What a treat! Elene Cloete, Outreach’s Director of Research and Advocacy, demonstrates her mastery of both in this article explaining the form and function of facilitating community meetings in a time when social distancing might make such things a little trickier than usual.
We’re so thankful to have Elene on board at Outreach. She’s bursting with brilliance and remains a constant inspiration to all of us (including you, once you read this essay). Enjoy!
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, community groups following community-led development principles have worked alongside government and private agencies, distributing much needed medical and food assistance to struggling households. Rather than international organizations having the primary role, local leaders and groups, plan and manage best approaches to local issues themselves.
One social activity essential to the work of these community groups and their leaders is in-person meetings. Being with fellow community members, without a doubt, strengthens solidarity and trust. In addition to such social processes, meetings also provide the communicative spaces needed for important participatory and organizational learning processes. For Outreach International’s global program and community-based partners, in-person meetings enable at least four organizational processes essential to bolstering local groups and their leaders’ organizational capacity.
A local community-based organization leader facilitating a meeting in the rural Philippines, March 2019.
1. Problem-Solving Processes
Community-led development is based on the premise that local people should collectively plan, implement, and manage the solutions to their commonly shared issues. In the case of Outreach International, such problem solving happens when local community-based organizations and their leaders follow a process of first identifying and analyzing commonly shared challenges, and then seeking appropriate solutions to such challenges. For the local community-based organizations with whom Outreach International partners, such challenges are frequently poverty-related, i.e limited access to water, sanitation, income, and basic infrastructure. This process of problem-solving happens best in a mass meeting context, where community members most affected by local issues can collectively participate in the problem-solving process.
2. Decision-Making Processes
During in-person meetings, community members participate in their group’s decision making processes. This includes not only reaching consensus on the most appreciated solution to their shared issue of poverty, but also on the implementation and management of certain projects, the allocation of organizational funds, and overseeing leadership and membership criteria. Making such decisions during open, in-person meetings also allows for transparency and the opportunity of groups to establish appropriate measures to keep their elected leaders accountable.
3. Information Sharing
In many communities, particularly those who do not have access to reliable internet and cellphone connections, people rely on community meetings as a primary source of information. They use meetings to learn more about potential government and private resources, and most importantly how to access them. Such information sharing also extends to areas such as health care, where community meetings provide people with an avenue to gain insights into, often, life-saving practices.
4. Capacity and Leadership Development
For community-led initiatives that involve on-the-job training for local leaders, in-person meetings become learning spaces in which leaders gain first-hand experiences in organizational dynamics. In the case of Outreach International’s global partners and their programming around capacity development, local leaders start facilitating meetings early on in their training, with such meetings becoming leaders’ real-life classroom, and their fellow attending community members their real-life adjudicators.
A local leader in the Philippines engages in on-the-job training during her community-based organization’s planning meeting in March 2019.
Physical Distancing and Online Meetings
Globally, local leaders’ experiences in helping their communities deal with the pandemic illustrate not only their resilience, but also their adaptability to change. This includes the different ways local groups and leaders continue to advocate for their issues amid limited mobility, scant access to resources, and changing socioeconomic conditions. When considering the centrality of in-person meetings to their activities, the malleability of local groups practicing community-led development also extends to meetings, in some cases no longer possible due to restrictions on public gatherings. And as increasingly more case studies document, local leaders are embracing cell phone and online technologies to compensate for work traditionally done during in-person and mass meetings.
In lieu of in-person meetings, some rural community-based organizations and their leaders have begun to harness technology in at least three significant ways:
First, to sustain their consensus building processes, some of the community-based organizations that partner with Outreach Philippines Inc. have divided their communities into smaller household clusters, each with an assigned representative. Leaders communicate with representatives, via phone, about decisions needing organization-wide input, who then, in turn, consult on such decisions with the cluster of households they represent. After such consultation, representatives provide feedback on their respective clusters’ discussions back to the leaders who then consolidate all feedback toward an eventual decisional outcome. While tedious, this clustering approach not only helps overcome restrictions around mass gatherings, but also allows local organizations to sustain their integrity around participatory decision making and consensus-building. All of this is done either via phone calls or instant messaging.
Second, in the absence of in-person meetings, some rural community leaders in Nepal increasingly use social media to share with fellow community members information on organizational matters and available health, food, and educational resources. In turn, these social media pages can also increase organizations’ visibility to external viewers, For example, continuous updates on current community-wide projects and COVID-19 related emergency food distribution efforts, strengthen organizational legitimacy, not only in the eyes of current and future funders but also local government units.
Third, to continue their capacity training programming, Lakasa Nepal, Outreach International’s program partner in Nepal, has moved such training to online platforms. While this sounds pretty intuitive, considering current trends in education, leaders’ limited access to both the internet and hardware often complicates this process. Lakasa Nepal, therefore, relies mostly on leaders with smartphones and also uses social media platforms with low data consumption. Leaders without smartphones are dialed into online training by means of speakerphone. Alternatively, they might visit other leaders’ homes while following sanitation and physical distancing advisories.
Technology is Not a Silver Bullet
Harnessing technology has significant potential for community-led development, especially in continuing online essential community meetings, leaders’ learning, and information sharing processes via online platforms. While this aligns with tech optimists’ views of the future, we cannot lose sight of technology’s shortcomings as a community development tool. Most prominent is people’s varying degrees of access to reliable and affordable internet access. While we celebrate some leaders’ use of technology to sustain their community-led efforts, many others cannot do the same. They might not have cellphone reception, poor connectivity, or are burdened by unaffordable data packages. In some cases, they might not own smartphones or might not know how they work.
Since the start of COVID-19, practitioners and policymakers have reported on how the pandemic is making more visible pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities. One such inequality pertains to communities’ limited access to reliable and affordable technology. By addressing the technology gap, as authors have argued elsewhere, local communities and leaders can find alternative ways to sustain and bolster their community-led activities.
How to Help
Yowza! A dive so deep it made our ears pop. As you’ve just read, a lot of consideration and even more effort goes into ensuring Outreach provides the maximum benefit to our community partners worldwide. It all starts with our donors, whose generosity and belief in humankind make everything we do together possible. 100% of all donations to Outreach directly support our work worldwide. Join us! Donate today!