Evergreen Labs and Community work: Tips and tricks from the field (Part 2)
In the previous post, we revealed one of the guiding principles in EGL’s approach to community work. In this post, let’s check out our remaining principles.
Principle 2: Respect
First of all, it is a matter of manners and etiquette to show our respect to the local community, their culture, heritage, and wisdom. As project implementers, we are actually strangers to the local people asking for permission to go into their properties and influence their lives, regardless of how big or small the interventions are. Second of all, and more importantly, the grassroots level often plays an important role in local production and keeping the local economy running.
For example, as shown in our recent article, smallholder farmers account for 85% of the world’s farms and hold a crucial role in every country’s food value chain and global food security and nutrition. Another example is the extraordinary work of the informal waste sector (or người ve chai in Vietnamese) which is the workhorse of the recycling industry in Vietnam. Without them, no recycling in the country could possibly happen. (Read more here).
With respect to the local communities, project implementers must be aware of various facets of a community to include them in planning, designing, and implementing approaches.
Principle 3: Inclusion
Following Principle 2 of including various factors of the community into project designing and planning, it is critical to recognize ALL opinions and perspectives at the very least. In our experience, while working with local communities, especially those of ethnic groups or of marginalized groups, encouraging the locals to participate is not enough. They need to be facilitated to actively raise their voices in a safe zone with no judgment. Plenty of tools can be found online from prestigious NGOs for the participatory approach.
Some of the instant takeaways you can apply in your community engagement activities are: (i) creating a comfortable, familiar setting for participants in the meeting so that they can feel safe talking about their concerns, issues, and difficulties; (ii) expanding the conversations to include both formal and informal leaders, diverse populations, age groups, and interests; (iii) paying attention to people’s attitudes behaviors when a certain opinion is expressed.
Another inclusivity practice applied in our Sustainable Tourism program is the profit-sharing mechanism among members of the community. A 10% revenue is always generated for a common fund, managed and decided by the community for their joint events or the village’s affairs.
Principle 4: Good faith
A good relationship is built on the foundation of mutual trust and understanding, which often takes time to form. In the meantime, community engagement mostly has to occur around a specific timeframe (which is given by your donor, for example), thus the urgency to move quickly. But remember this: the investment of time on engagement upfront saves a much bigger investment of time later if there is distrust or conflict in the community.
If community engagement is crucial for your project, take the time needed to do it right and avoid the shortcuts that often backfire in the long run. Besides all the project’s normal activities, you also have to keep the momentum going and make sure that you can trust the community members on a specific task or a component of the project. But it’s not impossible. Careful planning, a good backup plan, and communication are keys to successful projects at EGL.
Principle 5: Setting boundaries
It might sound confusing, especially when you are trying to build a good relationship with local community members, but there are certain boundaries that should be maintained. How come? It is good that you form an emotional and bonding feeling for a place or a group of people. It means that you consider the community’s problems your own, and will try your best for the benefit of the community. But let’s see it from a more objective perspective here: as a project manager you have to mediate the expectations of the donors, the community’s capacity, and your organization’s focus. Your resources are limited and to be a good leader, you have to keep a cold mind to assess the situation, not from the perspective of the community but from the perspective of the implementing organization who is held accountable for the donors who entrust you with their money.
Principle 6: Relationship & expectation management
Relationship & expectation management is an art of balancing imagination and reality. Remember you are interacting with a group of people who join your project because they expect something out of it. The community’s expectations can vary, like physical rewards (for example, money or direct gift, which in most cases is not Evergreen Labs’ first option), or indirect benefits (capacity, knowledge, skills, connections, etc.). Regardless of its form, it is reasonable for the community to expect something in return as they contribute their time and effort. It is most important to manage expectations properly from the beginning of a project to ensure all beneficiaries and stakeholders are aligned and there will not be any misunderstanding later in the project.
In many projects, community engagement does not mean the local community is the only stakeholder group you work with. It often requires the involvement of local authorities (both for political reasons and for administrative reasons) and, possibly, other civil society organizations. While each party will have its own agenda and expectation, it is important to make sure all stakeholders are on the same page and act for the shared benefits of the community.
Community engagement is a complex and challenging part of our work at Evergreen Labs, however, through these techniques, we are able to create beneficial outcomes for community members and participating stakeholders alike.