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close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderIV. Programming concerns for VSAs and UNV
View the documentGuidelines for involvement
View the documentSuccess criteria for volunteer involvement
View the documentTaking the initiative
View the documentFlexibility
View the documentMeeting personnel and associated needs
View the documentChannels of operation
View the documentUnited Nations Agencies and their partners
View the documentFunding and other programme concerns

Guidelines for involvement

Even though it is not possible to develop one strategy to guide VSA involvement in low-income urban areas, it is possible to identify some of the key conditions for such activity:

- Existence of a local CBO already engaged in some developmental initiative

- Mobilisation undertaken as a continuing process, both within the community to enlist participation, and externally to claim rights through negotiation or persistence. The acquisition and growth of a community's own awareness in its ability is fundamental to the process of development

- Favourable conditions in the public and parastatal institutions which can provide support to this process

- External agents who are prepared to commit themselves on a long-term basis

In the course of planning the intervention, it is important to acknowledge the diversity among groups found in low-income urban areas. To the greatest extent possible, interventions should be based on the initiatives taken by individuals, groups and communities themselves - supporting the principles of participation. In other words, interventions should be placed within a developmental framework, rather than be guided by a welfare outlook.

As detailed in the previous section, VSA involvement often places them in an intermediary role between community and state levels. Community-initiatives at the local level may be supported by CBOs and NGOs, but these initiatives tend to be scattered, isolated and rarely extend beyond the micro-level. To allow a more systematic response, links with the State through local and municipal authorities are required. It is here that VDWs can make their most effective contribution, operating at different, but inter-linked levels.

Interventions aimed at the state level should be tailored to meet particular needs, and focus on supporting the capacity of State agencies especially municipal government structures. Assistance would acknowledge government's frequent lack of adequate resources and relevant models for effective responses to the conditions of the low-income groups in the urban sector. Policies and enabling measures which support informal sector activities especially need encouragement. In working at the community-level, it is important that VDWs work through existing local leadership and organisational structures. VDWs, including UN Volunteers, do have significant contributions to make in strengthening this capacity and providing services, through a combination of intermediate level technical support channelled to government agencies, municipal authorities and NGOs, and animation and organisational work in support of NGOs and CBOs.

Success criteria for volunteer involvement

The case studies in the second chapter highlight four main criteria for successful volunteer involvement in urban interventions: flexibility; continuity; sustainability and self-reliance.

The focus on needs assessment by the people themselves necessarily calls for flexibility in setting project objectives. In other words, even if certain broad goals are set, they need to be defined and spelt out with references to what the communities themselves articulate as their objectives. This raises the question as to who (NGOs, governmental bodies, international agencies) would have the responsibility of eliciting communities' views. There does not seem to be a consensus on who is the best party for this; each situation would determine the dynamics of interventions.

Development processes take time to root. Once priorities are set, therefore, initiatives are necessarily long-term. The exact timeframe, however, would depend on local community capacity to manage without external support. There should be an emphasis on participation and local capacity-building organisational and technical) which would lead to empowerment of the community and act as a check against engendering dependence. This needs to be consciously promoted as far as possible, through the use of local resources (in terms of both skills and money), enlisting the participation of the community at every stage, and providing training and resources, where necessary, to either reinforce the community's own efforts or to initiate new activities. The importance of this approach is borne out by the experience of many projects, heavily dependent on external inputs, which could not be sustained once external support is withdrawn.

Therefore, ensuring sustainability and self-reliance are of paramount importance, and these objectives must guide the entire process of external intervention. A practical step in this process might involve the extension of financial support to local community members so that they may devote full time attention to organising and mobilising work, which is best done by local people themselves.

Taking the initiative

VSAs exhibit considerable variation in their closeness to - both donor and recipient governments. This determines, to a large degree, how reactive or proactive (but also how responsive and relevant) VSAs are, or can be, in initiating new programmes. The capacity of VSAs to be selective in their choice of partners at local and national levels depends upon the potential partners' size, links with donors, and independence within the respective developing country. On the part of VSAs, this requires a rare combination of sensitivity to local problems and requirements; an understanding of national, international, historical, socio-political and policy framework contexts; and a deep comprehension of the strengths and weaknesses of the many organisations and institutions who could be partners over a long period of time; as well as a consistent philosophical approach to development.


Working with low-income urban communities is a complex endeavour which demands patience and the ability to work on a long-term basis. The objectives of community-based work are to evoke processes of development which strengthen group formation and collective solidarity, build skills over many phases, and utilise indigenous resources at a pace set by the communities themselves. Participatory work is not the kind of activity which fits into the typical bureaucratic, aid organisational behaviour, where projects - well-defined in time and scope - are expected to yield quantitative results within a relatively short period of three to five years. If the whole exercise is to be truly led by the local communities, then its direction, its procedure and rate of progression will be unpredictable, and VSA sponsors will have to accept all the implications of that underlying uncertainty and transfer of control. Flexibility should be built into projects. In some cases, budget expenditure forecasts may have to be scaled down. Genuine community-based processes have little chance of survival, let alone sustainability, by having large amounts of money, or other resources, "thrown at them" rather, communities should develop the ability to target sources of resources themselves.

Meeting personnel and associated needs

Another fundamental issue for VSAs is the appropriate type and structure of volunteer support. Community volunteers could be supported by paraprofessionals, who, in turn, could be supported by highly trained professionals. In the interests of sustainability, the use of national personnel must be the ultimate goal of any development programme. The extent to which national personnel can be used in any programme depends upon the capacity of the country and urban centre concerned. In the majority of developing countries and urban situations, however, the scale needed for this of kind of work requires some international VDWs as paraprofessionals and highly-trained professionals.

Such work may require a mix of international, national and community volunteers, as determined by the dynamics and needs of the particular situations. The challenge in supplying appropriate resources consists of: (i) defining the appropriate mix of personnel to be used, whether from international, region al, national or local sources; and (ii) identifying funding, whether local or international, which can meet project needs in a flexible manner. Dependency should be avoided. Building upon local knowledge and initiatives would guide VSAs in finding the right balance and type of resource inputs. Building projects from the base upwards would also assist in effectively identifying the amount of seed money and other resources which might be required. Supplementing local knowledge, where appropriate, with VOW experience in similar projects in the region or elsewhere would enable communities to find new ways of addressing concerns in a practical manner.

Channels of operation

In using a participatory approach, it is important that VSAs build upon existing forms of social organisation. Identifying channels of operation would be as follows:

(i) Identify and establish a relationship with selected Community-Based organisations (CBOs), who would serve as interlocutors between the VSA and low-income urban groups. This window would help to give voice to community expression of self-help initiatives.

(ii) Identify and establish a relationship with local NGOs, most of whom should have developed their own experience of supporting the communities and their CBOs with paraprofessionals and material inputs, or helped them to articulate their demands to the State. VSAs would provide support to communities through NGOs acting as intermediaries, or work to extend NGO capacity in outreach, skills training, advisory services, or scope of activities. In many cases, NGOs would be able to direct VSAs to the communities and CBOs with whom they could work.

(iii) A third channel for VSA activity involves national, municipal and local government. The main activity in which UNVs in this area could be essential involves linking community needs to the resources and policymaking power of the State. Unless this happens, community-initiatives in addressing their needs and concerns would remain small, scattered, and possibly transitory in nature. Once communities have organised themselves, defined their needs and planned initiatives, the time is appropriate to involve government as a partner in meeting needs and concerns. It is the municipal or local government, particularly if it is based on a democratic election process, which is likely to be the most fruitful partner. The risk, however, is its susceptibility to the influence of local elites.

In practice, all three channels are likely to be involved at some stage of the project life-cycle.

In selecting a channel for support, VSAs and other international organisations have several choices to make. The first of these concerns the extent to which governments can be encouraged (and supported with necessary external resources) to confront and respond to their obligations to individuals, as citizens entitled to goods and services, in low-income urban settings. This is especially relevant in light of greater sensitivity and responsiveness of NGOs and communities in undertaking programmes as part of a self-reliant process. It may be argued that this concern is a matter of timing rather than principle; that is, there may be an expectation that successful demonstration or pilot projects built on NGOs and community self-help groups can be presented to governments - at all levels - as proven models to be replicated on a wider scale through the application of budgetary resources and international assistance channelled through government agencies.

An additional choice concerns the relative value of investments in institutional strengthening - whether the delivery channel is the government or the NGOs and community groups. Many development organisations have encountered difficulties in implementing their programmes because of inadequate investment in government institutions. This includes low budgetary priority given to operational units, high rates of staff turnover, under-utilisation of trained personnel, bureaucratic inertia and inter-organisational conflicts, as well as restrictions on innovations and initiatives imposed by higher echelons on energetic subordinate staff. Similar or worse difficulties affect NGOs (e.g. financial or staffing problems). CBOs often have only rudimentary or ad hoc structures.

A number of governments have acknowledged that their resource constraints are inadequate to address concerns of low-income groups in the urban setting. They have encouraged, consequently, assistance from the private sector and self-help initiatives, especially for low income housing.

In the past, international, governmental and non-governmental organisations have tended to operate in a policy vacuum - in other words, there has been no comprehensive national development policy to address the concerns of low-income groups in the urban sector, especially in the areas of housing (including re-settlement and access to housing finance), employment and income-generation, health services and education. Even though there may be greater government acknowledgement of low-income urban sector needs in national Planning Ministry documents, respective Ministries have failed to produce formal, integrated policy or sectoral policies. In cases where the Ministry responsible for international cooperation is separate from-the Planning Ministry, there is an even greater likelihood that the needs of the low-income urban sector -although partially recognised in the national plan - receive low priority, particularly when equity considerations tend to be outweighed by a focus on applying development assistance to increased production and the demands of structural adjustment.

In countries where national policies do exist, there may be a lack of, incomplete, or even contradictory implementation of programmes. For example, it is not uncommon to find a national development plan which acknowledges the economic significance of the urban informal sector and refers to the need to strengthen its capacity to absorb labour and generate incomes; yet, in the same country, municipal government licensing procedures and or concerns for cleanliness or social control may result in harassment or even partial suppression of urban informal sector activities.

There is not always a choice between government or non-government/community group delivery channels when designing and implementing interventions targeting low-income urban groups. In some countries, NGOs and community groups may be the only effective and operational institutions with which outside organisations can work. This is particularly the case in countries where government indifference towards, or even suppression of, low-income urban groups has created distrust and lack of operational cooperation between government and local NGOs and community groups. In this situation, the links which NGOs and CBOs have forged with international private voluntary organisations are frequently essential for their survival and growth.

United Nations Agencies and their partners

For the most part United Nations Specialised Agencies must work with government agencies to negotiate delivery of programmes and projects. These projects are executed in close collaboration with, or channelled through, the relevant national Ministries. Since many countries have relatively well-established Public Health Ministries and Labour Departments, WHO and ILO projects in particular tend to be circumscribed accordingly. In addition to substantive projects, it is common for United Nations Specialised Agencies to execute complementary projects aimed at strengthening the planning, management or administrative capacities of their counterpart national Ministries and subordinate units at provincial, district or municipal levels.

In practice, there remains room for greater operational cooperation between United Nations agencies with NGOs and community groups. UNICEF, for example, has a long, nurtured relationship with many national governments which allows UNICEF to fund, train and work directly with NGOs and community groups. More recently, UNDP, the UN Capital Development Fund and UNV have been following the same steps.

Even within projects and programmes that are predominantly delivered through government agencies, there is sometimes a willingness for - or at least a toleration of - some form of co-operation or partnership with NGOs and/or community groups. PVOs have traditionally displayed greater independence in negotiating bilaterally with national NGOs and local community groups. In many countries, it is necessary to seek registration or even to negotiate a formal memorandum of understanding with a designated central -government agency before embarking on programming efforts with NGOs or other organisations countries; this applies especially to VSAs.

Funding and other programme concerns

The mainstream channel of funding technical cooperation projects, through UNDP's Indicative Planning Figure (IPF) system, has tended to tie resources almost exclusively to Government channels. Regular UN Agency programme funds follow a similar pattern, but less often for their Trust Fund resources. Even though there are no major obstacles preventing these organisations from working with PVOs, local NGOs and CBOs, the activities themselves are undertaken generally with the explicit endorsement of the governments concerned.

The UNDP country offices, many of them now strengthened with UNV Programme Officers and DDS Country Specialists, as well as national officers who are explicitly responsible for women's programmes and NGO activities, are becoming increasingly capable of, and sensitive to, working at the community level. However, the resources available in many offices to "mainstream" this orientation have not kept pace with needs. Many UN Agency offices face the same dilemma. In addition, the community development approach has traditionally faced coordination difficulties in the national context. The main government contacts in the Ministries, with whom UNDP and UN system agencies negotiate, usually take a sectoral approach to development problems. This makes it difficult to address issues of specific concern to social groups.

In order to bring the major concerns of low-income urban groups into the regular programming mechanisms of the UN system, including those of UNV and UNDP, it may be necessary to promote greater joint programming initiatives among the international agencies (such as bilateral aid agencies, international development banks, PVOs and VSAs) working in a given country. This could include collaboration on situation analyses of selected low-income urban settlements in the country; and joint evaluation on methodology of participant and project implementation. Pooling resources would allow for a more efficient use of time, reduce costs, and allow for a wider and more comprehensive extension of support to communities. UNV, in cooperation with ILO and HABITAT, has recently embarked on such a joint-programming effort in Tanzania. The aim of the project is to assist low-income communities in Dar-es-Salaam to build upon their self-help initiatives. In addition, city authority capacity to address infrastructure and service-related needs would be strengthened.