My initial work with a grassroots organisation in the jungles of Amazon in early 2000 was my first exposure to the world of community mobilization. In following years I witnessed the merits of involving communities for sustained social development. The insights I had received helped me arrive at a scalable model when I founded Educate Girls. These are simple principles that go a long way in making community mobilization efforts more meaningful and effective.
Define success before defining the structure:
Community Mobilization is not a process that is guided by the heart alone; it is steered by a set of norms weaved into a formal process that requires documentation, coordination and analysis. But before a structured work-plan is prescribed, there is a need to elucidate the meaning of success in a particular community. Every step in that work-plan must help you get closer to the success thus defined. For example, at Educate Girls we sure want to raise awareness about girls’ education and gender equality, but our definition of success is having every single girl enrolled and retained in school. To achieve this, we start by conducting a door-to-door survey where each household is individually visited to find girls who are not in school. Every following activity is focused on bringing that girl in school and ensuring she is retained. I would also like to draw your attention to the fact that by going door-to-door, we have actually identified the exact number of out-of-school girls in a particular community- thereby defining the scale of the problem and the meaning of success at that level.
Take everybody along:
The beauty of community mobilization lies in collaboration; adopt this as one of the core organizational values. Involve meaningful partners who not just offer support but also add value. These partnerships must be relevant to the communities. You can have the most globally celebrated partner on board but your community is not convinced till you have a local body endorse you. For me at Educate Girls, it really helps that we have the State Government sign an MOU with us. This partnership gets us support from the entire government machinery right from the village level and upwards. We ensure that we include these units in all our efforts to achieve maximum success. Often, a family may not pay heed to us as an NGO but when we talk to that family with the Sarpanch (elected head of village) and the school Principal by our side, they are compelled to listen. This way, we have made everybody a part of social change.
Find your ‘local voice’:
Many organisations make the mistake of positioning themselves as change-makers within the community. You are not. You are only a catalyst. The staff at Educate Girls communicates a catchphrase – ‘my village, my problem, I am the solution.’ This is a way of bringing the power of change back into the hands of the villagers. While doing this, it’s essential that you find your ‘local voice’ – that is, advocates from within these communities who will take the movement ahead. Targeting the youth is a great idea. They have the energy and the drive to bring about social change, organizations only need to channelize this enthusiasm. At Educate Girls over 4500 educated, young and passionate community volunteers work tirelessly in the most rural communities of India championing the cause of girls’ education. There is a reason why we have these young boys and girls at the centre of our model. They have been assigned specific responsibilities at each step of the program right from enrollment and retention to learning outcomes. This definitely requires training them in leadership and program but it’s worth the time and effort because we cannot fight the issue in a community as outsiders. Besides, this is the only way to sustain social development. All the impact that Educate Girls has brought about in the past 8 years is a result of collective efforts of these young, local advocates.
Keep the message simple:
Audiences comprehend issues and information in different ways. What could be a grave concern to you could be a perfectly normal way of life to another. So here lies the biggest challenge – to introduce the communities to the issue in a manner that they will be able to grasp and relate to. Decodification is the key mantra. For example, a family living in secluded, rural region in India is not concerned about an improved national GDP by girls’ education. So we break this down to real, tangible benefits like she being able to write her own name, being able to read out the newspaper, not being cheated by the contractor who employs them on a daily wage job, being able to take instructions from the doctor, improved hygiene and health conditions at home and ability to read important notices issued by government offices. These are everyday merits of girls’ education that we discuss first and then slowly graduate to bigger meanings. Plain explanations will not work. Become a story-teller; use of anecdotes is an effective way of conveying your message.
There is a local flavor that communities enjoy which must be kept in mind. This gives the communities a chance to connect with you without feeling intimidated. We therefore talk to them in their language and use local channels of communication like nukkad natak (street plays), loudspeaker announcements, wall paintings and conduct village meets in the open.
Not just the message, we also try and keep our tools very simple. For instance, we have created a School Assessment Chart (SAC) that has been placed in each school. This easy, graphically illustrated chart helps the community members evaluate the school against various parameters like availability of a playground, facility for clean drinking water, availability of a separate toilet for girls etc. It’s an extremely simple chart but has served as an effective tool for improved school infrastructure.
Speak to Clusters:
This is an important lesson that all the years of community mobilization has taught me. Geographic proximity makes impact not only visible but also magnified. Pali (in Rajasthan, India) is the first district where Educate Girls started work 8 years ago and reached out to all the villages there. Back then Pali featured in the list of India’s ‘critical gender-gaps’ districts (w.r.t education). After years of working closely with our partners to build awareness and bring about a change in behavior, the gender-gap in Pali stands closed as of today. This is impact of a great magnitude! The point I am trying to make here is – had we selected only a few villages in Pali, the gender-gap of an entire district would never be eliminated.
To conclude, organizations must remember to measure and analyse community mobilization activities independently – keep a track of all the activities undertaken, feed in a monitoring and evaluation tool to measure effectiveness. Step one is to define success so the last step must be to measure and evaluate the degree of success achieved.