In a community-led approach, the facilitator’s role is to create space for and enable community dialogue, decision-making, and action on behalf of vulnerable children. More specific aspects of the facilitator’s role and responsibilities are shown in the box below.
However, the facilitator’s role cannot be reduced to a 1–2–3 series of steps. Being an effective facilitator is as much a way of working as it is a set of specific steps. Like community-led action, facilitation does not follow a recipe but develops in a flexible, contextual manner through collective dialogue and decision-making. Key aspects of this orientation are listening and learning about the community, patient accompaniment, and enabling an inclusive process in which children participate in a meaningful way.
The Facilitator's Role
Rather than inspiring, sensitizing, counseling, mobilizing, or guiding, a good facilitator first and foremost accompanies the community in its own journey of learning, self-mobilization, and action on behalf of vulnerable children. To accompany the community is to be with it, both physically and psychologically. With this in mind, it is important for facilitators to live and work in the community, be with the people, and come down from any high pedestal.
Working in a nonjudgmental manner, good facilitators act as participant observers (see Tool LNG 4) and enablers of dialogue (see Tool FAC 7). To be accepted by the local community, they need to dress in a locally appropriate manner, follow local rhythms, and accompany people in different everyday pursuits.
For example, they may accompany children who are going to school, or they may go with children to work on their farms or to help their families. Alternatively, they may go to the mosque or church with local people, or accompany them to meetings, meals, or ceremonies. As they do these things, they deepen their relationships with local people and build mutual respect and trust.
The accompaniment process is patient in that the facilitator does not rush or impose their own timetable but instead works according to “community time.” It takes time to really hear the views of people who are positioned differently in the community. Discussions of some issues may become highly animated, evoking divergent views and even arguments about which view is “right.” In such situations, it is a mistake to rush forward, as premature decisions by a small group of community members could leave some people feeling marginalized, frustrated, and resentful. Facilitators should go slowly, move when the community is ready, and recognize that wide agreement cannot be achieved on each issue.
NGO workers who become facilitators and adopt this approach describe it as “transformative.” They acquire a deeper understanding of communities, their struggles and capacities, and their values and practices. Above all, they develop new appreciation for communities’ strengths and resilience, coming to see them as highly capable actors. Understanding more clearly how local people see international NGOs and child protection experts, they learn that they and their NGOs need to work in a different, more humble way.
Listening and Learning
As discussed previously, the initial community engagement should be oriented toward nonjudgmental learning about the community, its children, and the things that harm children or support children. Since the emphasis is on community perspectives, the facilitator should assume that they do not know very much. They should ask open-ended questions that enable broad learning and avoid making assumptions about how the community members view their children and various risk and protective factors. The facilitator is a bit like a student of a new subject, where it pays to ask many questions and learn as much as possible.
The listening under discussion here is not the light or superficial listening that frequently permeates everyday interactions. Rather, it is deep listening that is born out of humility and respect, and that recognizes how little we know about community perspectives in all their varieties. Deep listening (see Tool FAC 3) aims to empathize with other people or “walk a mile in another person’s shoes” (see Tool FAC 4). This process is respectful in that it avoids judging people and regards every person—regardless of gender, age, ability status, religion, or socio-economic status—as inherently interesting and worth understanding. The facilitator talks with many different people, including teenage girls, teenage boys, young girls, young boys, adult women, adult men, elders, and so on. As they do this, they learn about the community’s patterns of views, values, and practices.
To be effective, a facilitator needs to learn about local power dynamics on an ongoing basis (see Tool FAC 8). This entails learning who are the local gatekeepers, who are in positions of power and influence, who are marginalized or even invisible, who are opinion leaders within various sub-groups, and so on.
Without understanding these power dynamics, facilitators will be more susceptible to reproducing existing power asymmetries. Having an understanding of power dynamics puts facilitators in a better position to enable a highly inclusive, participatory process. For example, if the facilitator learns that girls typically do not speak in community meetings, then they can ask questions to diverse community members about what could be done to include girls’ views and voices.
An important form of learning for the facilitator is self-learning. Facilitators do complex work, and they need to have a reflexive, self-critical orientation that enables them to think in honest ways about what they are doing well, what could be done better, and so on (see Tool FAC 5). If, for example, they slip into being directive or too central in community discussions, they need to step back, reflect on how that is inconsistent with their role, and plan how to do things in a more community-driven manner.
In a community-led process, each member of the community should have a voice and give input into community discussions and decisions. To enable inclusive dialogue, skilled facilitators use a social justice lens, observing who is participating and who is not participating in different kinds of discussions and analyzing the power dynamics that could help to explain the varied levels of participation. Then, they begin the transformational process of enabling full participation. They do this not via didactic methods such as teaching people about their rights but through processes of group dialogue and reflection. This approach recognizes that communities themselves have significant capacities for change. The facilitator does not produce the change toward greater inclusivity but helps the community to see the need for change and to itself produce the movement toward greater inclusivity (see Tool FAC 7).
For example, if women did not participate in discussions as much as men do, the facilitator could ask questions such as:
- Are women participating as much as men are?
- Would it be useful to hear more from women on these issues?
- What could enable women to participate more fully or contribute to community discussions and decision-making?
Asked with patience, such questions help to create a reflective space for group problem-solving. The reflective space enables people to step back and identify possible alternatives that are more inclusive and participatory. For example, community members may realize that their natural process of taking decision centers mostly around large community meetings and discussions. These are imperfect venues since women may be reluctant to speak on gender sensitive issues such as sexual abuse or interpersonal violence. This realization may lead the community to suggest, for example, that there should be small group discussions for women and to have these discussions complement and feed into the larger group discussions. A similar problem-solving process could be used in promoting the inclusion of the poorest people, people with disabilities, or any sub-group that seems excluded or less prominent in collective discussions and decisions.
Discussions about the harms to children and about how to address them frequently evoke divergent opinions. This diversity of views is a considerable strength since it can stimulate learning and creative thinking about how best to promote children’s well-being. Because people care deeply about children, discussions of different points of view may become animated and can sometimes lead to debates and heated arguments. Such arguments frequently block genuine listening and empathy and may also poison discussions by stimulating bad feelings. Often they create a “win-lose” approach that runs counter to collaborative dialogue and problem-solving, and may even leave some people feeling “shut down,” afraid to speak up, or unwilling to take part in future discussions.
Effective facilitators do not hide from or downplay conflict. In fact, they learn to view conflict as a potentially constructive force that can stir creative thinking and enable a full exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of different views. However, facilitators play a valuable role in keeping conflict on a constructive track. Tool FAC 9 explores these topics and gives examples of conflict management strategies that may be useful for facilitators.
A full discussion of the ethics of working with children is beyond the scope of this Guide. Although facilitators are “with the people” in the sense of accompanying them, they adhere to ethical principles such as respect, non-discrimination, transparency, and confidentiality. They avoid harmful practices such as getting drunk with the men, sexually exploiting or abusing girls or women, using violence or threats of violence, or getting involved with underage girls, even with the intent to marry them. In general, they are trained on and expected to adhere to their agency’s child protection and/or child-safeguarding policies.
A quandary arises when a facilitator, in the course of his or her work learns about a violation against a child. To do nothing in such a situation seems unethical since the child may be in urgent need of protection, and inaction may be a form of complicity. Inaction is particularly inappropriate in regard to a serious violation. Yet if the facilitators act on a violation, for example, by reporting to authorities, they may no longer be trusted fully. Nor would they be seen as facilitators. Most likely, local people would see the facilitators as judging or monitoring local people, thereby undermining trust and the facilitators’ perceived neutrality. Because such facilitators are not trained child protection workers, they may not know how to respond in a way that is consistent with the best interests of the child.
Most agencies that support community-led approaches recognize that they need to support ethical behavior by their facilitators. Yet they adapt the mandatory reporting obligation that is typically part of child safeguarding policies. Most often, these adaptations include provisions for giving children immediate, confidential information about whom to call for help or to report a violation. Also, they call for a slow, long-term approach of developing an effective, sustainable local process for handling such violations. They may also include special processes to be used in the case of severe harms to children. A tool for helping agencies to decide their own approach and in the particular context is included in the companion Toolkit (see Tool MGM 7).
Because facilitators are very close to the community on a daily basis, they play an important role in documenting community activities and processes. This can be of considerable importance in capturing the actual implementation, as community-led approaches favor improvisational work that does not unfold according to a fixed manual.
 Useful resources include: Alderson, P., & Morrow, V. (2011). The ethics of research with children and young people. London, UK: Sage; Allden, K., Jones, L., Weissbecker, I., Wessells, M., Bolton, P., Betancourt, T., Hijazi, Z., Galappati, A., Yamout, R., Patel, P., & Sumathipala, A. (2009). Mental health and psychosocial support in crisis and conflict: Report of the Mental Health Working Group—Humanitarian Action Summit. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, vol. 24 (supplement 2); Boyden, J. (2004). Anthropology under fire: Ethics, researchers and children in war. In J. Boyden & J. de Berry (Eds.), Children and youth on the front line (pp. 237–258). New York, NY: Berghahn; Graham, A., Powell, M., Taylor, N., Anderson, D. & Fitzgerald, R. (2013). Ethical research involving children. Florence, IT: UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti; Hart, J., & Tyrer, B. (2006). Research with children living in situations of armed conflict: Concepts, ethics and methods. Refugee Studies Centre Working Paper No. 30. Oxford University, UK: Queen Elizabeth House; Morrow, V. (2009). The ethics of social research with children and families in young lives: Practical experiences. Oxford, UK: Young Lives Research Project; and Schenk, K., & Williamson, J. (2005). Ethical approaches to gathering information from children and adolescents in international settings: Guidelines and resources. Washington, DC: Population Council.