence into the third Millennium?

Our world does not need experts who have ready-made, academic answers to complicated developmental issues; we have had enough of that ilk: they have proven an unmitigated disaster. What our world needs is leaders who are willing to admit their ignorance, their fallibility and their weaknesses but who are prepared to journey with groups in that long, arduous but exciting trek through the desert of hundreds of mistakes to the promised land of a world governed by justice and peace.

This is a difficult journey because we ourselves are weak, human beings who at times become discouraged and are even tempted to take an easier road. We say this loud and clear in our mission statement which reads as follows:

“Servol is an organization of weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled and committed people, seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope-drained people became agents of attitudinal and social change in a journey which leads to total human development.”

Because of this we too need encouragement, we too need concrete signs that our efforts are recognised.

That is why we are grateful to the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for the signal honour it has paid us by bestowing on us this award. In the difficult years that lie ahead the memory of this moment will burn brightly in our hearts as a beacon of hope which challenges us to be true to the call we received twenty four years ago:

“Let your eyes be fixed ahead
your gaze be straight before you
Let the path you tried be level
and all your ways made firm.
Turn neither to right or to left.” (Proverbs 4: 25)

91 Frederick Street
Port of Spain