5 Principles for Maintaining Downward Accountability When Supporting Community-Based Development

Maintaining accountability to the grassroots in community development projects

Community dialogue session facilitated by Village Earth with communities along the Amazon River, Peru

The success and ongoing relevancy of community-based development initiatives is largely dependent on the ability of community workers and NGO’s to maintain their accountability to stakeholders at the grassroots. However, downward accountability can become compromised by various top-down pressures from donors (the so-called alien hand syndrome) but other structural issues faced by NGOs can also compromise accountability including professionalization and turn-over of staff, trends in development assistance, defined project timelines, etc. Below are 5 ways to help ensure you remain accountable to the grassroots.

  1. Make a long-term personal commitment to communities.
    We believe the only way to build sufficient trust and a genuine sense of solidarity and mutual accountability with communities is when they can count you being there for the long-term. Genuine empowerment requires diligence in several areas in order to be successful. It demands a commitment to creating an enabling environment where the tools for self reliance are fostered (Korten 1984; Mansuri and Rao 2003). A people based development agency must be prepared for longer time commitments on projects in order to facilitate the bottom up, organic growth of community driven projects (Mansuri and Rao 2003). The importance of commitment to the project outside of timelines is echoed by Korten (1991) due to the need for place and context specific responses to individual communities. Furthermore, transforming deeply entrenched structures of power is a slow and gradual process (Trawick 2001). According to Mosse (1997b), “[i]f external agencies try to change the political and social dynamic without fully understanding it, the social equilibrium can be severely disrupted, with nothing to take its place.”
  2. Be an ally not a project manager
    This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. Take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability and try to suspend any preconceived notions you may have about what is needed. Instead create a space for the community to develop and/or share their vision for the future and the strategies that might move them towards it. In the spirit of  Paulo Freire, we believe that by working together as allies in praxis (an intentional cycle of planning, action, and reflection) communities can identify and eliminate the objective sources of their oppression. But also, as outsiders can learn how our own relative privilege is intertwined in that oppression. In this way, empowerment is a mutual process. The genuineness and reciprocal nature of this relationship is the basis for developing genuine trust and solidarity at the grassroots. 
  3. Focus on the community’s long-term vision not band-aid approaches that just address symptoms.
    Instead of focusing on “problems”, try to facilitate communities in developing a long-term holistic vision for their region. Unlike focusing on problems, a holistic vision allows communities to imagine the world they would like to live in. You can deal with problems forever, yet never deal with the underlying contradictions behind poverty and powerlessness. Identifying a vision first makes it possible to identify and prioritize exactly what it is that is preventing you and your community from creating a better situation. The visioning process becomes the starting point for the ongoing praxis process described in the previous point and also forms the baseline for future assessment, monitoring and evaluation where individuals and communities come together to reflect on the progress of their various strategies and whether they are moving them towards their vision. But we have also found that through praxis, the vision becomes clearer and more broadly shared. Starting with a community’s vision also empowers communities to define progress on their own terms rather than having to adopt Western models and practices. 
  4. Work with community towards the mobilization and empowerment of entire regions or social groups.
    In the spirit of Ghandi’s concept of Swaraj, the recognition that true power comes from self-reliance and self-governance. And this being possible only with the mobilization of sufficient human and natural resources. In other words it takes more than just one or two communities to mobilize the critical mass and resources necessary to break the cycle of dependence behind much of the world’s poverty. We do not argue that all communities and regions should become self-sufficient, but rather self-reliant in that they have the ability and freedom to choose their own strategies. By gradually linking communities, community leaders, grassroots organizations, foundations, government agencies, and businesses together you can break the cycle of dependence that compromises their self-determination. 
  5. Create organizational structures built on trust, solidarity, & mutual accountability.
    We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached, and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization (Davies 2000). The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people based organizations are empowerment of members of the community (Davies 2000), decentralized decision making (Rothschild- Whitt 1979), context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making (Mansuri and Rao 2003) which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities (Chambers 1983). Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community, and a unique process grows out of that input (Korten 1991).

This article discusses topics that are also discussed in the following Village Earth online courses: Approaches to Community DevelopmentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity MobilizationCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation

Building Trust in “Root-bound” Communities

Trust Building Community Development

Whether it’s your first time in a new community or a community you’ve lived in your entire life, working as a community organizer (animator, researcher, aid/relief worker, developer, facilitator- whatever the case may be) requires a unique set of skills and attitudes that differ from the skills we are taught in the course of our normal daily and professional lives. One of the central skills needed to be a successful community worker is the ability to build and maintain trust.

While trust is a critical factor for success in virtually all aspects of life, I would argue, the type trust one seeks to gain in the course of our everyday personal and professional lives is different from the type of trust one seeks to gain as a community worker. To help in this discussion, I would like to distinguish between two types of trust; embedded vs. generalized. Embedded trust is developed organically throughout the course of our lives with people with whom share a common identity (e.g. family members, schoolmates, neighborhood friends, religious affiliation, sports team members, colleagues, etc). Embedded trust is one of the strongest forms of trust. The other form of trust is “generalized trust” which has less to do with specific relationships than it does with the general willingness of people in a community to trust one another.

Generalized trust, to a large extent, is developed or eroded by the macro-social and political structures affecting a particular community. For example, without a functioning system of justice and due process (western or traditional) the risk of everyday social and economic interactions is increased. In such an environment, people avoid social and economic transactions with people they don’t know well because when something does go wrong people there aren’t institutions to deal with the conflict and so people are forced to seek their own justice – which can and often does tear families and communities apart, sometimes for generations. To the contrary, when there is a functioning system of justice and due-process the risk of a bad transaction is much lower and so people are more willing to engage with people they don’t already know.

How does generalized trust and embedded trust interact? The two types of trust are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue that a healthy community has a balance of the two. Too much embedded trust and not enough generalized trust creates a situation where you have cliques that don’t interact with one another – I often refer to the problem as being a community being “root-bound.”  The term “root-bound” is a term used to describe what happens when the a plant outgrows its container which forced the roots to get tangled among themselves where they aren’t able to get sufficient nutrients and water. The solution is to break-up the roots before replanting it in the ground or a bigger container. For a community, an over-reliance on embedded trust also limits the resources and opportunities available to that community and/or the various cliques within it. It can also be seriously limiting for minorities who aren’t able to access the resources and information available to members of the dominant groups.

Too much generalized trust (and not enough embedded trust) is also not healthy. This is a scenario often described for many Western communities where over time, people have become disconnected from family, religion and civic institutions. This can be problematic in times when collective action may be required such as during times of crisis, in the course of healthy democratic functioning but also, family/religious/civic participation has been positively correlated with psychological well-being.

Now that we have a better idea of the concepts of embedded and generalized trust, what does this tell us about our role as community workers? It should be relatively clear at this point that as community workers, one of our principal roles should be to foster a healthy balance between generalized and embedded trust. Below are some specific points for building both types of trust within communities.

Rebuilding Healthy Community Roots

  • First of all, it is important to remember that cliques in communities often form in response to unreliable or oppressive macro social and political structures and thus may have social, political or economic utility. And that truly healthy relationships aren’t likely to occur until the broader macro social and political context is transformed into something that fosters more generalized trust. The key is not to break-down or break-apart the trust within cliques but to create low-risk opportunities for cliques to interact with one another and with outside networks.
  • While many cliques may have their basis in cultural institutions. Most cultures also have institutions that function to build connections between groups (ceremonies, festivals, rites, kinship rules, etc.). It’s important to learn about these cultural mechanisms and build upon them.
  • As community workers, we can facilitate the development of trust between groups by serving as a bridge, developing trust with and between different social groups.
  • If you are working in your own community it’s important that you avoid or (more realistically) are transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique.
  • If you are from outside the community, you can leverage your lack of embeddedness to develop a reputation as a neutral “bridge” between relatively closed groups (it’s also advised to be transparent about your standpoint on particular issues, allegiances and obligations to any specific group or clique).
  • Whether you’re an outsider or from that community, you should seek to be a model of transparency, openness, and trustworthiness. A situation where you’re open and transparent about yourself but people don’t feel like you’re going to spread information they shared with you in confidence. Doing so will position you as a valuable intermediary that can help bridge groups and access information and resources from the outside.

Building Embedded Trust When it Lacks

For organizers working in more urbanized or westernized community settings where you have relatively high levels of generalized trust but low levels of embedded trust, building embedded trust among individuals (solidarity work) may be your biggest challenge. Below are a few recommendations for building it.

  • It’s important to recognize that in such contexts, because people are disconnected and have been for so long, they may not fully realize what can be gained through organizing. Just the same, they may not realize that anything can be gained. In Western (cash-based) society, the options available to us for improving our life have been limited to what’s available through the market and very limited democratic processes (e.g. that a better life can only be obtained by increasing my income). To overcome this tendency, it’s important to open up people’s thinking to the spectrum of ways things can be accomplished outside of traditional market forces and political processes.  
  • Solidarity is difficult to build when some people stand to gain more than others and when some people take-on a disproportionate amount of risk. Building relatively flat organizations that emphasize member’s roles and responsibility vs. top-down authority will create an environment where the risk and rewards and more equitably shared by all, thus increasing a sense that “we’re all in this together”.
  • Western culture places emphasis on the individual (white males to be specific) and so we’re often not taught the normative cultural understandings and behaviors that promote effective voluntary collective action and solidarity. Unpacking the taken-for-granted assumptions in Western culture (individualism, patriarchy, survival of the fittest) can go a long way towards building more effective organizations – this is often referred to as “anti-oppression” training.

This is just a short list of ideas for building trust in communities. Please share your ideas and thoughts in the comments. Topics discussed in this post are also discussed in our online courses Community MobilizationDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation.

Village Earth / CSU Online Courses Move to new RamCT Blackboard Starting Summer 2012

New RamCT Blackboard goes live for summer 2012

CSU-Village Earth courses move to the new RamCT Blackboard for all online coursework at the start of the summer term, June 1, 2012.   The current RamCT system will no longer be used for teaching after this date.

We hope that this new platform will be easier for students to access and navigate from all over the world.

Click the links for more information about the Online Community-based Development Certificate Program or to register for upcoming summer courses.

Learn How To Use The New System – It’s Different! 
For previous students in our program that would like to familiarize themselves with changes to the system or for new students looking to get a head start on understanding the course platform check out the Blackboard On Demand Learning Center for Students:  http://ondemand.blackboard.com/students.htm 

Questions?

See the RamCT Help web site

First Indigenous Tribunal of the Ucayali

As a follow-up and outcome to the Village Earth Regional Organizational workshop in January 2007, a group of Shipibo leaders have decided to hold the first ever ‘Indigenous Tribunal’ as they call it. This Tribunal will be a gathering of leaders from all 120 Shipibo communities throughout the region. They are also inviting local NGOs and leaders from other regional indigenous groups such as the Ashaninka. This is an event of historic importance because the Shipibo have not had a regional meeting of this magnitude for over 30 years, and even then never did it have the possibility for such far-reaching impacts as the Indigenous Tribunal being organized at present.

Below: Participants in the January workshop who were elected to the Transitory Committee responsible for organizing the Indigenous Tribunal.
 

The organizers of this event have asked Village Earth to be a co-facilitator – to continue with a regional visioning process with the participation of all delegates present at the Tribunal. This will be the largest strategic planning that the Village Earth team has done to-date and could possibly have the most far-reaching impacts as well. 480 leaders are estimated to attend this event representing around 40,000 indigenous peoples throughout the Ucayali region. All parties involved hope that this will be the key event in mobilizing and organizing the region to begin the process of a truly community-based, sustainable form of alternative “development” – to empower the region toward active self-determination.

The Shipibo people realized that only by working together at the regional level will they ever really be able to implement their own vision for the future based on the values and wisdom of the majority indigenous population of the region. Some of the specific objectives as written in their project plan are as follows:
  • To bring together leaders, authorities, students, technicians, and indigenous professionals of the region to search together the true development of the indigenous population with a united organization with strategic allies both national and international
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  • To inform and motivate the jefes (chiefs) of the communities about the importance of cultural revival and the care of our lands
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  • To achieve the participation and commitment of the jefes and leaders of the indigenous communities to form a work group for environmental conservation and sustainable development
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  • To strengthen the communication channel between indigenous and foreign organizations for the development of our communities.

Art and cultural performances will also play a big part in the three-day Tribunal with cultural and artistic presentations planned each evening and also for the opening and closing ceremonies.

Above: This group of orphaned children will be performing traditional Shipibo song and dance at the June event.

The organizing committee of the Tribunal is building off of the transnational legal framework that is currently so popular in the discourse about indigenous rights. For example:

The organizing committee writes, “In the last 50 years, the Amazonian cultures have been suffering from an aggressive Western acculturation. The [Peruvian] government underwent a neoliberal political shift without considering the consequences upon the indigenous peoples. Many indigenous peoples were forced to leave their cultures as they migrated to the big cities in search of a better opportunity.” The objective of the Tribunal is so “that the communities be the protagonists of their own development, and the local, national, and foreign authorities take care of and support us in our own program of development.”

Five themed expositions will be presented during the Tribunal:

  1. The Role of the Jefes
  2. Indigenous Reality
  3. The Political Situation
  4. National Political and Economic Reality
  5. United Communities

At the end of the event, there will be an election of leaders to form the new grassroots regional organization of indigenous peoples.

This is such an important event for the future of indigenous self-determination throughout the Peruvian Amazon. Please help us to support the Shipibo by making a financial contribution today. The estimated budget for the Tribunal is approximately $9000 USD in order to provide food and transportation for even the most remote community leaders to be able to attend. As well, the organizing committee is undertaking an extensive media campaign and hopes to print posters, invitations to regional leaders, and hold press conferences.

Please help us support the future generations of Shipibo leaders and the ecological integrity of the Amazon Basin.

If you interested in supporting the Shipibo’s efforts at organizing the region, you can contribute directly through Pay Pal on the website. Or you can send a check or money order to:

Village Earth
P.O. Box 797
Fort Collins, CO 80522 USA
or call the Village Earth office at: +1-970-491-5754 to make a contribution using your credit card.
If you would like more information about the Indigenous Tribunal in June, please contact: Kristina Pearson

 

Shipibo Regional Organizational Workshop


Above: Enjoying a relaxing evening after the workshop. 

Village Earth was asked by some prominent Shipibo leaders a few months back to facilitate another regional workshop this time with more of an emphasis on intercommunity cooperation. So the Village Earth team returned for a 7-day workshop in early January. Twenty-four Shipibo leaders participated representing six communities in four different districts throughout the Ucayali. The workshop began with a review of past Village Earth-Shipibo collaborations and a viewing of the Village Earth/Shipibo documentary film, “The Children of the Anaconda“. Then we began a district-wide mapping session so community members would be begin to think beyond their own borders. This brought up an array of environmental issues as participants discussed sharing forest and river resources with neighboring communities, but also the destruction being wrought by logging and oil companies in the region.

Below: Shipibo children participated by drawing their own map of their community and then presented it to the group. For community initiatives to be truly sustainable, children, too, must always be involved in the process. 

Village Earth would like to facilitate collaboration between our project partners, and both the Lakota and Shipibo have expressed much interest in working together in the future as they face many of the same issues being the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. We decided to do a viewing of the Village Earth-produced documentary film “Rezonomics” which highlights the economic situation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Although they inhabit vastly different environments, the Shipibo found many similarities in their struggles and learned from the Lakota new ways to think about many of their issues.

This was followed by a discussion on the roles and activities of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Shipibo country. This led to a very interesting discussion about NGOs and top-down funding models which many times inhibits NGOs from being responsive to community needs and truly participatory community-based development. The Shipibo have dealt with NGO after NGO letting them down with failed promises. However, this is not purely the fault of the NGO. The Shipibo, too, recognize that they need to be proactive and organized when soliciting the assistance of NGOs. Only when both parties are in consensus and work through the Shipibo model of community organization is there the potential to have successful collaborations. 

This led us to the discussion of ‘So, what has been successful?’ What has worked before and how did they organize to make it happen? This is an important part of the Village Earth process because we want to encourage communities to build off of past successes instead of reinventing the wheel each time. Many community projects had been successful before – from communal construction projects to fish farms. Then we questioned, “How did the communities organize themselves in order to make these projects happen?”

 

 

Above: One influential Shipibo leader, Limber Gomez, draws out the model of intra and inter-community governance that the Shipibo people use to organize themselves. This highlighted the disconnect between the way NGOs were entering the communities and beginning their work and the way in which Shipibo communities build consensus and participation for projects.

Shipibo communities already have their own consensus-building processes in which the community authorities hold assemblies where everybody is welcomed and encouraged to attend. From this point, committees are democratically-elected to take on different project aspects which then report back to the authorities and the community during the assemblies. They have their own treasurers and methods for financial accountability. Although this seems like such common sense, it is surprising how many outsiders come in thinking they have the answers or that the Shipibo don’t know how to manage their own finances or run their own projects. Yet, the Shipibo are actually running their community affairs with incredible organizational capacity which is only disrupted when outsiders try to impose top-down funding and project management.

We then began the strategic planning session with a five-year vision emphasizing regional unity. This was really a question from the heart – what do they really feel for their community and their people, as opposed to just thinking about what material goods they would like to have. This really forced them to look deep inside themselves to come up with their comprehensive vision collectively. Their vision consisted of four main emphasis areas: Community Development, Formation of Shipibo Professionals (business leaders, doctors, engineers, lawyers), Cultural Revival, and the creation of Micro-enterprises.

 

This led to the question, “What obstacles are holding you back from achieving your vision?” The participants really focused on obstacles they could change themselves instead of focusing on larger global systemic issues that might seem more daunting to overcome. We then moved onto Strategic Directions where participants looked at what they can do in the next year to overcome their obstacles and begin to move toward their vision. The Strategic Directions really got the participants involved and thinking about what they can actually do to achieve their own vision for the future.
Below: All participants were involved in putting their ideas onto the board throughout the visioning process. These young men were rearranging the group’s ideas into coherent groupings for the Strategic Directions phase of the workshop.

 

 

Finally, the workshop reached its pinnacle in the Action Planning phase. Participants mapped out their plans for the next three months – practical actions that they can actually take to move toward their vision and be active agents in their own “development” process. Eight aspects were deemed the most important areas for action. They are:

 

  • First and foremost — protect and defend Shipibo territory
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  • Broader regional unity
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  • Cultural revival
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  • University scholarships for their children
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  • Small business development
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  • An Indigenous Bank to facilitate economic development
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  • Promoting indigenous foods for better nutrition
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  • Shipibo-run radio stations broadcasting throughout the region

A committee was formed for each of these eight areas, tasks were assigned, timelines and budgets were drawn up, and finally they were presented back to the group.

Above: Lea
ders of the group planning actions to protect indigenous territory present their plan back to the group for approval.

 

These eight areas will be further discussed in forthcoming Blog postings. A Transitory Committee was democratically-elected amongst the participants (with at least one representative of each community present in the workshop) to hold an Indigenous Tribunal in June. This June event will be the follow-up to this workshop and it is Village Earth’s great honor that the Shipibo have asked Village Earth to return and co-facilitate this historic event. The Tribunal will be a gathering of Indigenous leaders from all 120 Shipibo communities, as well as other regional indigenous groups, to discuss their own alternative plan for “A Better Ucayali”.
All in all, this Regional Organizational Workshop was an incredibly empowering event and a great learning experience for all involved. The Shipibo have expressed to the Village Earth team how happy and grateful they are for our support for their self-determination. Yet, when we asked “Who came up with this plan?”, the participants realized that it was completely decided and directed by them with Village Earth only providing the framework from which to begin to question and think about some of these important issues.

 

Village Earth is honored to work with these amazing individuals that participated in this workshop and the Shipibo people as a whole. And we feel privileged to be invited to co-facilitate their landmark Indigenous Tribunal in June 2007. 

 

Above: Village Earth facilitators Kristina Pearson and David Bartecchi dance with the group as the Shipibo band plays in the background. The community organized a farewell party on the last evening of the workshop to celebrate the achievements of the group.

Below: A special thank you to Mayer Kirkpatrick, Mateo Arevalo, and Freddy Arevalo for their hardwork and dedication to this project.


Above: Thank you to Ralf (Village Earth’s media specialist), and Chloe (Village Earth’s Poet Laureate) for their hardwork and help throughout the workshop.

 

Below: A very special thank you to Flora – an amazing volunteer who gave so much of her time to help with translations and facilitating the workshop. 

And most of all – THANK YOU to all of our donors – without you none of this would have been possible!