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close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderIII. Towards a community-based strategy for VSAs
View the documentParticipation: how and for whose benefit?
View the documentA sense of ''community''
View the documentGeneral characteristics of low-income urban communities
View the documentFactors determining support possibilities
View the documentGeneral characteristics of CBOs
View the documentSupport channels and intermediaries

Participation: how and for whose benefit?

In reviewing the case studies described in the previous chapter, it becomes clear that there is no one effective strategy which can be formulated, nor is it possible to develop a universally applicable "pack age" for addressing the wide variety of concerns among low-income groups in the urban sector. Every local situation has its own particular characteristics, and interventions must be tailored accordingly. There are, however, certain conditions for success, an essential component of which is the identification of needs and the setting of priorities by the community itself. Well-versed in their own problems and needs and well- endowed with existing forms of organisation the impetus for development initiatives is more genuine, appropriate and sustainable if it comes from within communities, rather than from an outsider attempting to act on their behalf.

Community participation is seen as an end in itself as well as a means: in other words, not just as a way of extending the government's limited resources and increasing project efficiency by sharing responsibility, but as an empowerment goal - a way to increase the community's control over resources and over the direction in which it develops. It is a continuous process which extends beyond the life of any particular project or programme.

As far as VSAs are concerned, it follows that support ought to be given to groups, rather than individuals, with a view to evoking a continuous process of participation. This support could be for production, through credit, raw material provision, training, or marketing groups; for services, through neighbourhood or sectoral or specialised organisations or for other activities as required. Activities for which the impetus has come from the community itself qualify for support, especially in areas of health, education, water/sanitation, infrastructure, etc. Issues of prioritization and choice arise most with housing construction, production and employment concerns: here, most initiatives are taken by individuals or families for their own benefit or profit.

When focusing on community participation as an avenue in "targeting" low-income urban communities for development initiatives, it is particularly important that VSAs recognise and include the concerns of youth and women, and take into account how far these groups have organised themselves. Attempts to ensure participation must allow for an understanding of functions and decision-making roles at the household level.

A sense of ''community''

Working from a community-based perspective, however, requires the existence of community-based organisations which reflect the views and actual concerns of the majority of community members. While a "community" in the strict sense of the term may not exist in all low-income urban areas, the common problems and concerns which people face in a sometimes hostile environment can create a sphere of common interests, and a certain sense of solidarity. In the best scenario, these common needs could prompt community action to promote interests appropriate to all its members.

The sense of community is most clearly expressed when a group of migrants confront the authorities for the right to settle on a piece of land. Other examples of joint efforts or self-help activities include improving environmental or living conditions by upgrading housing or building drainage; arranging for garbage disposal; organising security measures; or attempting to establish access to utilities such as water supply and electricity. In other words, the inherent dynamism found in most communities is capable of taking them beyond the survival level to launching further developmental activities.

General characteristics of low-income urban communities

The strength of community unity, organisation and ability to voice their concerns differs widely, and this must be kept in mind when designing interventions. In Africa, for example, it seems that first-generation migrants to urban areas generally do not sever ties to their respective rural communities. Consequently, they may not develop community relation ships in the urban setting as readily as longer-term urban dwellers. New group formations in urban areas in Latin America and Asia, however, seem to have a longer history of cohesiveness and organisation. Nevertheless, even where there are no clearly established organisations with chosen representatives and leaders, there are usually informal structures through which the views and concerns of the community are expressed. Women tend to play a particularly important role in community organisation and leadership.

Generally, communities with lower income and/or recent migrants tend to be more active than communities which are better-off or more established. Many of the participants in these associations are self-employed in the informal sector, or have a certain degree of time flexibility. Women tend to be the most active community members, especially in Latin America. In addition, the degree and tradition of community organisation varies widely between regions.

Factors determining support possibilities

When attempting to work with low-income urban communities, determine support possibilities and target potential entry-points for interventions, certain factors should be considered:

* Promoting community-based activities and participation should build upon cohesive factors such as:

- conditions for greater group solidarity: common struggle against harassment by authorities, landlords and moneylenders

- capacity to organise politically and influence government

- pressure to improve educational and skill levels

- escape from traditional social barriers and constraints

* Community-based activities are also facilitated by:

- concentrated location
- kinship ties and common origins (ea. refugees)
- high motivation for self-improvement, especially among migrants

* At the same time, there are a number of negative characteristics that would argue in favour of outside support to programmes:

- explosive population growth and competition for scarce resources and services

- breakdown of family ties and traditional forms of mutual help

- high incidence of crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, violence and access to socially harmful forms of expenditure

- difficulty of producing food for subsistence consumption (dependence on wage income)

- special vulnerability of women and children (child labour, victims of violence, prostitution)

- health consequences of high pollution levels, exacerbated by working at home and absence of adequate shelter

- psychological pressures bred by density, lack of privacy, recreational space, unmet expectations, commuting difficulties and the expense of transport.

* There are several positive factors which may be singled out for employment-promoting schemes, such as:

- a coincidence of workplace and living sites

-activities that use local raw materials, limited skills, simple technologies, small credit amounts, no formal education

- considerable mobility between jobs

- relatively few obstacles to working women and sharing work within the family

- strong incentives for cash rather than subsistence production

- better access to information (employment, market, wages)

* For the provision of basic services (health, education, housing, transport, nutritional supplements), factors include:

- density of population for delivery of basic service packages
- self-help housing suited to needs
- investments required for environmental improvements
- gender sensitivity in selection, design and delivery

General characteristics of CBOs

In light of the current interest of international financial institutions and VSAs in working with CBOs, and the growth of local NGOs who are supporting CBOs with their organisational initiatives, it should be possible to identify viable CBOs as spokesbodies for low-income urban communities. For VSAs, it would make sense to work through these existing associations and their leaders and representatives. When identifying CBOs with whom to work, their unique characteristics should be an important consideration in providing support. One must also be well aware of the wide variations in history which CBOs represent. Such factors which influence the particular characteristics of each CBO include:

- the evolution, history and cohesive forces which define the particular type of organisation be it neighbourhood or specific interest-group oriented, or driven by demands of housing, enterprise, service, or politics

- cultural factors (regional, country and ethnic variations) and regional economic circumstances

- other organisations within the same area which might have similar or contradictory objectives

- the organisation's relationship to institutions of power: government, political parties, unions, church, military and police, business, etc.

- its capacity for growth, transformation and willingness to accept, search for, and use outside support

- its leadership and decision-making structures (gender and age-structure analysis is essential)

- its capacity to harness resources, manage activities, reach the relevant target group(s), innovate, launch new/expanded activities, and influence policy

- its relative potential to be an effective partner in relationship to other organisations and the type of volunteer team which would most complement its particular focus and capacity

Support channels and intermediaries

Keeping the unique characteristics of the CBOs and low-income urban communities in mind, the suggestion here is that VSAs, as well as other international organisations should identify viable CBOs through which they might support the initiatives of low-income urban communities. NGOs may be key in the process of identifying CBOs with which the VSAs could work. At some point of the development initiative, it would also be useful to include the State, both at the local and central levels, so as to enable the "upstreaming" of community concerns and needs into macro policy.

However, it may be difficult for most VSAs, unfamiliar with a particular low-income urban settlement, to identify and reach CBOs directly for a variety of reasons: initial mistrust of foreign VSAs and the nature of their association with the State (although outsiders may be preferred in other cases where there are strong factional forces at work); language and communication problems; even difficulties for the VSA to be informed of the scope and capacity of the CBOs operating there. Consequently, there will often be a need for a local NGO intermediary, both to introduce the VSA to the inhabitants, but more importantly to act as a partner throughout the period of association.

NGOs, which have been broadly defined as organisations which are non-government and non-profit, have an enormous potential here. There are NGOs which serve solely as public service contractors, undertaking programmes for foreign aid and government sources. Others are genuine voluntary and people's organisations which could act as development catalysts and actively promote a bottom-up process of participation: these NGOs also feel accountable to their local community associates. It is through this type of NGO that VSAs may be able to support effective community-based programmes of support.

In addition, NGOs are often key autonomous and active players with their own agendas, and may well have more in common with self-help groups of the low-income communities than governments. Because NGOs are often independent organisations which are not completely beholden to communities, they may be in a pivotal position to act as an intermediary in linking community concerns to policy levels. NGOs vary in their relationship to systematic change. VDWs could play a greater role in working with NGOs in a range of interventions in low-income urban areas.

There is no doubt that if links are not made with the policies, institutions and resources of the State at some point in the development process, community-based initiatives will reach a plateau beyond which they cannot expand. The point may be reached very early in the stage of a development initiative if there are conflicts on issues such as land and access to resources. Because of their own nature as organisations closely linked with governments (in UNV's case, as an inter-governmental organisation VSAs are suitably situated to act as an intermediary between CBOs or NGOs and the State.

The potential of VSAs to act as an intermediary would depend on the particular situation, the degree of trust that had been built up by the VSA with both sets of partners, and the historical relationship between the community and government levels. If the bottom-up character of development is to be maintained and strengthened, then establishing simultaneous links with government and communities could be a useful step in the long run. However, the community should build up its own institutional capacity and confidence in defining and prioritising its needs before optimum use can be made of connections with the State and other institutions.

Within this strong emphasis on community-based interventions, it is also possible for VSAs to be involved in activities through governmental channels. State roles are often weakened by the lack of adequate resources to tackle the enormous population increases and their growing needs. VSAs working within governmental institutions could be supportive of, and complementary to, facilitating community-level interventions.

Placing interventions involving low-income groups in a developmental framework, however, has presented something of a dilemma. On one hand, it is the government which is responsible for articulating development objectives and strategies; on the other, governments' resource constraints, as well as historic lack of priority in addressing problems of low-income urban areas, has combined to deprive the state of effective models for responding to their needs. The implication is that external resource inputs - including technical expertise in planning, management and administration - combined with the creativity of self-help initiatives and of NGOs, would facilitate the evolution of effective developmental processes.

How, then, can the VDW contribute to community-based initiatives in a durable, yet dependency-avoiding manner? If the role includes organisational strengthening, animation work, technical and managerial training, and providing access to resources and policy-making, then local partners, team members who either belong to the community or have a lasting relationship with it (as part of an NGO), are key. Financial support may also be necessary, and included in the intervention design. The appropriate niche for VDWs in working with low-income urban communities will be explored in more detail in the following chapters.