|Project Support Communication - Meetings (HABITAT, 1986, 42 p.)|
There are several types of meetings to be held regularly at different levels of authority and at different phases of a low-income housing project.
The most common meetings project staff have to deal with involve:
- project staff (internally);
- central and Local Government officials;
- community leaders;
- local prominent residents;
-the local community in general;
- the Residents' Committee;
- special interest groups; and
- non-governmental organizations.
The various categories listed here also constitute the most common PROJECT PARTICIPANTS or ACTORS in a low-income housing project.
Before reading what is to follow, discuss as a group what you believe the purpose of staff meetings is. Then, discuss what the purpose of staff meeting with the other project participants is.
(The instructor will lead a brief discussion before proceeding with this chapter).
Project Staff (internally)
In project staff meetings all lines of action come together. The proper functioning of the project staff meeting is crucial to successful project planning and implementation. Communication has to be intensive, since it is here that all the other types of meetings are organized and evaluated. Staff meetings are the channel through which information from all project participants passes al though there are also other communication channels outside the project structure.
A weekly meeting is usually the minimum required for project staff to cover all matters related to the project. It is normally the project manager's responsibility to ensure that matters related to all phases of the project are adequately discussed in staff meetings and that, consequently, all other types of meetings are planned as required. Yet he may not always recognize the need for a certain type of meeting at any particular phase of the project. It then becomes the responsibility of the unit in charge of PSC to ensure that the right types of meetings are held at the right moment.
Central and Local the government administration Official's
No project can manage without the support of the government administration. The Ministry of Health has to approve the plans for a health centre, the Council has to approve plans for a new marketplace, the Ministry of Public Works has to agree to executing the proposed drainage works, and so on.
It is not always easy to establish two-way communication at this level. Many officials know very little about squatter settlement upgrading and sites-and-services schemes; they become interested only after it dawns on them that there is much political goodwill to be gained from supporting such projects. Even then, officials hardly ever meet directly with the low-income community, so two-way communication can often only be established by project staff (the unit in charge of PSC) shuttling back and forth between the two.
Officials consider the administrative, financial and legal procedures connected with a project an additional burden, especially if they bring about changes in existing practice and require numerous problem-solving exercises.
The most effective way of gaining the support of officials, therefore, is to present them with solutions rather than with problems. Meetings with officials should be geared as much as possible to the discussion of well prepared proposals that can meet little objection and require only minor adjustments. Such meetings should also clearly spell out the roles of the various officials involved, minimizing additional workload.
The approval of local leaders, such as party representatives, is equally crucial to the success of the project. If such approval is not obtained, leaders will feel their status and authority are being undermined and may organize resistance in the community.
If they can be persuaded of the project's benefits, however, they are often of great assistance in persuading their constituents to go along. Leaders may believe that their own positions will be strengthened if they are able to show other residents that they were involved in bringing improvements to the settlement.
Contact with these leaders can start informally (prior to a joint meeting) to discuss the project in detail. Where a community has several leadership levels (e.g. area chiefs, section heads, block leaders), these can be consulted in descending order rather than in mass meetings where the lower echelons will refrain from giving their opinions. Meetings with local leaders can also serve to receive feedback from the population about initial proposals. Frequent contact with these officials through out the project phases may help the project staff understand the reasons for any problems which arise and may even help in overcoming them.
However, leaders cannot always be depended upon to convey to their constituents the facts they have heard in meetings. (This can be either because they prefer to monopolize such information so as to maintain as much power in their own hands as possible, or simply because they misunderstand the facts or forget parts which they then fill in for themselves.) If the people to whom this inaccurate information is conveyed then transmit it amongst themselves, there is a good chance of a totally distorted and confused representation of the original facts. One of the common problems is local leaders' presenting undecided but attractive project options as facts in order to increase their standing with the community.
In general, the unit in charge of PSC should not rely too heavily on community leaders for identification of priorities; often they do not really know what their constituents are thinking. When local leaders meet with their constituents, it is recommended that project staff be on hand to answer any questions which the leaders cannot cope with adequately themselves.
Prominent Local Leaders
Communities, whether or not they have an established leadership, often have a number of individuals (e.g. teachers and religious leaders) who enjoy a great deal of respect from and authority over other residents.
They can do some of the things local leaders can not. Teachers for instance, being relatively well-educated, are more likely than the average resident to understand the benefits of a project and its implications. In a way their Job is related to community improvement and as they are insiders in the community, there is a fair chance they are willing to discuss the project with their pupils, the parents' association and other prominent members of the community. Religious leaders might have the additional advantage of actually mobilizing the population.
Meetings with these people should be complementary to those with officials and community leaders in order to avoid the impression of 'going behind the back' of the official leadership. A problem arises if formal and non-formal leaders are in conflict with one another. Here, care should be taken not to take sides and become involved in ideological disputes or power plays, as this can be disastrous to mobilizing the community.
At some stage, the whole community needs to be informed that a project is planned or that some important event is taking place. A general meeting open to all households is not always feasible because of the numbers involved.
General meetings mainly serve to inaugurate something, to introduce people related to the project and to give high officials an occasion to make their presence known. It is also a good way of pulling separate project activities together to make everyone aware of the overall implications. This kind of meeting cannot be much more than a one-way communication exercise: feedback from the community in such a large gathering is impossible to obtain. It will even be difficult to know from such meetings whether the community agrees with the project at all - as lack of public dissension is no evidence of approval. People may appear to agree simply to hide the fact they do not really understand, or to be polite to the meeting's organizers.
A public meeting at the beginning of the project will not convince all project participants of the project's worth. Any project means changes in their lives - perhaps resettlement, perhaps a new house, certainly new problems - so everybody will need time to think about it. The people will not absorb details; they just want to know what the project is for, rather than how it will work.
The Residents' Committee
In most squatter settlements some form of established leadership already exists and can be used as the basis of a Residents' Commit tee. In sites-and-services schemes, however, Residents' Committees have to be elected, since no community yet exists at the beginning of the project. There are great advantages in having such a committee, as it represents the entire community and takes over much of the project staff's burden of informing the community and getting information from the community.
A Residents' Committee constitutes a group with which two-way communication is possible, since it can generate ideas and strategies, better than prominent residents alone. In principle, it is the ideal link between the community, project staff and local officials in all matters related to project planning and implementation.
Yet a Residents' Committee cannot perform smoothly under all circumstances. It is subject to pressure from various sides and will only be as effective and dynamic as the other project participants let it be. A Residents' Committee can also be undermined by internal strife. Finally, it cannot work in isolation from other power structures, - which is why a committee usually includes some local leaders in order to give it legitimacy.
Special- Interest groups
In the course of a project, special-interest are created, develop their activities and are disbanded when their function is terminated. In some cases, they develop permanent activities which may eventually be taken over by local government.
Special-interest groups are created for three main reasons:
- to perform a specific task for the interest of the community, occurring only once in the lifetime of a project, e.g. through a Road Planning Group in a squatter settlement upgrading project;
- to provide public services considered necessary for a successful project but which cannot yet be provided for by local government, e.g. by means of a Drainage Maintenance team or a Refuse Collection Group; and
- to develop social and economic activities from which only the members of the group benefit, e.g. through a Building Association or an Economic Promotion Board.
The main characteristic of any such group is that it concentrates on one single project component and is action-oriented. It undertakes, manages and builds.
Meetings with such groups do not differ much from meetings with other groups, except that the topic of discussion is specialized. The advantage of such groups is that:
- they can take over some of the project staff's responsibilities and even develop activities of their own;
- group size allows for more effective two-way communication; and
- special forms of communication, such as demonstrations, can be more easily used;
However, all special interest groups lobby for time, attention and funds and can drain resources away from the mainstream activities of the project. As in any organization, having too many committees can be counterproductive, mainly because of breakdowns in co-ordination and communication.
Non-governmental organizations or NGOs usually operate at the national and sub-national level in a number of settlements. Their involvement in a project is normally based on certain social and economic activities such as health promotion, education and small-scale industries.
NGOs can play an important role in low-income housing schemes by organizing community development activities fitting in with the physical improvements carried out. Their close ties with the community will sometimes enable them to get messages across-more effectively than project staff.
Meetings with NGOs will focus on the type of contribution that NGO is making to the project; they should take place at the earliest possible stage of the project. These meetings are usually of a specialized nature, depending on the role of that NGO in the project.
They should take place regularly in order to ensure proper co-ordination between the NGO and the staff of the housing scheme. For instance, if the project is building a clinic, and the NGO is responsible for training the medical staff to operate that clinic, activities should be co-ordinated in such a way that the medical staff is ready to operate as soon as the building is finished.