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by Phil Bartle, PhD

Trainers' Notes

Members of a community or organization are a good source of measuring it


Our goal is that we want to strengthen communities. How can we know when we have succeeded, or to what extent? How do we measure the strengthening of communities, by increasing their capacities, by empowering them?

"Measuring" and "defining" are closely connected to each other here. Unfortunately, we do not have a little electronic metre that, when it moves from 62 to 79, we can say that strength has been increased by 17 points.

The Sixteen Elements:

We can analyse the concept of "strength," "power" or "capacity," as applied to communities, look at its various components, and identify a set of observations that will indicate to us that some empowerment or increase in capacity has taken place.

The sixteen elements are: Altruism; Common Values; Communal Services; Communications; Confidence; Context; Information; Intervention; Leadership; Networking; Organization; Political Power; Skills; Trust; Unity; and Wealth.

Look at Elements of Community Strength. A brief description of each of the 16 elements is given there.

Difficulties of Measurement:

Changing levels of strength can not accurately be measured by a researcher devising a questionnaire. They could be better observed and verified by a discussion led by a facilitator who calls for the observations of all community members in a meeting, asking how much each of the above has changed.

Monitoring the physical construction of a clinic is relatively easy; they can report, for example, that construction has reached the foundation level or wall level. Monitoring the changing strength of a community, in contrast, means performing a sociological measurement of the changing social characteristics of the community.

(A lab technician can stick a thermometer into a patient to obtain a reading of temperature, and that will yield very different results than when a doctor asks the patient, "How do you feel?" and allows the patient to respond. The patient does not have to understand the principles of a thermometer, but does have to understand the question by the doctor. Unfortunately, in sociology, questionnaires are far less objective or accurate than thermometers because most respondents, and many interviewers, do not understand the nature or purpose of the questions, or what they are trying to measure, and there are no universally accepted standards of measurements as there are for temperature).

That means that the community members must be made aware of the goal of strengthening and the elements of strengthening (as well as their immediate objectives of constructing the facility), and these can not be kept only by the researchers.

It is important for the community to participate in evaluating its own strengthening, that it be made aware of the elements of strengthening. The facilitator must therefore explain these elements during a process of community self monitoring its own capacity increases.

Participatory Measurement:

It is important for the community itself to be part of the process of measuring strength and evaluating any increase in strength. When it builds a clinic, it has a limited or finite objective, and it is easy to see the point at which the clinic construction is completed. In measuring strength or capacity of the community itself, the goal is open ended; there is no definable finite end to the process.

The community itself (its members in a group meeting, not just a few factions or influential individuals) must be the main source of assessing if there has been an increase in strength, which (if any) of the above elements contribute to that strengthening, and if it is still desired by the community. The methods of tapping community observations, must differ between the monitoring of the construction of a facility versus monitoring the strengthening of the community which constructed it.

The mobilizers who organized the community to engage in its self help activity, did so by taking a "facilitating, not provision" approach. That approach, bringing together the whole community in public decision making meetings, appears to be the most useful method also of monitoring the increasing strength of the community. Facilitating the monitoring can be done by the same mobilizers, or by others familiar with the community and its history.

Ideally, the community as a whole will meet annually, and be led by the same facilitator. The facilitator will list all the elements of strengthening, explaining any that need explaining. They will then discuss the degree that the community has changed since the last year's evaluation meeting. A written record of the discussion will provide information to be interpreted as indicators of the amount of strengthening since the previous such discussion.

In the real world, facilitators change, community members come and go, not everyone in a community can attend a meeting, total participation is not possible, and the very changes that take place in the community affect the perceptions and values of members. It is to be expected that in the very early stages, for example, the community members are aware of their poverty and see the acquisition of resources from donors outside the community as the sole means of alleviating poverty.

At later stages, as the community members gain confidence by successfully engaging in self help activities, they would not necessarily diminish the desire for outside donations, but would also see the value of making decisions within the community, and identifying and using available resources from within the community.

The Method:

To initiate a community based monitoring of the strengthening process, there should be a facilitator, a recorder, and a community meeting. The facilitator can start with procedures similar to the ones used in mobilizing the community members.

(The mobilizing techniques start with unity organizing, asking what are the priority problems, writing responses on the board with no criticism allowed, and when consensus is reached the facilitator changes the "problem" into the priority "goal" of the community).

Similarly, during a community monitoring session, a facilitator describes the above elements of community strengthening then, element by element, with a blackboard or sheets of newsprint on a wall, asks members of the community to indicate the degree of change, and writes their responses on the board.

The facilitator asks which of the elements have changed the most, and which the least, and why. Every item is written on the board by the facilitator, and the recorder writes them down in a notebook, including any details that might be missed on the board. The responses are moved on the board to indicate which elements changed most and which least.

The facilitator aims at consensus among the members in making the assessment. If there have been more than one session in the past, the meeting might then go on to see if the rate of change was greater in the previous phase or the immediate past phase. Ensure that all members of the meeting are aware of the meanings of every one of the elements of strengthening.

A report of the meeting should be prepared, a first draft the very same day. It should be reviewed by both the recorder and the facilitator. If there is time, the facilitator can show it to some selected members of the community to cross check.

The report should list each of the above elements, and the comments (in narrative form) by community members against each one. It will be seen that it is difficult to measure degree of change, but that there will be several variations of interpretation in the nature of the changes, as observed by the community members.

Hold a community meeting (annually) similar to mobilization meeting. Facilitator uses adapted brainstorming facilitation techniques. Recorder records all details of suggestions while facilitator marks main notes on the board.

Ask for group consensus after explaining each element:

  • relative strength at present;
  • change over the last twelve months;
  • change over the previous four years.

Allow for different interpretations, then aim for group consensus. Invite shy and humble persons to speak up.

Record the main points on the board while recorder writes details.

To make the process easier, you may wish to use the workshop handout, Form for Measuring Empowerment, where the participants can first fill in their estimates of strength before you combine their estimates in a group session.

The form also has a section where literate participants may note, in their own words, the factors contributing to their estimates of each element. This may be read over carefully after the session.

Complementary Information:

Taking a formal, sterile, externally oriented, questionnaire, approach will lead to incorrect and distorted results, because the research designers and the interviewers tend to know less intimate information about the community because of their "arms length" methodology.

Community members, as well, may distort information as they feel in the spot light, and required to put their "best" side forward (as in a formal photograph session).

Taking a totally participatory approach, as recommended above, however, may itself result in some biases and distortions. To balance that, we suggest that complementary information be collected for each of the sixteen factors of community empowerment.

These will vary according to what information is available, which in turn is related to the levels of strength in each of those same factors. In general, the stronger a community is, the more capacity it has, the more information is available about it.

The different factors, themselves, differ in the degree to which they lend themselves to obtaining objective or quantifiable information.

Altruism, for example, is not easy to measure, but perhaps can be supplemented by records of how much individuals are willing to donate at community fund raising events, or how may residents come out to communal labour activities.

Common Values may be recorded more by participatory anthropological research methods; very few communities have a written-down document of its values.

Communal Services are a bit more easy to quantify, if you record the number of clinics, roads, markets, schools, water supplies, and sanitation systems. Changes over the years and decades are more easy to calculate in this way.

Communications, similarly, are easy to record if limited to the hardware, but abilities to speak, write, listen, are more sociological in nature.

Confidence(communal and individual), likewise is a "soft" variable.

Context can be objectively analysed by looking at the formal laws, legislation, governmental instructions and guidelines, but there is a "soft" side to context in the nature of the unwritten attitudes and practices of leaders and local authorities. Information, can be quantitatively recorded when looking at the hardware (like the communication factor, above).

Intervention can be quantified if records are kept about what community development workers have intervened. The records may be more difficult for NGO workers than Government workers, but that may be the reverse where NGOs have good records and civil service offices do not.

Leadership can be quantified by the list of formal and informal leaders, but the degree of facilitation that they take can not easily be objectively observed or recorded.

Networking, similarly, can be observed by some sort of an objective test, making a list of powerful individuals that community members can draw upon, but that list will not measure the degree to which those contacts are or can be used for obtaining resources for the community.

Organization in the formal sense, can be recorded and compared with later or earlier records to get some sense of change.

Political Power, may be measured in the formal sense but (like leadership) qualitative variables such as the degree of transparency and enablement may be hidden from any written records.

Skills are more easy to quantify in the formal sense, but listing the number of individuals with training in certain skills does not tell you how dedicated, motivated or dependable the individuals are who have those skills.

Trust is a matter of collective attitudes and values held by individuals in the community, and are sociological or "soft" variable that are not easy to objectively quantify. (The results of the participatory process should yield accurate enough estimates).

Unity, likewise, is a set of community values expressed in individual attitudes.

Wealth can be measured objectively to some extent, although most individuals are not willing to disclose their income or personal value, and many are not fully aware of what they may be. Furthermore, it is communal wealth, not only the sum of individual wealth, that contributes to community strength, and communal wealth may not be recorded in monetized form (eg the market value of a clinic or road).

It may be almost as difficult for community members as outside researchers, to put quantified or objective measurements on any static current level of strength in any of these sixteen factors.

The participatory method, using a facilitator, involving the whole community in the evaluation, becomes more valid and useful when, in the same session, the group makes assessments of the levels of now, one year ago, and five years ago, because it will be more likely that they use the same measuring stick for each.

A Framework:

Use a form like this. Design it yourself to suit your requirements and conditions. . Please note that it has had to be condensed here to put onto this web site.


This is not a formal or sophisticated paper about research methods (although the author has taught university level social science research methods for several years in Europe, North America and Africa), it is part of the training intended for a field worker engaged in community strengthening. Unfortunately, important concepts such as "community strengthening," our major and overall goal, are not well defined or explained.

By looking at these sixteen elements, and the peculiarities of measuring them (in order to assess if we are in fact strengthening communities), the mobilizer in the field becomes more aware of the specific goals of community work, and therefore has a more in- depth understanding of her or his tasks. This is another reason why we point out that, although this hand book is directed primarily towards field workers, planners, administrators, coordinators and managers also look at it.

The major thesis of this module is that, like the strengthening of communities itself, the measuring of the process of communities becoming stronger should also be participatory.

The skills of a facilitator are well adapted to the task of assessment, and research into social change in a community setting.


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
Web Design by Lourdes Sada
Last update: 2012.08.31

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