Go to the people
Live with them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build with what they have
But of the best leaders, when the work is completed, the task accomplished, the people all remark:
‘We have done this ourselves’.
This is a translation of a poem written over three thousand years ago. Its unwavering universalism and prophetic-like-power staggers me. If there is anything to learn about developing communities, it stems from these words. It is a pity so much of community work in the world today is the antonym to this poem.
The vice chairperson of the Maranatha Health board in Uganda gave me a copy of this poem around 4 years ago. He is a mentor to me in community development and advised me that this is the pathway to empowerment, seen from his own experience over decades. I have read books, articles, case studies and theoretical debates on ‘empowerment’ for the past 3 years, as part of my Masters in International Development.There are many contested definitions. These are some helpful insights from leaders in the field:
Social development is profoundly concerned with how individuals gain the strength, confidence, and vision to work for positive change in their situations: the process of empowerment. Empowerment is a measure of people’s capacity to bring about change. (Eade and Williams, 1995)
Empowerment cannot be defined in terms of specific activities or end results because it involves a process whereby women can freely analyse, develop and voice their needs and interests, without them being pre-defined, or imposed from above, by planners or other social actors. (Oxaal and Baden, 1997)
I can give you the spiel, but witnessing the process close up, right in front of me, in the community, is incredible. The small, slow-germinating seeds of hope being planted and seedlings sprouting; the steady fragile truth emerging that people may be able to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives – this is empowerment.
In this blog, I want to share what MH are doing so far in our community work because 1) I think it is so important for donors to be educated about empowerment and think about mechanisms for giving to the developing world that don’t create dependency, 2) I want to demystify ‘community work’ and show the enormous possibilities and 3) I don’t want others to miss out on the excitement and hope it has brought me through my involvement so far!
So far, the MH community development team have identified a poor, remote, resilient community that we will work in. We visited each household on foot (160 households spread over a few K’s) and introduced ourselves as friends, as an organisation, as people who are seeking to partner with their community. They shared with us as much as they wished – about their family, their relationships, their day-to-day activities, and their challenges. They fed us if we needed to eat. We listened to their stories. We didn’t ask prescribed questions, write things on paper, or tick boxes in books. We just listened. And we learnt. A lot.
Now we are meeting with groups as a community. Most group meetings represent anywhere from 20-40 households. And it is at this stage – still at the very beginning – that I am seeing this incredible thing happening. This process called empowerment
In our groups meetings we spend a lot of time at the beginning reinforcing several important messages:
- The community are the experts of this process – they are the ‘professors’ of their village. They know what they do and don’t have. They know the place intimately.
- They are in control of the process, and have the freedom to tell us what is wrong and right. What is helpful and unhelpful.
- They are also the ones that will do the work to improve their lives. We have nothing to offer in that regard.
- We explain that we are not doing the group exercises for our own benefit, or for donors, or for research. It is for them only.
Then we share with them the challenges they shared with us, some of the key areas of their lives that they identified that they struggle with. Not just health – anything. We discuss. The community agrees or disagrees. Then on a big piece of paper, each issue/challenge is represented by a picture/symbol, decided on and drawn by the community (due to high rates of illiteracy).
Every single community member then has the chance to come up and vote for 2 issues that are most important and significant to them. We explain what democracy is, we explain what equality is, and we explain how each person has the right and the opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect them and their community. Every single person.
Seeing women who are normally pushed to the margins, standing up meekly and casting their vote
Men in volumes, voting for maternal health as the greatest challenge
Young men voting for the issue of food security –trying to feed their growing families
Almost everyone in the community marking child morbidity and mortality as a priority
Yesterday, in front of everyone in the group, an old woman walked up stubbornly, took the marker, and was the first one to vote for domestic violence as an issue. You know what the other women did?
Women who were shy and weary and when we visited their houses sat on woven mats on the ground behind their husband’s chairs, listening quietly while their men talked.
Then we take the number one prioritised issue. Not surprisingly, this is almost always child sickness. In most households we visited, they have lost at least a quarter of their children.
I share with them how there are other places in the world, other places even in Uganda, that you can find a community who have not lost any children. I tell them that I see their pain, their sadness, their shame. That there are women in the world who don’t have to face this sadness the way they do. But I explain that before this can change, we need to know why it is happening. And we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Then we conduct a ‘problem tree’ analysis. We explain how you can see the trunk of a tree if you look straight ahead; the problem. But to find out what is underneath, the reason the trunk exists you must dig deep into the soil – finding the roots: the cause. It takes thinking and work to do this. But it is important because if you pull a weed without the roots attached in your garden – the weed will grow back. So it is with problems, if you don’t address the causes beneath the surface.
We draw a tree, with the picture of the ‘problem’ on the trunk. We ask them about the causes of 1 problem. We ask them to draw a symbol on the roots of the tree, to symbolise each new cause they think of. We ask lots of why questions. Why malaria? Why no nets? Why no money for nets? Why no priority put on nets? Why don’t they go to the clinic? What’s wrong there? Would they go if there was this or that?
And the more they think, the more they discuss, the more they break down and analyse – the more they begin to realise that these issues don’t have to control them. That the issues won’t always have to exist. That there are multiple causes, that often they can do something about. They can see outside of their immediate experience. They gain confidence. They speak up. They think critically. They themselves begin to ask why. They see they have some power.
And it is one of the most exciting processes that I have had the privilege of being a part of!
Most importantly, what I have learnt over and over in my study and in my work with communities is that the process of discovering and meeting the need is as important to empowerment as the end result. That is why giving communities ‘stuff’, and meeting needs outside of the context of partnership and participatory processes DOES NOT WORK.
In community development, the end cannot justify the means. The means and the end are two sides of the same coin.
Of course, there is much work ahead. And not all groups we have worked with are interested and engaged like this. Next we are looking at what the community can bring to the table; their skills and resources. Then we will look at solutions. What an adventure!