11/02/2011 06:55 pm ET Updated Jan 02, 2012

Effecting Change Starts With the Community

This past July, Adam Braun, the founder and Executive Director of Pencils of Promise (PoP), wrote a piece for the Huffington Post reflecting on the recent Greg Mortenson controversy. Comparing the PoP approach to that of CAI's, Adam speaks to the type of support education projects need beyond construction and proclaims that CAI's shortcomings "should serve as a rallying call to invest more heavily in school support and sustainability."

As the Pencils of Promise Latin America Regional Director I know all too well how true this statement is. I have been to communities and seen schools neglected, disregarded and abandoned. Their roofs are cracked; windows broken or missing and entire structures shrouded in a thick film of grime, left to one-day collapse or be deconstructed for spare parts. As a method for reversing this trend, the international development community at large has formulated a new approach working with communities. They call it participatory development. The theory is, if you can properly and appropriately engage a community to involve themselves within a project, such as the construction of a school, and successfully encourage them to invest, either through cash funding, local materials or sweat equity, community members are much more likely to value the end-deliverable, thus increasing overall sustainability. The theory also recognizes the need for community involvement in the formation of project parameters, as a means of avoiding the imposition of priorities from outside parties.

So the question becomes, how do development agencies, like PoP, rally communities to achieve this goal. The answer is: not easily.

One idea that development agencies tend to rely on is that there is this thing out there called a community, where people behave in a "communal" way of sharing and organizing, implicit within their societal structure. More often than not, this idea gets applied to poor people without much critical analysis of the actual on-the-ground situation. In fact, typically what we see is that the poorer the community is, the worse its people are riven with division, strife, and discord, primarily over resources. In post-conflict countries, such as those found in the Latin American isthmus, this is particularly true. After decades of civil war, where neighbors competed to survive and families were torn apart based on a difference in ideology, people simply do not always want to work together.

PoP recognizes this obstacle and has developed various processes and practices to engage entire communities, without relying on the assumption that community and civil responsibility already exist. As a first step, we listen. We dedicate two to three meetings to speak with school directors, student parents, community leaders and teachers to uncover what project will most benefit local society as a whole. Once we have identified the need, we ask the community to form a 'promise committee' comprised of eight community members, four women and four men, from different factions within the village. The desire is to involve a diverse group of members who best represent the whole of the community. The promise committee is then tasked with engaging the remainder of the community to assemble and provide an obligatory 10-20 percent of the project budget (typically through unskilled labor and local materials), thus involving the entire village in collection of this contribution. Additionally, PoP is currently in the process of developing a series of workshops directed at the entire community to not only inform them of PoP and our work, but also to foster a higher commitment to education through story telling, participatory activities and round table discussions. When all is said and done, we spend close to three months in the community, talking with them, learning from them and relating to them before we so much as lay a single tool to the ground.

Of course, this is a learning process for everyone; not just members of PoP but also our community counterparts. The road to participation is a bumpy one with many unpredictable twists and turns. Sometimes, in very unfortunate cases, our efforts may not be successful. But we learn from that and by listening and remaining flexible, PoP is heading in the right direction and taking the necessary steps to realizing effective and sustainable projects beyond four walls and a roof.