This morning I sat in on regular tradition at CRHP: the final presentations of a group that had come in for a month of training. In these presentations, groups of around 5 people discuss a hypothetical NGO that they have envisioned, the location in which they would, the methods they would employ, and the results they would hope to achieve. It’s a big game of what if. The judges tend to assess the groups on whether or not they think the organization would work. But me? I can’t shake the feeling that some would work and others wouldn’t, and that the content of the presentation would have almost NOTHING to do with the actual outcome.
At first glance, an easy out would be to say that there a millions of unpredictable factors that could derail a NGO like those presented and that a presentation can’t possibly plan for them, but I think that’s crap. It’s a cop out. While there are millions of things beyond the control of a hopeful NGO, there remains a single – perhaps most important – factor that can be controlled and that is a powerful determinant of success.
Let me tell a quick anecdote to illustrate my point. Two NGOs with identical models, plans, and techniques set up new bases in two separate locations. Full of excitement, they launch their first community meetings and are pleased to have modest attendance. They plan with the people there and soon launch programs calculated to address the needs of the communities. In one community, it works spectacularly. Things go as planned like a breeze, key information is brought up, adjustments are made, and the outcomes are spectacular.
However, in the second, things couldn’t be more different. The program starts strong, but after a while attendance and participation start to fall off. Incentives are introduced to get people to come, and this works for a while, but people are clearly in the program only for the incentives. During an evaluation cycle, the NGO is forced to acknowledge that any positive change has been minimal and fleeting.
What’s the difference? Same approach, same technique, yet starkly contrasting results. Is it fair enough to just say that perhaps the approach was better suited to one place? Maybe one NGO had better staff and “listened” better? Maybe one was better at adjustments?
All these things may be true, but imagine for one second that they’re not. All other things being equal, I think the biggest issue can be articulated in two simple words: Community Capacity.
Community Capacity, in this instance, refers the ability of a community to act as a collective unit while drawing upon the full diversity of available resources. In this reckoning, the components of a community are NOT individual people but instead the roles that individuals play. Individual people can come and ago, but certain roles will tend to persist over time. Thus, community capacity can be stable even if a community is dynamic (this holds only to a certain extent, of course).
Let me quote my mentor, Dr. David P. Aday Jr., here: “[Communities] are more than place-names, locations, and populations. They are structural arrangements comprising positions, relationships, histories, cultures, and resources. People participate in diverse and variable ways…”
So what does this mean for our NGOs? Simple. It means that the one of the strongest determinants of their future success or failure likely was set BEFORE their first foray into the community for the inaugural community meeting. The key lies in two questions.
- To what extent is the community’s social infrastructure capable of supporting collective action?
- To what extent will the work of the NGO promote that capacity for collective action?
Note that these are not questions answered neatly in theoretical models designed in a vacuum prior to having community experience. These questions require time, understanding, and an appreciation for the complex ways in which “community” plays out. In my experience, they are deemed too complex and left unanswered or, worse yet, unasked. In the cases where I have seen things work I have seen one of two scenarios play out:
In the first, the NGO gets lucky. They find a community with a strong capacity for collective action, one that is already “moving,” and they get on board and support their efforts. Such cases are wonderful, but you have to wonder if these are the communities that really need a partner to work alongside them. No doubt the NGO helps, but what about the communities that aren’t “moving” in this way despite their best efforts?
In the second, the people involved “get it” without any specific training in regards to these issues. They sit, take time, discuss matters, and are willing to move slowly. Drs Raj and Mabelle Arole spent years on the ground in Jamkhed before starting serious health promotion activities beyond their clinic. I suspect that when they did start, they had a good sense of the answers to the two questions, and put themselves in the best position to succeed with the communities in the direst of situations.
But why don’t we hear about a third case? One in which people sensitive to these issues and trained to understand them use efficient, empirical research techniques to learn the answers to these questions and use what they learn to be effective. Let me quote Dr. Aday again to give you the answer, “Good intentions are dangerous things.”
Clear as mud right? Let me elucidate.
There is a great extent to which the issues tackled by “poverty alleviation,” “development,” “empowerment,” and even “capacity building,” are social problems. True, there are economic concerns, health concerns, psychological concerns, political concerns, and public health concerns to name but a few. But what we tend to see today is these issues treated economically, medically, psychologically, politically, or epidemiologically without sufficient appreciation for the extent to which there are social factors contributing to them. Put any one of these approaches together with some sound social science, and I think you’ve got a winning approach.
And the truth is, this IS happening. Check out the literature on this stuff coming out of Australia, New Zealand, or even the UK. These kinds of approaches have been applied to reducing crime, improving small-scale economies, and of course improving health. The issue is that to those who don’t see the “social side” of these issues, these stories appear no different than their own.
I don’t write this to blame anyone. It’s merely a case of people being outside their field. A doctor isn’t qualified to give you advice on your investment portfolio nor is an economist qualified to diagnose your irregular heartbeat. Would you ask an epidemiologist to write a business plan? Why then would be expect these same individuals to diagnose the social component of a problem and recommend the most expedient course action?
Like I said, “Good intentions are dangerous things.” The willingness to help doesn’t always mean that you’ve put the best people in the best position to succeed. I think we all have to be humble here because so much is determined by things beyond what we know about or can control, but I think we owe it to everyone involved to make the savviest, most responsible decisions possible when trying to partner with the world’s marginalized.
So next time you’re left to wonder, “Why did this work?” or “Why didn’t this work?” or “Why did it work here and not there?” I challenge you to ask yourself, what sides of this issue were addressed? Which ones weren’t? See through the “development-ese” and fancy words, and look for community capacity buildling. The REAL thing.
The ability for a relatively stable group of people to act as a unit that makes full use of its diversity is special. It’s the power of community and I’m convinced that it’s going to change the world in the next 50 years.
The only question is, how do we get people to understand it for what it is instead of using it as a label on things that it isn’t? When we figure that out, I think we’ll be a huge step closer to getting development to work more than just sometimes.