(Freetown, Sierra Leone )
Visitor Question: How do you engage communities in development?
Editors Reply: Since you are writing from Africa, we will do our best to answer in that context. In full disclosure, none of us have ever worked there, but one of us has traveled there rather extensively.
Our knowledge and experiences tell us that it is certainly possible for national governments and international organizations and aid agencies to establish programs that invest directly in a certain type of development policy or subsidy, or that provide incentives for others, such as private companies or individuals, to make the kinds of monetary investments that cause development.
However, we think that it is far better for governments and non-governmental organizations to engage communities and individuals directly in the work of making and implementing development decisions.
In this manner, people are encouraged to participate more enthusiastically, bring their experience and creativity to the projects, hold others accountable for preserving and even enhancing valuable aspects of the culture, and help avoid mistakes on the part of large governments, international aid agencies, or organizations.
These non-local groups may not understand local history, geography, climate, culture, and customs.
If voluntary participation is to occur, you are right in thinking that communities must be engaged. In practice, this means that community leaders must first be informed about possible options and good choices, and then must be involved as full partners in crafting good programs and making wise decisions about development.
Africa in particular, as well as many other parts of the world, has suffered enough at the hands of empire builders who did not understand, appreciate, or value local culture.
Powerful national or large organizational leaders may do only a slightly better job than the empire builders at preserving valuable and interesting parts of local culture.
Take advantage of any communication channels, transportation infrastructure, and social connections across communities to convene community leaders. Find good teachers and respected regional or national leaders who can serve as the resource people and instructors for a series of workshops, or virtual workshops, describing the development pathways and choices facing local communities.
If you are able to bring people together face to face in a central location, such as your capital city or another important city, that is best of course.
This way leaders not only learn new facts and information, but also are able to build enthusiasm as they engage in common learning and discussion. This emotional attachment to processes and solutions is important in building the necessary social motivation required for competence and excellence in development work. When the inevitable failures and setbacks occur, this history of shared experiences and goals will help ease the disappointment and make it possible to move forward again.
If coming together in one location is not practical, other alternatives will have to be sought. Possibly the next best practice would be for the national government or some independent non-governmental organization to send representatives out to the communities to explain in person how the local community and its residents can participate in the work and the rewards of culturally sensitive development.
Lastly, if that is not possible, an aid agency, NGO, or government also might decide to take advantage of whatever circulation of books, satellite communication, cell phones, or tribal gatherings may be practical for the particular setting.
Generally two-way communication will be more effective than one-way communication, but if distributing pamphlets or recordings is the only feasible method of distributing enough information quickly enough, that will be better than doing nothing.
It will be very helpful if local community leaders who have been trained can then be networked together in some fashion so they can have ongoing conversations or communication as the development process unfolds.
In the end, if the local people are not interested, it is very difficult for any large organization to make even a well-designed program perform well. Human beings have a distinct capacity to slow down the process and thwart the plans of others if they do not agree with or understand those plans.
If people are simply bored with the plans, that can be almost as difficult as outright disagreement. This causes us to say that local interest will be very important in determining the ultimate success of any development program in Africa or elsewhere in the world.
If the local community feels that the development project is a waste of time, the full participation and creativity of the local people will not be available to the project.
Especially in very rural communities, and in areas where people lack basic education, this lack of understanding will translate to lack of interest and support for development. The benefits of development will not be so readily apparent to these populations.
Due to the history of many failed development efforts, it is important that high-ranking development leaders visit local communities to show their own interest and commitment to the project and to explain how the local community can assume ownership of and management of the project after the national government, NGO, or international aid agency ceases to actively support the project.
Local community members need to feel that their input is valued and that from the very beginning, their local community is being empowered to administer the program or continue to reap the benefits of the community development project.
This brings us to another important aspect of engaging the local community in development efforts. If development is not adequately financed, monitored, and audited, there is a danger that there will be either insufficient funds to accomplish the stated goals of the project, or that the funds may be misused, whether through actual corruption in which funds are stolen, or just because of indifference to whether someone else's money is spent wisely or not.
Under-funding or not monitoring financial performance can weaken community support for the project, and thus make it more difficult to build support for future good development initiatives.
One additional important feature of engaging the community in development is figuring out ways to capture the attention, involvement, talent, and excitement of youth. Everywhere in the world, there is a danger that the elders and wise men and women will ignore the input of youth because of stylistic differences and different attitudes toward technology, westernization, indigenous culture, worldwide popular culture, medicine, and religion.
However, it is worth the effort to find and cultivate youth leaders who in turn can explain to other young people why they should put up with the tiresome older generation long enough to participate in designing a positive future for themselves in their own homelands.
Everywhere in the world, travel to other regions is both fun and desirable for human development, but most people need to settle into their own homeland and try to make it a better place to live.
With that final challenge, we hope that you will find ways to engage your local communities in the work of development. Please keep reading widely on this website for some ideas on how that might occur.
Perhaps you or some other site visitors can add informative comments or contradict what we have said, based on your experience.
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