Now working as an Independent Consultant, Gerry Salole is the former Chief Executive of the European Foundation Centre, in Brussels. Using his vast experience in international development, he now focuses on helping other organisations with projects, strategy, and trends.
As a trained Social Anthropologist, Gerry sidestepped an academic career when he accepted a job working with Oxfam Ethiopia where he was subsequently seconded to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on a project repatriating Somalian refugees in Ethiopia. The experience he gained showed him the gaps that (still) exist between organisations wanting to help, but not always addressing the real needs of people.
His work in development has taken him all over the world: Ford Foundation in South Africa, Bernard van Leer Foundation in The Hague, and various organisations in the USA, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, but Gerry says his ‘real’ work experience was gained in Africa. He has seen first-hand the serious impact that refugee camps have on children, and how the parents are very aware of the problems and are willing to communicate these, if someone would listen.
“Most of the people in this business are social engineers, they want to do good and they think they have the answers. The real answers are the people – they know what they need and how they need to do it. And if you listen properly, you may be able to help, but you can’t engineer it for them.”
While his studies in anthropology helped him to ask the right questions, and listen, it didn’t really provide the answers. To him, anthropology is not a discipline that studies people, it studies with people – he calls himself a ‘participant observer’. Gerry believes that an academic approach is too ‘purist’ to have a real impact. Too much emphasis on qualification, rather than lived experience, is part of the problem in this field.
“You can’t go in with your own vision of what is happening – you have to actually let the story, the narrative, emerge from the context you’re in.”
He supports the work that CAPSI is achieving: marrying the tools of academia with real context and not letting one lead the other or become superimposed on one another. Gerry believes that to do better work, development workers need to get better at learning the lessons and listening to what has happened in the past.
The focus on development in Africa has changed – it’s less about development per se, and more about business, startups and entrepreneurs. There is a recognition that it’s not about receiving handouts or charity – rather about making the available resources work for you. Gerry uses the term bricoleur (someone who is able to create using whatever materials are available), to define the type of skills that are needed in the development field, rather than the typical ‘engineer’ type skillset, one using blueprints or preconceived solutions.
CAPSI’s placement within a business school provides an opportunity for people to pay more attention to institutions that are embedded in African society. African philanthropy is part of ordinary life, like the Rotating Credit Association and stokvels in South Africa – these are important tools that have been imagined, adopted, and maintained by the people, really owned, yet they are often ignored.
“I’m hoping that there is going to be a way in which to validate what people do, because they don’t do them for no reason; they don’t do them by accident.”