“Community engagement” is a buzzword that is technically defined as a way of working that recognizes and values community members as equal partners. It is intended to make sure their opinions are used to design and guide the work you are doing.
But real community engagement is far more than virtue signaling and it can make a real difference in the way messages are sent and received.
For far too long, vulnerable or affected communities have been viewed as recipients of humanitarian aid and development programmes rather than active participants in their own future and recovery. But evidence, experience and common sense show us that when communities play an active role in designing and managing our programs and operations, the outcomes are more effective and more sustainable. Sometimes helping actually hurts.
“What???” you might say, “It’s not helpful to give people water when they are thirsty?”
Well, the short answer is yes, of course it’s a wonderful gesture to give a thirsty person a drink of water. But what’s next? Thirst is not a one-time fix; it’s a symptom of a deep and recurring need within the body. ? By simply handing someone a bottle of water you have done a kind thing, but, however thoughtful, this gesture does not address the source of the thirst. So while you may have staved off death for the short term, there is more to think about and digging deeper to find the root cause of thirst and make a strategy to alleviate drought is what will make a lasting difference.
It's well established how generational poverty impacts our entire society and keeps the individuals within it from being able to thrive. Poverty is much more than simply a lack of material resources, and it takes much more than donations and handouts to solve it.
There is an old story of evangelical awakening that aligns with this concept: A newly minted Theology Major went every year with a church youth group to the same village, where they built a well for the village. Year after year they returned to build and repair the well so that the village women didn’t have to walk a mile to the river to carry it back. Every year they would find the well unused and neglected. Finally, the young pastor decided to chat up one of the villagers he had met years before and was able - over a few days - to discover unique information that would change the direction of his life. The women of the village were gracious hosts and it was quite obvious they looked forward to the visits from the church group each year.
But when the young do-gooders left, the women would intentionally break the well.
The women in the village suffered some pretty extreme conditions inside their homes that the church mission never suspected.. Many of them experienced domestic violence from intimate partners. The village had been through decades of larger hostiles taking their sons to serve in the military and raping their daughters. Some of the women or their family members were addicted to a plant that created a euphoria that prevented them from being able to care for their families or their farms. The walks to the river to collect water were often the only time they had to speak privately among themselves, to soothe each other's wounds, practice “alternative” reproductive care and problem-solve for their own community. .
Walking to the river had been a generations long respite and the women from the village passed this tradition to their daughters. And their daughters passed it to their own daughters. The women in the village had negated attempts to relocate the village and had sought out this daily routine for generations to commune with friends, neighbors and family members, sharing laughter, tears, comfort, recipes, healing plants, mystical potions and the strength only known to women who had come through great challenges.
And one of those great challenges had turned out to be the exuberant young American teenagers who came once a year - in the hottest part of the year no less - to disrupt their routine and build them something they most definitely didn’t want for a need they didn’t have.
And all with the best of intentions.
The young pastor found himself engaged in conversation with one of the elderly village women who regularly offered homemade treats and delicacies of an unknown origin to the group of young people and he asked her - in passing - what they could do to help them maintain the well in their absence. The elderly woman actually laughed out loud and the pastor was quite taken aback at her reaction. He was blissfully unaware that he was asking the very person who knew in great detail how to block the water from escaping the contraption once the teenagers were back in their Land Rover headed to the airport. He was unaware that this woman had birthed 14 children, had more than 100 grandchildren and had delivered almost all of the villagers who currently resided in the village - she’d been passed the torch of midwifery from her own mother and grandmother and great grandmother and down to her own daughters. He didn’t know she not only knew how to read, she had taught anyone in the village who was interested how to read and had encouraged many of the young men and women to leave the village in pursuit of the unknown. She was the first villager to get a radio and had the only record player which belted out the wildest combination of songs from old 45 vinyl records when there was a rare occasion of electricity surging through the village. He didn’t know she had lost three husbands to the violent deaths that are common where genocide was constantly happening. He didn’t know she had struggled with her own addiction to the seductive Khat plant that grew wild in parts of East Africa and had killed a violent invader of the village with nothing more than the discarded box knife from the body of a dead soldier. He didn’t know she had traded sex for food and clothing when she was a teenager, for shelter when she was in her 20’s, for random gifts and luxury items like soap and the record player she so loved in her 30’s, for protection in her 40’s. He didn’t need to know any of that…
The only thing he needed to know - and understand - was that this woman - who basically snickered at his question about maintaining a well - knew what her village needed and was an expert in her own life. She never told any of the missionaries that they didn’t want a well before because they had never asked. But now that someone seemed simply asked? She broke it all down.
The young pastor suddenly saw all that was broken in everything he had ever been taught about “missions work”. He didn’t pray with the young group that he had brought. He didn’t eat and didn’t sleep. He drove 4 hours to find a working phone at a police station where the drunk station officer snored while he made a series of urgent calls to the main organizers of the trip and relayed to them what he had been told. He then drove back to the village and divided the young people into two groups. One group continued to repair the well but they also walked the paths to the river with the women and - at their direction - strategically built seating areas in the places where shade was most likely to occur. The other group sat down with the village elder and her bevy of excited women to get instruction about what they really needed; a place of safety where they could go to speak among themselves, share stories and work with each other to solve their own problems. It was not a church - not a health clinic - not a food bank, and not a homeless shelter - but a place where the villagers could simply gather in relative comfort. For less than $40, they plotted out a community garden and bought the seeds that would provide food all year around and the well was retrofitted to irrigate the garden. In the center of the proposed garden he moved the large tent the students were sleeping in to create a temporary shelter from the relentless sun until the building materials arrived - all locally sourced - so that a permanent structure could eventually be built. Not by missionaries - but by the very talented and capable villagers themselves.
The young pastor never returned to America and he never finished his degree in Theology. His life truly became a life of service. He had “discovered” the secret to meaningful community engagement was to be in service of listening - and more importantly - hearing the needs of the people within the community and not to any western notions of deities, or what civilization looked like, and then taking that unique action to follow their needs and not his own.
The goal of community engagement is not to see “thirst”, whatever that thirst may be; it is to see past the thirst and then determine your path forward by allowing them to lead the design, development and implementation of the thirst quencher that meets their need.