MOBILIZING FOR CIVIL SOCIETY
When Community Objectives are Not Physical Facilities
by Phil Bartle, PhD
Although conditions may be different, your principles remain constant
Physical and Non Physical Objectives:
When you brainstorm with a community group, or use participatory appraisal with them, you will get to hear what is their current priority problem. You need to be prepared to hear anything that they might identify as their main problem. You need to challenge them so as to clarify what is the problem, as often they may express it differently because they have not previously clarified the issues.
For example, they may say their priority is a lack of a doctor, that they want to construct a clinic, whereas the issue is too much disease among the children, and the solution may be some preventive measures such as clean water, mosquito control and effective sanitation. Even after you challenge them and help them clarify their goals, the result if something physical.
The members may say, in contrast, that they are being unfairly treated by landlords, that they need to have some rent controls. The solution may be the formation and activation of a tenant organization that will fight for the rights of tenants in the community. A local tenant organization is quite different from a latrine or water supply; it is non physical.
Similarly, the members may say that there are violent gangs that are extorting weaker members of the community, or that there is a flourishing illegal drug trade that is debilitating the youth and contributing to rising crime (to pay for the drugs). The answer lies in organizing the community, but not to construct a physical school or clinic. It is the creation and stimulation of an activist and advocacy group.
At one level, you need to treat these physical versus non physical goals the same. You assist the community in developing the capacity to set, define and reach its objectives.
At a different level, you need to know something about the particular concerns around different types of goals.
The module on Water, for example, shows that many of the concerns arising in the course of organizing a community to provide itself with water, are peculiar to that sector. Similarly, for non physical goals related to problems of drugs, violence, or tenants' exploitation. Organizing young people into a sports club has some different elements than organizing the bringing of sand to construct a building.
The Need for Community Advocacy:
If you assist a community to organize an advocacy organization, you serve two purposes. You (1) help that community to cope with or deal with some wrong that it wishes to right, and (2) you contribute to the growth of civil society, of civic engagement, which is an important factor in the strengthening of democracy and the development of a democratic society.
As we are learning more and more, democracy flourishes when it is supported by several other features in a society. These include freedom of speech and freedom of the press, freedom of association (that groups can form without government control or prohibition), and good governance (transparency, integrity, fair play, rule of law, inclusiveness).
The practice of having a loyal opposition (which sounds like a contradiction in terms) in parliament, and vocal critics of the government (eg in civil organizations) outside of parliament, does not weaken a democratic government, it strengthens it. It appears to be a paradox.
This is included in the understanding of the concept "Civic Engagement." Since power becomes addictive, and corruption increases as power increases, then a Government is more likely to retain its integrity if it must answer to the public. (See: Politics and Mobilization). Integrity is supported if it is legal (and encouraged) to have Governmental actions questioned publicly, and if it must be careful and watch its step so as to avoid embarrassment, Independent, unaffiliated, vocal non governmental agencies serve an important function of keeping a government honest.
The more a society or community has organizations that can voice popular sentiments, even those that are not the official government line, the stronger that society or community is. If you in your job as mobilizer can help a community group to organize an advocacy organization, you are not only helping them to empower themselves, you are contributing to a more empowered society in general.
Elsewhere (Mobilization and Politics), you are advised to avoid partisan politics. Here you will learn how to apply your community organizing skills to form organizations that may become politically vocal. Is this a contradiction? Not if you follow your mobilizer guidelines; do not do the work of your clients, encourage and train them to do it, but by facilitating them rather than doing things for them.
NGO Is What NGO Does:
An old West African proverb says that "Not everything in the ocean is the same, even if we call them all by the name of 'fish.'"
An NGO (Non Governmental Organization) is a residual term, lumping together many different kinds of organizations, simply because they are not organized and part of the governmental structure. "NGO" is negatively defined (ie: it is not something).
The popular view of an NGO that we have is of a group of people who are strongly concerned about a particular issue. They donate their time and energy freely to it, and form an organization dedicated to it and which is not for profit and not necessarily for carrying out official governmental policy. An NGO might be this, but not necessarily so; there are many other kinds.
Around the world, in various countries, NGOs have been – and are – many things:
Some of these same activities are carried out by commercial firms and/or by governmental organizations in some countries and locations, and by NGOs in others.
Why all these examples? You can organize, or stimulate a community group to organize, an NGO for doing anything. What is important is that you dialogue with the group to clarify the issues, discard actions that perpetuate the problem by alleviating it, and ensure at every step of the way that you do not let the group become dependent upon you.
NGOs have been formed in wealthy countries to raise money for vulnerable people in poor countries, and are discovered to be sending money for arms for terrorist groups. NGOs that look like volunteer organizations on the surface, turn out to be formed by secret police to infiltrate and spy on dissident groups.
One kind of NGO that is common in developing countries where the UN or operational donor agencies search for local NGOs to implement their policies, is basically a commercial consultancy. It is formed by a single principal, usually a professional in a relevant field, perhaps with some associates and/or support staff, and it provides service for fee to a donor agency. On its accounts ledgers, you might not see any profit, but that is simply an accounting trick, where the fees are spent on expenses and salaries for the staff, including the principal. Small upstart new contractor organizations like this are often called "briefcase NGOs," because they do not have any offices or members, just the principal and her or his briefcase.
Some large international NGOs, if they get most of their income from donor organizations like the UN or USAID, are the same, little more than commercial consultancies. Like "for profit" businesses, these organizations do not contribute much to civil society. They are not publicly vocal, do not express views held by common people that are in contrast to official governmental lines, because they want to stay in business.
When you, as a community mobilizer, organize a community executive, concretely based in the decisions of the community, you create a community based organization (CBO). That CBO is an NGO (non governmental), although some CBOs become closely integrated into the municipal, then (national) governmental structure, and no longer can be called NGO.
A common NGO set-up is to have a voluntary membership (often with member fees), an annual general meeting (AGM) which elects a voluntary board, and perhaps some paid secretariat or staff. When you organize a group, find ways, through dialogue with the community, to ensure that the community remains involved in the decision making process of the organization.
Urban and Rural Differences:
When you compare mobilization in rural areas with mobilization in urban areas, a few generalities appear. Highest priorities of rural communities tend to be on physical facilities. These include water supplies, clinics, schools, and roads. Urban areas of mobilization often include slums and disorganized neighbourhoods, so physical facilities may be a problem, but there is a greater number of issues that are of a non physical nature.
A classic urban issue is the relationship between land owners and tenants. Buildings deteriorate because the residents are not owners, and the owners do not want to spend money on maintenance. Tenure is insecure and residents can often be thrown out without notice or recourse. The problems are numerous.
When a group of tenants gets together, and you guide them in identifying their greatest problem, it is likely that they will say that they lack rights as tenants. The solution, they may come to conclude, is to form a pressure group – a Tenant Rights Association.
As a mobilizer, it is important for you to remain in the background. That takes discipline and humility; there will be many temptations to get up and become a public leader. The general guideline is for you to facilitate, not to "do" for your clients. Remember the gym metaphor of the empowerment methodology; if a coach does the push-ups for a sports person, the sports person will not get strong.
It is very tempting to accept the role of a public leader, even you clients will try to entice you to become one. If you remain a facilitator, putting your time and energy into training your clients rather than speaking for them, you will be more successful.
Mobilizing for Civil Engagement:
When you are mobilizing in a community where the priority goals are non physical, keep your key empowerment principles in mind, and adapt them to the local situation. Through brainstorming and participatory appraisal, let your community members identify their highest problem.
Challenge them to clarify their problem. Based on that, help them reach their priority goal. Explain about SMART, and how they can generate some specific objectives out of their goal. Challenge them to generate different strategies to solve the problem. Ask the four key management and planning questions.
All of these methods are explained throughout these web pages. Adapt them to non traditional situations and non traditional problems.
In contrast to traditional needs for latrines, roads, clinics, schools and water facilities, the same empowerment methodology can be applied to non physical needs.
Is there crime and violence among the youth? Are gangs a threat? Can those gangs be reorganized to use self help methods to build a sports facility? Is the problem arising out of illicit drugs? Is there ethnic conflict? Do lack of jobs force young women and men into prostitution? Can the community organize to provide alternatives?
This site can not give you a detailed recipe; it can only give you the tools for you to design your own. Do not try to solve the problems faced by a community. Do not do things for them. Rather challenge them to clarify their issues, provide skills for them to solve their own problems, and remember that they become empowered as they do things for themselves.
© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle