The term “community-based” has been hijacked. Just like “rights-based programming,” or “participation,” or “capacity building,” it has become over-used and thus less understood in the development sector. Unfortunately, especially within the HIV circles in which I traverse, the term “community-based” has been reduced to simply referring to the locality in which services are delivered.
Yet for me, if an organization or a project is genuinely community-based, it has much more to do with its relationship to its constituency.
Is there genuine community ownership? Are the people served invested in the outcomes of the program(s)?
But most importantly, how can we know?
I am currently working with a small foundation that has identified working with community-based organizations as a key criteria of their grantmaking to support projects for children in the developing world. As they grow, however, creating a shared and operational understanding of the term “community-based” is proving tricky.
Whether on a site visit or reading through a stack of proposals, a person can be so concerned with what is happening on the ground that how can be overlooked or ignored. Yet the processes of decision-making within local relationships and power dynamics are often the make-or-break factor in development projects. (See a great post on this at Staying for Tea.)
Working in places in which I have not been able to use a shared language or in which I have not had sufficient contextual knowledge, I know that have made and will continue to make assumptions about various aspects of local dynamics. In some cases, especially early in my career, I did this only to find out later that there was some serious tokenism going on (See Arnstein’s 1969 Participation Ladder, Figure 2.) or that the so-called representatives were not sanctioned to speak on behalf of the community.
Over time, I learned to identify and to test my own assumptions about community ownership. I learned that my gut could tell me quite a lot, but that it could also deceive me.
I also learned that the questions I ask myself as an outsider could be useful and important tools to determine if a development initiative is occurring for or with the community, a sometimes subtle but vital distinction.
Attempting to make the implicit—explicit can be incredibly valuable for seasoned or newbie do-gooders alike. Thus I am sharing here a list of questions I am developing to help the foundation and anyone else who has an interest in determining the level of community ownership. What are the things we can look for? What informs our gut reactions and subsequent thinking?
The following questions are by no means exhaustive, nor are they meant to be used as a checklist to ensure all aspects of community ownership are present in a development project. Rather, the following questions contain subjective ideas that are still dependent on one’s definition of community, as well as varying contexts and factors. Some may seem rather obvious, but taken as a whole, I hope they can help us to not only spot, but also uphold and support community ownership as a fundamental building block of social change.
Questions to Help Spot Community Ownership
(1) Who participated in the planning of the project or program? How were/are decisions about priorities made?
(2) Do community members recognize themselves as part of the local organization’s constituency?
(3) Are elements of reciprocity present? To what extent are local resources and/or in-kind contributions being mobilized to support the program?
(4) How does the project/program build upon the efforts of groups or relationships that pre-date formal funding opportunities?
(5) Before a particular project began, how did the community demonstrate stewardship of shared resources or prior accomplishments?
(6) Is the story you are presented about “our problems” adequately balanced with the story of “our endeavors to change this”?
(7) Can community members of various ages, gender, position, etc. articulate a projects goals or effects?
(8) Is the local organization (or the on-the-ground implementer in the case of international NGO projects) clear about what how a strategy or activity is or will affect people’s daily lives?
(9) What is the quality of interaction between members? Is mutual respect and care demonstrated? Are more than just a few people engaged?
(10) To what extent in the project/program you are working on functioning in collaboration with other neighboring organizations or government officials?
This list will continue to develop. I welcome readers’ suggestions for other questions or adaptations to these in the comments.