5 Valuable Lessons Learned From 10 Years Of Community Development

By Will Forester. 01/09/2021

In 2019 and 2020 the staff gathered together on many occasions to talk frankly about the last 10 years. They were the kinds of thoughts and conversations you often have when approaching a noteworthy anniversary or milestone. We wanted to identify what in our program has and has not worked. Those discussions led to deeper analysis, field evaluations, and a great deal of testing, much of which is ongoing. Which in turn has prompted us to transform much of the way we approach our work.

Friendly Water for the World has worked with many partner across dozens of projects in 17 countries. We have experienced failures and successes. We have made informed decisions and careless reactions. We have chosen projects that we shouldn’t have and succeeded in places where others haven’t. The lessons listed here are just some of the observations, findings, and insights we captured. Most important, we have impressed two ideas into the organization. One is that our work is hard. It takes a long time to see results. And you have to be committed. The other idea is that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t even know all the questions. But that’s okay. The environments in which we work constantly change and we have to be prepared to change with them. So, here are some of the things we’ve learned.  

Our work starts and ends with Community Engagement

There is an old expression that says, ‘we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’. We’ve learned to not only listen far more than we speak, but to place ourselves in a position where we can hear what people have to say. Many community development projects focus on a challenge. A water pollution problem; a building problem; a health problem. But all problems are people problems – problems that impact people, are caused by people, or are revealed by people. Only people can solve these problems. Only people can ensure they don’t return. And the only way people can address these problems is to engage each other and work together.

That’s why today, before even contemplating a project, we spend months learning about the community, talking with the community and undertaking a week-long community engagement process with the community to establish partnerships, goals, responsibilities, timelines, and a collective path forward. We then engage with all our partners during and following training especially through our Coach and community partners. This is often accomplished through different languages, customs and norms, all only understood through time and the relationship building that happens with community engagement.

Communities already hold the key to their futures

No one understands their own community better than the people who live there. People usually can articulate what works, and what doesn’t, and how long things have been that way. And in the small, interdependent villages who become our partners, people have a good idea of who does what well. And yet, when external organizations appear at the door of these communities, they don’t even introduce themselves, let alone ask about their strengths and assets. And that’s a mistake. Not only does it not engage the community and invite participation, it completely fails to leverage the talent, desire, and dignity of the people living there.

By not leveraging what the community has to offer and who has to offer it, people feel like they’re not important and they don’t have anything to offer. The opposite is true. Communities have immense capacity to fix their own problems. They are frequently only missing the knowledge, organization, or operational sustainability to make technologies work. Before we ever arrive, we know that communities face and have faced their own challenges. And they’ve been successful in managing them because they’re still there. They are filled with people who are resilient, determined, and creative. And together we are able to unlock their potential.

Community development work takes time and place

This lesson is less obvious than it may first seem. Many organizations focus on installing a solution and then leaving as quickly as possible. The thought behind this approach is that if you remain in a community too long, members in that community may become dependent on your presence and what you offer. All too often, that was also our approach, especially as we deployed dozens of projects in 17 countries over 10 years. But by taking this approach, what we lost exceeded what we gained. We lost the ability to create long-term relationships that are the keys to program success; we lost the ability to build organizational knowledge about a people and a place that could help improve program effectiveness; and we lost the ability to see how well programs worked across time.

This has led to some of the most fundamental changes to our development approach. We now plan for a multi-year partnership with every community we work with. That plan is coordinated from the earliest engagement and is also made clear in our program funding and budgeting. And we are actively centralizing our geographic footprint around Centers (like our first one in Kakamega, Kenya) that can serve as a base of work for multiple communities and countries. These Centers not only provide a point of coordination and a launching point for technology and volunteers, but they also represent our commitment to the surrounding communities.

Everything that happens after you deploy a technology is at least as important as the technology itself.

There is enormous opportunity around the world to improve the health, well-being, and prosperity of underserved, marginalized, and vulnerable people. As the opportunity is so great, the ability to scale solutions and interventions often drives decision-making. In short, if you can help people improve their lives, you want to help as many people as you can, as quickly as you can. And that was our approach. Make available our technology and knowledge to as many villages and people as possible. Our priority was scale, not evaluation. Once we started to more broadly evaluate the efficacy of our technology, we realized that activation, encouragement, and assessment were just as necessary to the success of a program as the actual technology.

No matter how useful a single technology may be, if it isn’t used, or used correctly and consistently, it won’t help anyone. And the only way to ensure that happens is through long-term engagement and reporting. This work is now facilitated by our Coach, who is a member of the community, and supported by our key partners, which we discuss below. Not only do these participants help ensure the effectiveness of the program, they also share information that can improve the technology, the training, and the engagement.

Our greatest asset is our partners

Over the years we frequently relied upon a single trainer to engage the community, conduct the work, and to perform follow-up. In fact, we often were made aware of the particular village or people by the trainer. This was perceived to be the most efficient way to conduct a training. It was also assumed that the trainer would build a relationship with that community and could act as an advocate for them. This approach created several unintended consequences. First, we became reliant on the trainer for all community information and had no method of evaluating the accuracy of that information. As the trainers were frequently non-local, most training was transactional and we were unable to build any longitudinal relationships or reporting. Finally, by using a single trainer there was always a single point of failure. If something went wrong with the trainer, it went wrong for the entire project. If the trainer didn’t understand something, the project didn’t understand it.

We now approach a program as an exercise that involves multiple partners with discreet, supportive roles. Our smallest program will have at least four partners: a local Community Based Organization (CBO); local tradespeople; an external cosponsor NGO (like Rotary Intl or a private funder); and, Friendly Water for the World. Each partner is engaged in the process and success of the program. Ownership is shared and everyone involved, from the community to supporters, is represented.

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