Home » Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen: Ernesto Sirolli (Transcript)

Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen: Ernesto Sirolli (Transcript)

Full text of author Ernesto Sirolli’s talk: Want to Help Someone? Shut Up and Listen at TED conference.

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Ernesto Sirolli – Italian author

Everything I do, and everything I do professionally — my life — has been shaped by seven years of work as a young man in Africa. From 1971 to 1977 — I look young, but I’m not — I worked in Zambia, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Somalia, in projects of technical cooperation with African countries.

I worked for an Italian NGO, and every single project that we set up in Africa failed. And I was distraught. I thought, age 21, that we Italians were good people and we were doing good work in Africa.

Instead, everything we touched we killed. Our first project, the one that has inspired my first book, Ripples from the Zambezi, was a project where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food.

So we arrived there with Italian seeds in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the Zambezi River, and we taught the local people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini and… And of course, the local people had absolutely no interest in doing that.

So we paid them to come and work, and sometimes they would show up. And we were amazed that the local people, in such a fertile valley, would not have any agriculture.

But instead of asking them how come they were not growing anything, we simply said, “Thank God we’re here.” Just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.

And of course, everything in Africa grew beautifully. We had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size. And we could not believe, and we were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.”

When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything. And we said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

And the Zambians said, “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“You never asked.”

I thought it was only us Italians blundering around Africa, but then I saw what the Americans were doing, what the English were doing, what the French were doing. And after seeing what they were doing, I became quite proud of our project in Zambia.

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Because, you see, at least we fed the hippos. You should see the rubbish — you should see the rubbish that we have bestowed on unsuspecting African people. You want to read the book, read Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, Zambian woman economist. The book was published in 2009. We western donor countries have given the African continent $2 trillion American in the last 50 years.

I’m not going to tell you the damage that that money has done. Just go and read her book. Read it from an African woman, the damage that we have done.

We western people are imperialist, colonialist missionaries, and there are only two ways we deal with people: We either patronize them, or we are paternalistic. The two words come from the Latin root “pater,” which means “father.”

But they mean two different things. Paternalistic, I treat anybody from a different culture as if they were my children. “I love you so much.”

Patronizing, I treat everybody from another culture as if they were my servants. That’s why the white people in Africa are called “bwana,” boss.

I was given a slap in the face reading a book, Small is Beautiful, written by Schumacher, who said, above all in economic development, if people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone. This should be the first principle of aid.

The first principle of aid is respect.

This morning, the gentleman who opened this conference lay a stick on the floor, and said, “Can we — can you imagine a city that is not neocolonial?”

I decided when I was 27 years old to only respond to people, and I invented a system called Enterprise Facilitation, where you never initiate anything, you never motivate anybody, but you become a servant of the local passion, the servant of local people who have a dream to become a better person.

So what you do? You shut up. You never arrive in a community with any ideas, and you sit with the local people. We don’t work from offices. We meet at the cafe. We meet at the pub. We have zero infrastructure.

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And what we do, we become friends, and we find out what that person wants to do. The most important thing is passion. You can give somebody an idea. If that person doesn’t want to do it, what are you going to do?

The passion that the person has for her own growth is the most important thing. The passion that that man has for his own personal growth is the most important thing. And then we help them to go and find the knowledge, because nobody in the world can succeed alone.

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