5 Important Lessons about Community Development
by Candice Lambert

August 2016

Social upliftment has become everybody’s responsibility. As a result, organisations are looking at investments outside of their traditional stakeholder framework, reflecting on their impact on both the people and environments around them. Candice Lambert, Head of Strategic Business Development at Progression and Director of RISE, a community development inspired initiative in partnership with Progression, shares her insights and learnings around the subject of developing communities.

“The Third World is not a statistical abstraction nor a set of political or economic principles; it is, first and foremost, people: men, women and children, each with his or her own peculiar intelligence and emotions, tragedies and successes, pleasure and suffering, realities and dreams. The human dimension is easily forgotten amid the sea of statistics, generalities, theories, and ideologies that pervade any discussion of such an immense and diffuse concept as the Third World.” - Ted Lewellen, American Professor of Anthropology.

The above quote is one which resonates strongly when embarking on any empowerment or development project. Often, in the case of socio-economic development programmes, it is easy to get caught up in the rush to implement without taking a step back to assess the needs from a holistic and sustainable perspective. Progression has recently had the privilege of furthering its reach to projects within rural communities of South Africa, and as with many of our projects, building a strong network of partners has allowed us to gain some insight and learnings about community development and its maintenance in the long term.

1.     What Works for One Might Not Work for Another

Take a moment to reflect on the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. This works both ways.  It is important to be mindful of the fact that community development, as with many other development or empowerment initiatives, does not have a ‘one size fits all’ approach and there is a fine balance in managing the expectations of everyone involved. Too often there is a rush to try and fulfil a perceived need without sufficient time spent on gathering the relevant information. Initiatives with ‘sustainability’ in mind work best when aligned to community needs, not forced on the communities and its members. Let the community drive or be part of the solution - after all, they best understand their needs and are going to be the ones to live the results. In many cases, this might conflict with what you may think to be the best solution, so avoid jumping the gun and creating a ‘solution’ that may never be used.

Lesson: Invest time and energy in listening to the community’s needs and don’t just assume solutions.

2.      Utilise Existing Resources

This was something important highlighted to us by Brian Ligget, director at Network Action Group (NAG). Brian believes that when embarking on community development drives, it is important to do a pre-assessment of resources that already exist, no matter their condition. He calls the process an “Asset Audit or Assessment”. This can be exceedingly useful as often creative solutions can be found: perhaps restoring existing structures or creating schedules in which a community centre can be doubled up as a learning facility or temporary clinic.

The resource investigation should be taken beyond just infrastructure and include the skills available from the people. The existing experience and qualifications might be surprising and can be built into the solution planning and implementation.

Lesson: Investigate and utilise what already exists. Be mindful of using resources to meet the needs and not what you visualise the end picture to be.

3.     Embrace Empowerment

Empowering others is NOT about welfare and handouts. There has always been a responsibility within the private sector to invest in initiatives, however the approach has generally been through charitable donations or actions. The issue here lies with sustainability i.e. the whole philosophy linked to feeding a man fish versus teaching him to fish. For me, community development is about sustainable empowerment, which speaks to the latter rather than a constant appeal for donations and handouts. Ultimately, whatever is implemented needs to continue to ‘work’ independently. In other words, it must be able to ‘stand on its own two feet’.

Lesson: Empowerment is when people own the power to drive and effect the change they feel is necessary, without others dictating what is required.

4.     Talk About It

There are obviously expectations involved in the community development process so communication channels need to remain open and honest. From the funder’s perspective, there are multiple factors involved in Socio-Economic Development - for instance compliance and drivers from EXCO. Without respect for communication it is very easy for the process and intentions to be misinterpreted. Organisations need to explain why they are doing what they are doing so that everyone’s expectations are aligned. Likewise, the community’s voice needs to be encouraged. In many instances, people might be wary or sceptical of the intentions, so take the time to build trust and develop conversations with people.

Lesson: Clearly outlining the community and business expectations will go a long way to ensuring mutually beneficial outcomes and also be strategically sensitive to the communities and their actual needs. Also remember that mistakes can and will happen, from both sides. Be patient and respectful of the learning and bigger picture.

5.     It’s a Two-Way Learning Relationship

It is very common for development drives to be one sided, with the funder or facilitator playing the role of teacher to the point of imposing themselves on the receiver (in this instance, the community and its people). Well, all I can say is prepare to be humbled and open up to the idea that you (the person with the degree who lives in a nice house, holds a well-respected job and has kids that go to good schools) are going to learn a thing or two about the resourcefulness of people. The journey of empowerment happens on both sides.

Lesson: Learning and development takes place for everyone involved.

To sum up, the above certainly doesn’t provide a whole picture but in many ways this is the point. However, as many organisations embark on the journey of becoming socially responsible or socially caring citizens, bridging the gap between what makes business sense and what is in the interests of the community is more important than ever. 

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