When organizing a community project, I believe the most important part in its implementation is the actual community participation and its organization. Putting the infrastructure in is important as well but if there is no social cohesion behind it to hold it up and maintain it, sooner or later it is bound to fail. In a lot of rural communities you have to answer the question of what will the individual gain from the project, not just what they will gain on a community level. These are challenges that a development worker faces when trying to work and organize these communities, especially as an outsider. This is what we have been facing as we have been trying to organize the compost project and waste management project in Palenque. They are problems that require us to change our strategy in order to connect to the community members. We must connect with them on a personal level as well as connect them to the project and the benefits they will reap from it. This adaptations are critical to the success of any development project.
The benefits gained from a community project must be transparent from the beginning of a project. Community members need to see what they can gain from spending their valuable time on project participation, both short and long term benefits. Sometimes it is necessary to focus on the short term because most people in these communities only see in the short term. Why is this? Their lifestyle and day to day has shaped this way of thinking and it is often hard to get them to focus on the long term benefits of a project. Most of these people don’t have biweekly paychecks and salary jobs so for them they are earning money day to day doing menial labor, whether it be in a field or small construction projects around town. So their mindset isn’t in saving their earnings for their children’s college tuition or putting their money in a savings account; it is simply to pay the day’s food and other immediate expenses in order to maintain a basic level of comfort in their home. Heck, the majority of people don’t have a bank account and the idea of a monthly family budget is foreign to them. It is simply not ingrained in their day to day. So this is why we must focus on short term benefits when pitching these projects to community members even though as a nonprofit we are focused on long-term impact. This all ties into understanding community members and being empathic towards their daily lives in order to understand what will motivate them to participate.
As somebody who doesn’t live in Colón, part of my job is simply connecting with community members in Costa Arriba. It involves sitting down and talking to them, participating in community meetings, town halls, and community events. It means having a genuine interest in their problems and listening to them when they speak to you. This is an important step in community organization because people are more likely to respond positively to your requests of participation when they feel that you have invested yourself in their daily lives and problems. By no means am I saying that a development worker should merely feign interest in the lives of the people he or she wants to help in order to complete a project; you must be interested in peoples’ lives to be a development worker. It is requisite #1.
It is an essential part of the job that your passion for people must come first if you wish to make a positive impact in their lives. "
This has been precisely our desire for our waste management project; we want to empower and educate community members to take charge of their community’s waste problem. However we have faced setbacks in getting community members to participate and this may very well be due to our strategies in recruiting households to join the project.
This October we have focused our efforts on jump starting the second phase of the composting project which involves heavy community organization. We need to find and “recruit” at least 15 households in Palenque to participate in the project in two ways:
Strategies we’ve used to get people to attend the initial meeting have been going from house to house and personally inviting people to join the project and handing out flyers to that they would attend a general meeting in the Community Commons in order to discuss the project and ask for volunteers. The house to house call was vastly more effective as we were able to recruit 8 households to the project. In contrast, when I went around and handed out flyers, nobody showed up to my meeting. It seems that sitting down and creating that personal connection initially and then asking for participation is the key to getting people involved. It’s slow but it works!
We are working on making a coordinated effort to go door to door together as a project team. It will be Francisco Pizarro and Cynthia Vergara from Let’s Do It!-Panamá and me for Future Scientist. We will spend the day knocking on doors and getting people to go to an initial educational seminar in order to train them on basic composting practices and community cohesion. As the Panamanian Independence Holidays as well as the Christmas season are fast approaching, we have to put a little more pressure on community members in order to assure their consistent participation in the success of the project.
Going into November and the “mes de la patria” or Patriotic Month, we have to double down on our efforts and work harder at organizing the community. Both Let’s Do It!-Panamá and Future Scientist are passionate about the project and believe in the good it can do. It is up to us to sell that belief to the good people of Palenque so that they are able to see the vision themselves for a healthier future in Costa Arriba.