These days finding funds to cover the cost of development staff can be nearly impossible. For voluntary organisations and those of us determined to expand and promote the social economy, it is essential that we find new ways of supporting existing and newly emerging community groups. So what can we do?
A new concept of community agents is emerging as one option. Community agents are self employed activists who are trained to work beyond their own community in supporting new and existing initiatives. They link together to form autonomous networks which can be tapped by organisations when and where they are needed. They differ from consultants as their strengths are primarily as catalysts and practitioners.
The concept of community agents is beginning to move ahead in the Highlands. However, the concept of such activist networks has its starting point on another continent.
The first community agents began in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Recognising that community organisations rarely emerge spontaneously, development organisations began promoting catalysts who are both animators and facilitators. The dual role is vital:
In Sri Lanka there is recognition that the most effective and experienced catalysts often are members of existing groups. They possess an ability to interact with other people in an equal, non-dominant relationship. To be successful such catalysts need to be sensitive to peoples perceptions and have an ability to stimulate people to investigate and reflect on their approaches.
More conventional approaches, whether through development officers or extension officers, explicitly or implicitly treat people as objects of change. Their relationship often takes the form of a knowing subject acting on an unknowing object. Fundamental to a process of participatory development is the break-up of this dichotomy of subject and object and its transformation into being one of two knowing subjects. The notion of subject to subject interaction summarises the essence of a catalytic approach.
The community agents in Sri Lanka are building their own organisation in the shanties of Colombo. People there feel that the crucial issue is class. They are tired of middle and upper class Sri Lankans reaching out to them they know that very little will change that way. The community agents are supporting groups to form credit unions, community newspapers and housing co-operatives. Poor people are themselves building an organisation where there is no social distance between their structure and the beneficiaries.
What can we learn from the Sri Lankan experience and what has recently begun in the Highlands?
There are some key lessons and they are presented here in brief:
If you are thinking of adopting such an approach begin with training. Select activists committed to the social economy and encourage them to share their own experiences. Introduce new information and concepts including a detailed perspective on community enterprise. Dont forget to highlight the trainees value as community practitioners.
In the Highlands training was done part-time over a three month period. It included a distance learning pack, a 5-day residential retreat and a 10 day work placement. Success depended to a great extent on individual self-motivation and discipline. But equally, strength was gained by learning from each other and creating a common bond amongst themselves. Detailed assessments of each part of the training was an important means of responding to the hard work each trainee had done.
The process should not, however, end there! Learning and skills development are on-going requirements for a successful network. Training can also be a way of drawing in new agents. A one-off training course, no matter how good, is unlikely to be enough to create a sustainable and dynamic network.
Provide on-going support once the initial training is complete. This may include linking the agents to the first few contracts of work. It may also include moral support for those who have not found work through the agents network. Technical guidance in forming a legal structure, and general access to information are also essential.
Undoubtedly the need for funds to support the networking functions will arise. In Sri Lanka each member contributes a portion of any fee they earn as an agent to the network. This is pooled and helps cover costs for meetings, promotional materials and documentation.
Foster and promote the agents autonomy rather than maintaining ownership over them. This will allow them to build their own credibility and may help to expand the types of support available to community groups.
Everyones life changes and some community agents will move on to other work. This should be seen positively as it allows recruitment of new members and thus brings in new perspectives.
Finally, community agents represent a sign of the times in which individuals increasingly have several means of earning an income. It is a means of building on this reality. In Sri Lanka community agents also have their own small businesses selling fruit and vegetables or repairing bicycles etc; in the Highlands they are teleworkers and community enterprise managers. The diversity is limitless, but remember that the concept belongs to no one and to everyone. So why not steal it and run?