Several years ago Village Earth was invited to facilitate a participatory strategic planning with a community in South America. The organization that invited us, while not community-based, had developed a partnership with the community but needed some assistance to develop a comprehensive community plan. It was agreed that they would mobilize the community for the planning event and make all preparations so when we arrived we could jump right into the planning process. When facilitating a planning like this we generally like to start with a participatory community-mapping exercise so we can learn about how they define community, geographical layout, resources and social groupings. During this process, it became apparent that the attendees of this event only represented one major family within the community and we all (attendees included) recognized that developing a strategic plan for the community would not be possible unless we had representatives from all the various families within that community. Unfortunately, we had to put-off our goal to create a community plan and instead we decided to focus our time on building relationships within the community that could be leveraged when we returned a few months later to facilitate a planning where representatives from the entire community attended.
The example above illustrates a rather common problem for community workers, in our case, it was trusting that the community had already been sufficiently mobilized prior to our planning event and we failed by not sufficiently assessing the community’s readiness prior to facilitating the event. This is not only wasteful in terms of people’s time and money, it can also exacerbate pre-existing tensions within a community by reinforcing existing power dynamics (if say we continued with the planning process with just one powerful sector of the community) and make it harder to forge relationships with other sectors of the community. By even proceeding with one day of planning we had heightened suspicions and skepticism about our motives within the community – something we had to spend the rest of our time working to repair.
As a result of this experience (and others) I have become much more cautious when partnering with third-party organizations and with communities and have developed some very unobtrusive methods to assess community readiness. When I say readiness I’m generally referring to the willingness and ability of people and groups within a community to engage in practices of collective action. For example, for the various social/family groups within a community or neighborhood to come together, talk about issues and develop a plan, for farmers to come together and address a water shortage problem, or for artisans to come together and assess the viability of forming a cooperative.
There are numerous issues that can compromise the readiness of a communities. These include but are not limited to:
- The level of factionalization. Are people generally willing to work together or is the community divided into factions that keep to themselves or worse yet – are constantly battling over power and resources?
- The distribution of power. Are resources, power and decision-making within a community generally shared or is it monopolized by a few individuals, groups or families?
- The level of inclusiveness. Do the different sectors of the community (genders, age groups, ethnic groups, castes, income levels, etc) communicate and share power and resources or is it dominated by one or a few sectors?
- Openness of macro-level structures. Are the macro-level structures like local, regional, national governments threatened by community-level mobilization efforts? Do people feel safe organizing for collective action?
- People’s sense of individual and collective efficacy. Do people generally feel that they can contribute to an effort and that they can accomplish anything by working together?
- The level of concern people share around an issue or cluster of issues. Are people within a community concerned about an issue or issues enough to contribute their time, money and resources towards address it?
Readiness and community mobilization
Unfortunately, there’s no rubric to follow that will tell you when a community is ready and when it’s not. Determining this should really be part of a discussion that takes place among the various stakeholders you’re working with (e.g. community members, other NGOs, funders, etc). The goal of assessing readiness is to get an idea of what it will take to mobilize that community for collective action and whether you have the time and resources to take-on that effort. Community mobilization is the process and approach you take to manage the various tensions described above in order to move forward to address community identified issues. For example, you may find that women in a particular culture are more likely to participate if they have their own planning event rather than in one combined with men. Or possibly, you need to host separate planning events for each neighborhood and nominate representatives from each neighborhood to work together.
Another goal of assessing readiness is to understand how how best to frame your entrée into the community. For example, are you there as a neutral organization or on behalf of another organization, government agency, an individual, family etc.? Even though your relationship to a third-party may not obstruct your willingness or ability to work with all sectors of the community, you may find people in the community have a false impression that you are working on behalf of or strictly for their interests. And by all means, if you do have allegiances to particular entities or limits on your autonomy, you should be open and clear about that. On the other hand, your affiliation with a well-respected third-party might in fact enhance our ability to build trust and form relationships.
Assessing community readiness with concepts maps
Concept mapping (also known as mind-mapping) is nonlinear and dynamic process for organizing and linking a vast array ideas, concepts and things. They’re ideal for recording and revealing relationships between things in a constructivist manner – where meaning emerges from real life experiences, observations, dialogue and reflection. Computer-based concept mapping software such as the free cloud-based “Mindmup” and the free open source “Freemind” are extremely powerful because they make it possible to easily move things around, build and rearrange connections between things as they emerge.
Assessing community readiness through concept mapping can be something done by an individual or a team, relatively unobtrusively and without raising expectations or controversy within a community. It’s ideally done through participant observation along with informal semi-structured interviews with people from as many different sectors of the community as possible. The goal is to engage in natural conversations with people about the community, how people relate to one another, how the community is organized, its borders relative to neighboring communities, its resources, issues that people are facing, their dreams for the future, etc. This process is different from a survey because it’s open and can take on any form or direction that people want it to. It does however require that the person asking questions can free himself or herself from preconceived notions about the community and avoid asking leading questions. Interviews can take place in a snowball manner where, for example, someone mentions that she heard the farmers were worried about the availability of water. You would then ask that person “do you know someone who would know more about that who I could talk to” and then talk to them to learn more about that issue. During interviews it may be helpful to keep notes but sometimes this can destroy the natural flow of the conversation and make people nervous. This is why it may be a good idea to take notes in private immediately after you had a conversation or observed something of interest in the community – just to make it easier to recall later. Concept mapping enters into this process at the end of each day or after each encounter where you can sit-down, record and organize ideas. A team can work together on concept mapping by sharing and adding their notes to a shared concept map and then building consensus around how different aspects of the map are related. It’s important to keep in mind that a concept map is a tool to help you and your team to organize its thoughts and not something that is meant to be published or shared. You should always keep people’s confidentiality and safety in mind whenever taking notes or recording information in a concept map lest if fall into the wrong hands.
Features of a community readiness concept map
Some items that you might include in your concept map used to assess community readiness might include a list of important community leaders, a list of formal and informal community organizations, a list of issues brought up by people. You can then connect leaders and organizations to issues. You could different social groups and what issues each group struggles with. You can even tease apart the issues and link them to other issues that people mention like lack of water availability experienced by farmers linked to over-exploitation of watershed vegetation for fuel-wood. The concept map should link people, issues, organizations, concepts etc. in a way that makes sense to local people. You’ll know you’re map is complete when start to hear the same things over over again and you no longer feel the need to add/remove or rearrange things on the map. Even better, you’ll know you’re map is complete when you can confidently talk about the issues, people and organizations with a local without them constantly correcting you. More importantly, by the end of the concept mapping process, you should have a clearer idea of how to proceed with the community or possibly, if you should proceed at all. This sort of pragmatic thinking can be used to guide who you talk to and what questions you ask.
To learn more about topics discussed in this article check out the following courses in Village Earth’s online certificate program in Sustainable Community Development: Community Mobilization & Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation.