‘Never!’ shouted the village chief. A large, irate crowd had gathered in East Nusa Tenggara, one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces, for an important town meeting. The reason? Our local partner was introducing an agricultural project which could potentially transform the local farmers’ lives and increase their income substantially. Securing the community’s wholehearted support should have been an easy task. Surprisingly, though, it was not. In fact, this was our seventh meeting, and both sides were frustrated. Why is achieving true change so difficult?

It has been well said, “Anything that is truly worthwhile doing is also hard to do” rings true in our experience as impact investors. And it certainly applied here, as we tried to improve the livelihoods of people trapped in poverty and hopelessness.

As investors, we are in a position of privilege and power and could be tempted to use our status to impose our will and become benevolent dictators. After all, it is in people’s best interests. But history shows this approach is futile and ultimately self-defeating. See, for example, British backlash and public anger with politicians over Brexit, the gilet jaunes ‘yellow vest’ protests over labour reforms in France or the 2013 migrant worker riots in Singapore.

So how do we work with poor communities, particularly in Africa and Asia, who have been marginalised and discriminated against all of their lives? How can we change this power dynamic? How do we effectively build working partnerships with communities?

1. Empower local leaders

Diving in with heroic efforts to rescue a community is egocentric. An in-depth understanding of the culture, narrative and people’s unique circumstances is crucial in helping a community embrace change. If we want to make a difference, we must spend time understanding, observing and learning.

We identify local leaders who truly represent their communities and are willing to partner with us. These change agents are representative of the different ethnicities, religious backgrounds and gender of their communities.  They help their people understand the benefits of change, in listening and engaging with them. Local leaders can address their concerns, responding in a way that affects change.

For example, how South Africa transformed through Mandela is a powerful example of what can be achieved through effective leadership.

2. Build community institutions

However, South Africa is also a tragic example of what happens when leaders have all the power. Corruption and fraud became widespread under the leadership of Mandela’s successor, Jacob Zuma. This crippled public services and slowed down economic growth in South Africa.

Inclusive institutions play a significant role to safeguard society. We support community institutions that provide opportunities for participation and interaction. This ensures that people to get involved with decision-making and enables them to hold local leaders to account for their actions.

3. Start small and demonstrate success

Most of us like the status quo and resist change, rather than embrace it. Communities need to experience the benefits of change and know that these clearly outweigh the risks. First, we don’t look down on humble beginnings. Instead, we celebrate small successes, knowing that each success helps to build the next - it doesn’t happen overnight. See how quickly someone who ‘does’ debunks the ‘I-can’t-do-it’ mentality.

4. Understand the gaps

Huge investments grab headlines, but they only achieve long-lasting change when they come with a true desire to understand local attitudes and environments. At a recent impact-investing conference, the Assistant Governor of the National Bank of Cambodia asked micro-finance companies to consider the readiness of the local borrowers and explore ways to develop the market. Only by understanding the gaps in education and skills can we genuinely make a difference for the very people we are trying to help.

Now is the time to stand up and support those without a voice. In building relationships and trust between those with the money and those who need it, we can challenge vulnerability and make significant and worthwhile change.

And that project in East Nusa Tenggara? After seven attempts, we are now seeing encouraging results. We just need to remember even with all our good intentions, we must approach these opportunities wisely, prepared for the costs, because what is worthwhile is also hard.

Alex Tee, COO at TBN's Garden Impact Investment Fund