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How to Kindle Community Ownership: Lessons from Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai
February 2011 Newsletter
Dear Friends of the Center,
How to Kindle Community Ownership: Lessons from Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai
In 1989 I was fortunate enough to visit the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi Kenya. The Green Belt Movement has been a successful reforestation program for over 30 years. It was started by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. I recently read her autobiography “Unbowed”, and was struck by how early in her career she realized that projects were less likely to be successful if there wasn't community ownership from the onset.

In 1977 she and her organization were going to different villages, setting up tree seedling nurseries and then moving on to the next village. When she would go back and visit the nurseries she would frequently find that they had been vandalized or the trees left to die. 

“None of these projects lasted for long. I learned that if you do not have local people who are committed to the process and willing to work with their communities, the projects will not survive. For instance, the Business and Professional Women's Association wanted to start a Green Belt (nursery) in Isinya, in Maasailand. But as soon as the Business and Professional Women's Association and I left Isinya, the project faltered. This happened because the people initiating it were not grounded in the community.

This showed me that we needed to make local people feel invested in the projects so that they would mobilize themselves and their neighbors to take responsibility for sustaining them. It also demonstrated to me that aspects of people's lives such as culture are very important: you may think you are doing the right thing, but in a local context, you are completely off track.

News of the tree planting initiatives had spread… and soon farmers, schools, and churches were eager to set up their own programs. That was the beginning of communities themselves taking ownership of Green Belt Movement initiatives, and I have insisted on working this way ever since.” Unbowed. Wangari Maathai, 2006.

For the past 10 or 12 years community-based development has been the cutting-edge philosophy of modern development work—and it impressed me immensely that she discovered it in the 70s. Community-based development is a cornerstone of of our development philosophy at the Center for Sustainable Development.

Unfortunately, I don't see community based methodologies happening very often in the projects that I visit. Everything still seems to be fairly top-down: Northerners promoting their mission within a southern culture and context that they may not fully understand.

Old-school development hasn't always included communities in the process of assessing need, designing project activities, having a stake in project management, and full takeover at the end of the project. Contemporary development now sees this as paramount for maintaining the positive outcomes that contribute to long-term impact: improve your development results by fully engaging community members as partners and owners.

The Center promotes developing successful projects that can be managed and sustained by communities: 
1. work side-by-side with communities to develop long-term, sustainable adaptation programs
2. empower communities to take full charge of programs once up and running

Why is this important? A criticism of the traditional project cycle is that when an NGO completes its two-year project, they leave their community at the helm of project management without sufficient training and technical support—and perhaps even without much interest in the project. For example, how many communities have you been to and seen two-year-old water projects that no longer function?

We propose beginning on day one by creating partnerships with communities, fostering the improvement of community capacity for project management, and encouraging representative leadership to carry on with project activities long after you're gone. This is the stuff of community based development: Communities are involved from the beginning and participate in each important step of the process.

Roles in Community-Based Adaptation Projects
Most communities are fully capable of assessing their needs, designing programming, implementing projects, evaluating their successes, and maintaining long-term project processes. Your job, as a development practitioner, is to walk hand-in-hand with the community accompanying them in a two-way learning adventure, facilitating leaps of knowledge, and providing specialized knowledge when they need it. Your job is not to be the leader: your job is to grow leaders.

Why Community Participation?
1. Community members have a greater depth of knowledge about their problems than we do, and so will be better able to identify important and underlying causes for the challenges they face.
2. If they are fully engaged in project development and feel their voice has been heard, then they will have a sense of project ownership. Their project will then be on the road to sustainability because in essence it is their project—they have ownership of it. This ownership can be thought of as the community’s demand for the products and services that your organization will provide.

How to get started with the process
One needs to begin by developing rapport with a community; a good approach is an initial meeting with village leaders or village elders and asking their help in gaining access to community members.

A participatory, community needs assessment is step one in developing a community partnership and kindling ownership. Communities are very diverse so we need to be sure we are working with a representative example of members. It is also important that individuals feel safe in voicing their thoughts and feelings. This may mean holding separate meetings for men and for women, or for teenagers and for their parents.

The Ten Seed Technique: A Quick Overview
There are several simple techniques for facilitating participatory needs assessments, but my favorite is called the Ten Seed Technique developed by Ravi Jayakaran of World Vision China.
Gather together small groups of between 10 and 20 people. To start off a discussion for a community-wide needs assessment, ask the group to imagine all the problems and needs that are faced by the community as a whole. Active participation can be enabled by encouraging all of the members of the group to voice their concerns.

Each individual community need, as it is identified by a community member, is drawn graphically on a sheet of paper. Draw simple pictures. For example, if housing is a problem, draw a child's illustration of a house. The technique is a very visual one that allows the literate and illiterate to participate as equal partners and contribute meaningfully to the discussion.

When the group is done voicing their concerns, each workshop participant is given 10 seeds as voting tokens to be used in prioritizing the needs with a 10-Seed vote. Villagers vote in privacy and place seeds on the illustrations of the identified needs they feel are the most important. They are free to spread their seeds across several needs – or to place all 10 on a single need that is most important to them.

Once all of the individuals have voted, the participants are asked to discuss the results. The collective tokens will show a prioritization of the needs identified by the community—by which needs have the greatest number of seeds.

I've posted a Ten Seed How-To Card with photos that you can download.  

You can implement a real participatory needs assessment through our online courses OL 101 and OL 341. If you don't have access to a community with which to develop project—don't worry—we partner you with another international course participant living in a developing nation who does have access to a community and is working on the ground on projects. 

From needs assessments sent to me by course members, I am able to see that there are many common problems worldwide including:

income generation, clean water, access to education, poor sanitation, gender equality, migration, lack of vocational skills, chronic diarrhea and malnutrition in small children, lack of roads to villages, marginalization, shelter, food shortages, illiteracy, environmental degradation, drought, lack of irrigation for agriculture, and overpopulation.

To learn about student projects in real time, please visit our Facebook Page or CSDi Development Community to see their postings.
In the March newsletter we will investigate the next step in kindling community ownership: Empowering community members to co-manage and fully take over the project when your job is done. See you then.

Please write me with your thoughts through Online.Learning@csd-i.org, or post them at the Development Community, at our Facebook Page, or on the Center’s Blog.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Tim Magee, Executive Director
Visit CSDi’s Development Community and join colleagues in sharing resources & collaborating online: http://developmentcommunity.csd-i.org/
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The Center for Sustainable Development specializes in providing sound, evidence-based information, tools and training for humanitarian development professionals worldwide. CSDi is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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The Center for Sustainable Development specializes in providing sound, evidence-based information, tools and training for humanitarian development professionals worldwide. CSDi is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.