Development or Charity?

A couple of weeks ago on the great concept that is ‘Culture Night’, Loughboy Library in Kilkenny City was the base for a celebration of Traveller Culture. Regretfully I could not attend the event, but it was by all accounts a tremendous success. It was organised by Kilkenny Traveller Community Movement’s (KTCM) Development Worker, Mary-Helen Connors and supported by Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP). All aspects of Traveller Culture were on view including the launch of a DVD made by and with local travellers, music, photographs and much more beside. Our thanks and those of KTCM, to Kilkenny’s library service for their support of the night and for their foresight in adding their ‘Traveller Culture Section’ to the collection.

I have to admit that it has only been in the last two years that I have had any involvement in the great work that has taken place within the Traveller community in Kilkenny. But what was most satisfying to me and some others in KLP with the Culture Night event was that the Travellers were in charge. Mary-Helen did a really professional job in the organisation and the community did their culture proud. So what, you say? Isn’t that not principle of community development and shouldn’t any target group be expected to do the same? Well yes.... but regretfully when it comes to the Travelling Community it is often a principle more honoured in the breach than the observance.

The central tension in all community development work in the social inclusion sector is the delicate balance between ‘development work’ and ‘charity’. Both are valid and worthy concepts and for some non-governmental organisation the separation of them is irrelevant. But not to KLP. All our development work in KLP– irrespective of the target group, must aspire to empower the group to take charge of their own destiny. “Building capacity”, as we say in the jargon. KLP has a good deal of current work and involvement with the Travelling community over the years – most of it inherited from its foundation company Kilkenny Community Action Network (KCAN). The long-time support of KTCM sees KLP’s Social Inclusion Programme Manager sitting as Chairperson of the group. Mary Helen works very closely with KLP staff and is based in our main office. We currently have seven members of the community working as our colleagues on the Traveller Primary Healthcare Project. Traveller men have worked with KLP on the Horse Project or several years. Admittedly the latter ended in disappointment for us all when the money to buy the vital land failed to become available.

But yet, I suggest that for KLP we need to reconsider our methods. I do it with some uneasiness, lest we be accused of abandoning support for Travellers. I don’t think that we are talking about revolutionary or dramatic changes here but more a purposeful evolution in our approach to the community that places capacity building back as the guiding principle of our development work. We think that KTCM or its successor should be representing the interests of their community and that the support of KLP should be marginal to its effectiveness in that task. To be honest I do not expect the development of the capacity to be a smooth curve of achievement. Of course it is true that the issue is not confined to the Travelling community, even within the context of KLP’s work- but it is at its most obvious there to me. The Travelling community is far from being a homogenous group and it would be foolish to expect that its many disadvantages can resolved quickly. But if we are to break out of the mentality of ‘doing good’ by the Travelling community and move towards supporting them to ‘do good’ for themselves, then we must change. Loughboy's Traveller Culture Night was a demonstration of what's possible.

Declan Rice, CEO

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