Last weekend, my colleague and myself had our first meeting with members of our new network of community-based organisations (CBOs) and local NGOs in Timor-Leste.

Our motivation behind forming this network is two-fold. First, it is our way of giving back, offering our training and expertise to organisations that really need it, but that otherwise would not have access to that type of support. And second, it keeps us honest. It gives us a chance to learn from them: to discuss what’s working and what’s not in their context, to challenge our own assumptions about working with communities, and to continue to learn and improve our own work and approaches.

It’s early days yet. But my great hope is that our network discussions can form an ongoing, organic research project on what’s working, what’s not working, and why, in a variety of local contexts.

In this meeting, we asked the new network members what challenges and obstacles they face in doing their work – beyond internal organisational governance issues, and problems in accessing donors. It was a fascinating discussion, which I think is worth sharing. The headline issues that I’m going to share with you now isn’t comprehensive by any means, and some of them will not be new to you. But it’s still worth listening, because listening is how we can learn and improve our work.

So, without further ado, here’s what our members talked about….

International NGOs, or government bodies, paying community members to participate in their activities

This was a big one. The issue of dependency is often raised by organisations working with communities in Timor-Leste, and it’s a very real issue. It’s easy to forget that this is something that affects CBOs and local NGOs too, in which many people report that the ‘spirit of volunteerism’ that existed in the past has disappeared. Members described it variously as “people not wanting to attend meetings”, “community members waiting for projects from government”, “passivity”, “dependency”, and various other descriptions. Most blamed it on early development practices immediately following Timor-Leste’s vote for independence, in which large organisations started paying ordinary villagers to maintain their roads and other services. I personally believe that the dependency they describe is not as simple as they describe—but nonetheless, it can’t be denied that these poorly thought-out development practices have had a major impact on villagers’ self-sufficiency.

It’s hard for larger organisations—be they international NGOs, or government bodies—because there is now an expectation that they pay community members to attend meetings and other events only add to this problem. Community members don’t know them because they’re outsiders, so this is how they get them in the door.

But—as our network members forcefully pointed out—when an organisation starts to pay community members to attend meetings, or to participate in events, this also impacts them. It sets up people’s expectations that they will always be paid just by ‘being there’. And they start comparing the money that international NGOs can provide to what the local NGOs are doing. Our members described smart ways that they’re currently engaging with their communities (without paying for their attendance), but they all pointed out that this practice makes the local NGOs’ work that much harder.

International NGOs implementing their projects directly, without coordinating with similar projects are already being carried out by local NGOs.

Perhaps because of time, perhaps because of other program constraints, the issue of larger development programs that overlap with (or undercut) efforts by local NGOs seems to be quite a common occurrence. Sometimes, it seems the external organisation is simply not aware of the local NGO’s work in this area. Other times, they’re aware but prefer to implement directly.

In nearly all situations, members described various interactions with these externally-driven programs as feeling quite competitive, with their own efforts ignored, undermined, or otherwise sidelined. There sometimes appears to be more effort put into ‘branding’ the activities so the implementing organisation gets recognition for the project, at the expense of coordinating to achieve maximum impact at the local level.

This is not to say that all work should be funnelled through local NGOs—which, by their own admission, also suffers from low capacity in certain areas and/or lack of donor funding to support it. But it certainly appears that this lack of awareness or appreciation for the local NGO’s or CBO’s work means that there’s little opportunity for these different projects to complement each other, missing the opportunity that they might achieve greater collective impact.

Local politics

Of course, local politics shape all programs and projects, as they play out in the community. For externally-driven projects, many of these influences are essentially ‘invisible’. Projects fail or succeed—but program managers don’t know enough about community dynamics to be able to identify what happened in that particular community to cause the conflict that meant the project failed, or what the magic ingredient was in this community that meant that project succeeded.

Local NGOs and CBOs are also affected by the reality of local politics, and being part of the community themselves are very good at identifying the different influences that have impacted on their own work. They spoke of influences from political parties, where projects were captured, obstructed, or otherwise influenced by those seeking to promote their own political party interests. They spoke of issues of local conflict, particularly around ownership of land and other natural resources. They also spoke of broader issues of social jealousy, problems in fractured communities where some groups did not want to work with other groups, poor leadership by local leaders, and other problems that resulted from misunderstandings and poor communication with community members. And there were many more.

Happily for us, our members also described many interesting and useful strategies that they’ve developed to deal with these issues, some of which other members can hopefully begin to transfer and test in other community contexts, and which we at Bridging Peoples will also start looking to employ in our own training & facilitation work.

Final notes

These are a few issues that were raised by our members, that I thought were worth sharing. It’s not comprehensive by any means, as our day’s discussion ranged across a wide variety of issues, challenges, success stories and dreams.

But I hope it raises some food for thought on how we can improve how we work with communities, and with organisations that are based at the local level.

Best wishes,

Deborah

PS: Don’t forget that the Early Bird registrations for our e-Course Working With Communities closes Friday 5 February 2016. Go to www.WorkingWithCommunities.com