MEASURING STRENGTH or CAPACITY
of a Community, Family or Organization
by Phil Bartle, PhD
Here we use sixteen variables that contribute to that strength.
The sixteen elements and brief descriptions of them are described in Sixteen Elements.
The more any community or organisation has of each of those elements, the stronger it is, the more capacity it has, and the more empowered it is. A community is a social entity; it does not become stronger simply by adding a few more facilities. Community strengthening or capacity deveelopment involves social change –– development –– and that, in turn, involves all sixteen of the elements of strength.
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.
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 mobilisers who organised 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 mobilisers, 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 mobilising techniques start with unity organising, 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.
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 mobilising the community members.
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 16 elements, and the comments (in narrative form) by community members against each one. You will see that it is difficult to measure degree of change, but 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 mobilisation 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: (1) relative strength at present; (2) change over the last twelve months; and (3) change over the previous four or five 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 the recorder writes details.
To make the process easier, you may wish to use the 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.
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