Collective Planning and Action

Eleventh in the series 11 Days for Community-led Development, by John Coonrod, Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project.

If we define Community-led Development as “working together to set and achieve locally owned visions and goals” then how do we actually do that? 

There is at least 100 years of wisdom on this subject, perhaps best synthesized by Paolo Freire in the concept of “Praxis” – a cycle of theory / action / reflection – and in the earlier IIRR Credo (see below) by Dr. Y.C. James Yen. Both of these reflect a transformed view of development that integrates all the 11 components of community-led development – centered on the cycle of collaborative planning and action.

Here is a “top 10 list” of actions to make this process successful.

  1. Facilitate: People living in poverty are intelligent and hardworking, but oppressive conditions have left them hopeless and resigned. Traditional top-down leadership styles can simply reinforce that sense of powerlessness and dependency. A quality facilitator is a “co-learner” with the people – engaging people as equals and with strong emotional intelligence, facilitating a dialogue that puts people in charge and awakens people’s spirit of self-reliance. Since “outsiders” are often motivated by a paternalistic impulse to “help” this requires would-be facilitators to truly transform themselves first and at every opportunity.
  2. Secure Blessings of Gatekeepers: In every community, there are people who may not forward the action but who have the power to stop it – be they cultural or religious leaders or government officials. Facilitators must meet with such people first to discuss the proposed CLD process and secure their blessings for the process to go forward, and then skillfully partner with them in each step as the process  
  3. Start with Women: In impoverished communities, women often do most of the work yet are traditionally denied voice in public spaces. Successful processes of collaborative planning bring women together before a broader community planning exercise, so that women can determine their collective agenda and strategize how to ensure their collective aspirations are heard. Gender training that includes men can be useful here, so that men realize they have the opportunity to truly revolutionize their society by actually listening to women, rather than ignoring and talking over them.
  4. Mobilize Everyone: The more the merrier. The more members of the community who participate in planning and action, not only will the work go faster but the outcomes will also be owned by the people. New leadership will emerge in the process. As with women, it makes real sense to organize stakeholder groups with collective aspirations: farmers, traders, youth, elders – so that no segment of society allows themselves to be marginalized.
  5. Partner with Local Government: Local government has the constitutional mandate to ensure quality public services in most of the areas people care about. Yet local government itself is often underfunded and lacking in skills and knowledge. Despite these limitations, local governments can “win” by partnering with people-powered action – substituting social capital to meet gaps in financial capital. Local civil society often lacks the opportunity to develop advocacy skills. A good facilitator can inspire this mindset of partnership with grassroots civil society and the local government, ensuring that at each step in the process local government experiences the people’s win as their win – and vice versa.   
  6. A Shared Understanding of the “Big Picture”: The most popular participatory tools, such as “Participatory Rural Appraisal” (PRA) exercises such as village asset mapping serve to ground everyone in a shared understanding of what they have to work with – what are the conditions for water supply, schools, health centers, markets, market roads. People’s needs are so great, they can seem overwhelming. PRA exercises not only remind people that they have some great assets already, they begin to provide a framework for thinking – a set of distinctions such as water, education, health, food security – that will help breakdown what seems like a mashup of unattainable needs into finite, do-able priorities.  
  7. Shared Vision: Standing with a clear understanding of the current situation, people can then envision how they want it to be in the future. Do they need a closer secondary school? A more convenient water system? Household latrines or community latrines? 
  8. Priorities: Once a community can articulate their vision, they are able to deliberate on priorities for what they collectively want to commit to achieve in the near term – what are doable next steps in each area? One exercise is to break it down by items each person can work on individually, items that would take teamwork, and items that would require outside resources. With good facilitation, communities can prioritize immediate action steps that they can win at without waiting for outside resources. Steps 7 and 8 can be combined into a written “People’s Plan” or “Citizen’s Charter” and, wherever possible, a writing and signed agreement with the local government.
  9. Structure for fulfillment: Most successful community action involves clearly defined democratic leadership/overall coordination plus the work of subcommittees. Who has a passion to work on improving agriculture? On improving health center utilization? On improving the schools? In many local systems, committed community volunteer leaders can be officially linked to official local government subcommittees. In other places, the community may want to officially register a local development association with a clear democratic structure specifying representation and elected terms. Sustainability depends on grounding the action in a legal entity.
  10. Momentum of Accomplishment. A common error in community mobilization is picking a first action that isn’t readily achievable. If people are excited about their vision, and then fail, this is a nail in the coffin of hopelessness and resignation – similar to when a politician promises a road and then a road never happens. The art of praxis is to take action, reflect on it, and then identify and take the next action. A regular cycle of accountability meetings for action / assessment and reflection must be established on a short enough time frame (monthly or quarterly) with total transparency on progress, celebration of results, and then setting the next goals.

As my first boss always said, “human development is the development of humans.” Or as the great Sri Lankan community organizer states – “we build the road and the road builds us.” Effective praxis results in individuals who fully experience that they are actors in history, not the victims of history. Their leadership skills and spiritual strength grow along with their aspirations. Anyone who has visited a well-mobilized village has felt the joy and pride of people’s confidence in their ability to achieve a better future for themselves, their community and their world.

Can we bottle and share good practices?

One of the exciting and challenging lessons of the pandemic is that there are hundreds of thousands of community-leaders who, when outside experts were pulled out of their community, have stepped forward to protect their neighbors. These community-leaders have expressed a desire for networking – for voice in governance – and for skills development. A challenge for the Movement for Community-led Development is how can we use digital technologies to support these leaders, amplify their voices and create an enabling environment for their success?

This is a key challenge facing the Movement for Community-led Development – our manifesto is here.

To achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we need to facilitate this at a scale that can never be reached through NGO business as usual, but is modest compared to the reach of, say, Facebook. So – let’s give it a try. 

Credo of Rural Reconstruction

Here for reference is the Credo by Y.C. James Yen, founder of IIRR, and referenced above.

Go to the people,
Live among them, Learn from them, Plan with them, Work with them.
Start with what they know, build on what they have.
Teach by showing, Learn by doing.
Not a showcase, but a pattern.
Not odds and ends, but a system.
Not piecemeal, but integrated approach.
Not to conform, but to transform.

Not relief, but release.