I grew up in a family of educators. Service to my community was a key theme of my upbringing. For my undergrad studies, I went to American University’s SIS, the School of International Service. There was much pride instilled in us about the second S standing for “service.” We were not there to learn how to benefit ourselves, but rather how to benefit others. After graduating, I joined the Peace Corps, in which a volunteer’s time is called her or his service. Serving was heavily emphasized in our training and our work. To this day, I still instinctively say in conversation that I served in Togo, instead of just worked.
Needless to say, service is an important value to me, and one I’ve always carried with me. Service is an attitude. A service perspective orients my mind in my professional relationships. It helps keeps me focused on the right way of thinking about and doing things. It constantly reminds me that my work is not about me, or my ideas, or my success. It’s about the people I work with and for. It’s easy, too easy I would say, to think and talk about people and communities in the abstract when we talk about projects, contexts, and needs assessments. We label them “beneficiaries” and “target populations.” A service-minded approach humanizes them for me, taking them out of the abstract. It allows me to see my work clearly, and remain focused on why I do what I do.
Service is also an act, though. It is one thing to view a situation or a relationship a certain way. It is another to work that way. The attitude is the starting point. Where we go from there is more important. This plays itself out in a lot of different ways in peacebuilding and development work, beginning in the planning phase of any program or project. One approach to planning is conducting a needs assessment, applying good practices and lessons learned from previous initiatives, and developing work plan to achieve a certain set of outcomes. And it may work to a certain extent. But initiatives will achieve stronger and more sustainable results the more the people needing the program are involved in designing it. This ensures that any intervention not only suits their context and needs, but also increases the faith the people have in the program going in, which increases the chances of success. Service-mindedness allows for this to happen.
Service also adds another orientation to our work. Peacebuilding and development practitioners rightly adopt a results-oriented approach to their work. It keeps us from simply going through the motions of what we’ve always done, and defines success by what is achieved rather than by what is done. But measurable results are only valuable for their human benefits. Service-mindedness adds a people-orientation that ensures that these benefits are reflected in our planning, implementation, and evaluation of initiatives. Is what we’re doing producing substantive, positive change for the people we’re trying to serve through our work? Is that change substantial, and substantial in relation to inputs? Have we best served the people, communities, and countries asking for our support? Implementing programs with this approach allows us to produce a stronger human impact.
No one gets into this field for money, glamour, or prestige. We get into it because we want to do something for others, something big. At its root, we want to help. When we do, it’s satisfying. We feel fulfilled, valuable, like we’re contributing to making the world better. All of that’s good. I doubt without those sensations we’d continue in this work, or at least we would not necessarily be particularly effective at it. But as we go about our work, as we gain more experience, more expertise, new knowledge and learning, new evidence, it can become very easy to inadvertently lose sight of the people we originally and ostensibly do it for. That’s a danger, it can threaten the quality of our work and our drive for results. And the human benefits we seek may not be so strong.
This is why I value service so much in my thinking about my work. It reminds me that it’s not about me. It keeps my reasons for engaging with people in front of me, and keeps the people I seek to support above me in my mind. This mindset may not yield the same results for all practitioners, but for me, the value of service makes my work stronger and opens me up to new ideas on how to achieve results, and more importantly to the people I’m working with, and working for.