Like all aspects of community-led work, the community-led action is highly contextual, and is created, managed, and led by the community.
In some cases, community-led action can spring up without the extensive planning and steps to develop an inclusive process that were discussed in previous chapters. In some settings, the action process may begin with a small group of people who have identified a harm to children and have decided to take action to address it.
For example, a youth group might decide that HIV and AIDS poses significant risks to young people and may initiate actions such as role-plays, discussions, and community campaigns to help prevent HIV and AIDS. Initially, such group action may not look like community-led work since the wider community does not lead it.
Over time, however, the level of participation may increase, as people see the value of the work and become motivated to get involved. Also, full community processes and non-formal governance structures may later endorse the action, thereby helping to legitimate it. The full community may eventually take responsibility for the action, making it fully community led.
As this example illustrates, there is no single recipe for a community-led action process. In each context, it is up to local people to decide things such as whether and how to take action, how to manage the action process, how to take stock of how the action is going, and whether and how to make adjustments.
This chapter features a full community process, but it is important to recognize that many variations on this process are possible.
Community Action Facilitators
The start of the community-led action can be an exhilarating time and a process that animates many different people in the community.
An important first step is for communities to decide how to organize themselves for taking steps to address the self-selected harm(s) to children. If a community planning group has already been formed for planning purposes, it is possible that the same group, or a variation of it, can help the community to facilitate and oversee the community-led action.
For example, in Sierra Leone, the Inter-Village Task Force that had facilitated the community planning process later transformed into the community group that helped to facilitate and oversee the community action to address teenage pregnancy.
As usual, the community itself is best positioned to decide how to facilitate and oversee its action. With this in mind, the facilitator could ask questions such as:
- How can the community guide and oversee its own action to address the harm(s) to children that it has selected?
- Would it be useful to have a group of people who help the community to take steps to address the selected harm(s) to children?
- Should children (girls and boys) be part of such a group?
- What qualities should members of such a group have?
- Should different sub-groups within the community be represented in such a group?
- What would be the role and responsibilities of the group? Would they, for example, be directors or facilitators, and why?
If the action process entails collaboration across communities, it can be useful to stimulate a discussion of similar questions focused on the inter-community action process.
Different communities may develop diverse means of facilitating and overseeing their actions to address their self-selected harm(s) to children.
One community might decide to transition their community planning group—maintaining a similar structure, asking members if they are willing to continue playing a facilitative role, and selecting suitable new members to replace former planning group members who are unable to continue or not interested in doing so. Another community might decide to restructure the group a bit, by adding, for example, more teenagers since they have expressed keen interest and are in a good position to help address the community-selected harm(s) to children.
Alternately, a community might decide that a pre-existing group within the community—for example, a religious group or a community development group—is best situated to facilitate the community-led action. Although most communities seem to prefer having a small group that facilitates the community action, some communities prefer an approach in which one or two community-selected people serve as facilitators or focal points who jointly facilitate the community action. The key is that the community itself decides these issues of governance, oversight, and action.
In most approaches, communities will continue to have facilitators who support them and help to enable the community-led action. Whether the facilitators are internal or external, they should keep the process on track and avoid various problems as outlined below:
Community Facilitation and Oversight of Its Action: Some Things to Avoid
Men run the show: This is a risk because most communities have strong patriarchal norms, and men may feel entitled or expected to lead the community action. However, such an approach would disempower girls and women and likely sap the action of the vitality that comes from creative participation by people who are positioned in different ways. Also, if the guiding/facilitating group does not represent the full community, there is a risk that the group will be seen as discriminatory, causing community divisions and turmoil that could undermine the community action.
The community leader takes charge: Leaders may try to take charge of the action in order to strengthen their leadership position. Also, they may want to see the community succeed, and they may think they are in a special position to help the community. If the leader takes charge, however, it will be difficult for community people to speak openly and discuss freely how the actions are going, what changes are needed, and so on. There is also a real danger that the intervention will actually become led by the community power elite or seen as a way of the power elite supporting its own agenda.
Tokenistic participation by children: Consistent with adult-centric norms of decision-making and action, children may be marginalized in the action process. In addition to violating children’s rights, this approach limits the chances of the community action succeeding. Children are in the best position to help community members be aware of children’s lived experiences and concerns. Children and adolescents also bring significant creativity and agency to the community action process.
Privileging of particular groups or people: The facilitator may favor particular individuals or sub-groups within the community.
Excessive turnover of members: In some cases, members of the group decide to resign due to economic pressures, the need to address a family emergency, or other reasons. If several members were to resign at or near the same time, there could be a significant loss of continuity. It is useful to encourage members to think in advance about their time, and to encourage members to help share the workload, which can also help to prevent burnout.
Non-facilitative stance: Individual members of the group, or the entire group, may slip across the line and act as directors rather than patient and flexible facilitators. A directive stance can be off-putting, and it can create the impression that “this is someone else’s intervention.” The key is for as many people in the community as possible to own the intervention and see it as their means of addressing the concern about children that they have collectively chosen to address.
In community-led action, there is typically need for ongoing capacity building at three levels: the facilitators, the community, and the humanitarian agency or non-governmental organization (NGO). Each of these is discussed in turn.
The action facilitators—particularly if they are new or differ from the planning facilitators—will need participatory training in order to build their skills in promoting dialogue and enabling inclusive participation. This can include strengthening facilitators’ relevant skills, like empathy, asking nonjudgmental questions, stimulating dialogue, enabling voice and participation by different sub-groups, managing conflict, and helping communities reach their own decisions regarding challenges that arise with regard to the community action. Even if the facilitators were involved in the planning phase, it can be useful to prepare them for the action phase by taking a couple of days for reflection and co-learning on questions such as:
- What new opportunities arise during this phase?
- What should the community process be during the community action?
- What will the role and responsibilities of the facilitators be in this phase?
- What challenges may arise during this phase, and how could they be managed or avoided? (See the “Some things to avoid” box above).
On a continuing basis, it is important for the facilitators to check in with mentors or experienced practitioners, take stock of successes and challenges, and carry out constructive problem-solving about how to handle the challenges.
Capacity building may also be useful in preparing community members to take action on behalf of vulnerable children.
For example, if a community has selected teenage pregnancy as the harm to children to be addressed, it might include as part of its action plan the training of selected community youth who can develop key messages designed to boost community members’ understanding of teenage pregnancy and how to prevent it. Following a community-led approach, the community itself should select the group or agency who does the training.
This selection can occur by, for example, asking community members whether they know of groups who provide relevant training and whether it would be useful to talk with representatives of those groups. If the community members agree, then there can be visits by and discussions with staff from different groups. Afterwards, the community members can decide which group(s), if any, they wanted to work with.
Most often, communities recognize that it is impractical for an outside group to train everyone in the community. Typically, the community decides that there should be training for a small number of people who will in turn teach other community members and also help to animate work on addressing the selected harm(s) to children.
For example, the community might call for a week-long training of “Peer Educators,” who come from diverse sub-groups within the community. In this scenario, the community facilitators in each community would invite discussion about who should be Peer Educators and to have an inclusive process for selecting them.
To help communities avoid the pitfall of selecting the most popular people, the community action facilitators can ask questions that invite reflection on the importance of diversity. If the harm to be addressed is out-of-school children, the community action facilitators can ask whether it would be useful to hear not only from school-going children but also from children who are out of school.
Similarly, the community action facilitators can ask whether and how it would be useful to engage with girls as well as boys, who may be out of school for different reasons. The use of a dialogue process—similar to the one which had identified the harm(s) to children to address—could help the community to take an inclusive approach in selecting Peer Educators.
In order to keep power in the hands of the community, the community action facilitators and the agency facilitator might engage with the community-selected NGO, community-based organization, or group that will do the capacity building. The NGO or community-based organization should understand well the community-led process and avoid working in a top-down manner. The NGO may need to forego the usual tendency to train people to send fixed messages.
A useful approach is to have the last two days of any capacity building workshop designated as a “workspace” in which the Peer Educators, possibly working with the community action facilitators, take stock of how to communicate with local people about what they have learned and think further about how to animate the community. If young people are to be the targets of messages about issues such as staying in school or avoiding pregnancy, young people should help to sculpt key messages, speaking in the local idioms and in ways that are likely to influence young people.
The capacity building, however, cannot be done well through a single workshop or training course. Every six months or so, according to the wishes of the community and advice from the mentors, there should be refresher trainings of several days each, with communities choosing the focus and methods. Community members usually ask for highly participatory, practical activities interspersed with receiving new information.
It is useful in such refresher workshops for the facilitators to ask what has worked well or what challenges remain. If participants say something like, “Our messages work well with children, but parents still have some mis-understandings,” then the participants could engage in collective dialogue and problem-solving about how to reach parents in a more effective manner.
Ideally, this discussion would occur not only among the Peer Educators but with the wider community as well. Both the Peer Educators and the community might decide, for example, that parents should receive the training since parents are more likely to listen to other parents.
Following the training workshop, parents could convene small group discussions among parents aimed at deepening parents’ understanding of the particular harm to children that the community action aims to address. This example illustrates how community action follows a flexible, continuously adapting process of acting, reflecting on what has worked and what needs adjustment, adjusting community plans, and taking further community-led action.
Humanitarian agency or NGO
Before, during, and after its work to support a community-led approach, the NGO or other agency that supports the process will need capacity building.
In many respects, the agency learns together with the community what it takes to support the community process. During the action phase, NGOs need to avoid pressing for quick results and following rigid timetables. They also need to provide space in which communities can improvise and bring their full creativity into play.
A useful strategy for mutual capacity building is to periodically create a reflective space in which key community members (for example, facilitators, action leaders, and so on) meet with one or two people from the NGO. Together, the participants take stock of how things are going, identify challenges, and engage in joint problem-solving about how the NGO could improve its support for the community-led process.
A noteworthy point is that this does not always involve the NGO or humanitarian agency doing more. Indeed, humanitarian agencies need to learn to step back and create sufficient space for communities to guide and own their action process and decide how to handle various challenges.
To support community-led processes, the NGO will likely need to increase its capacities for working in a more flexible, facilitative manner. NGO managers, for example, should learn to avoid asking for immediate results, become comfortable with communities implementing action according to their own timeframe, and focus more on the quality of the community process rather than on checklists of which activities have been completed. In turn, the NGO leaders will need to see the value of this approach and support the process.
To support this capacity building, it can be useful for the NGO to conduct reflective workshops in which workers and managers at different levels reflect on the potential value of community-led action and what they will need to do differently in order to support it. On an ongoing basis, they should reflect on what is going well, what challenges have arisen, and what steps need to be taken in order to address the challenges.
Activating Different Sub-Groups
In some situations, community-led actions are grounded in steps decided upon and implemented by a relatively small group of community members.
For example, a young mother’s group might decide to take its own actions to keep children in primary school. Over time, other community members who see the positive outcomes of this action may get involved, and the action might expand to include steps taken by youth groups, religious groups, or even the wider community.
Although there is no single “correct path” toward community-led action, it is desirable to have many different people and sub-groups engaged in action to address harms to children. For one thing, a community-led action is more likely to be effective if it is collectively owned and many different people participate in it. This makes it easier for the community to develop synergies between steps taken in homes, at school, and in neighborhood settings in addressing their selected harm(s) to children.
In addition, community action is more likely to be sustainable if many different people own it and help it to move forward. As discussed above, if a community-led action is implemented only by a small sub-group in the community, the action itself could be seen by some community members as “someone else’s work” or even as helping only particular people, and hence, discriminatory.
A useful step toward a whole-community approach is to enable participation by different sub-groups within the community.
For example, imagine a community who has selected child marriage as the harm to children to be addressed. They might plan and action that includes parents talking with parents and also with children about the harms caused by child marriage, with support from Peer Educators. Discussions among small groups of parents could help them to learn from the Peer Educators about the harms caused by child marriage and also to think about alternatives to child marriage. They could also discuss how to enable community reflection through role-plays, collective discussions, or media campaigns. This engagement by ordinary parents is an important part of the path toward inclusive participation and collective ownership.
The same logic applies to other sub-groups in the community. Ongoing dialogue processes within youth groups, women’s groups, and religious groups, for example, can help to engage many people and invite them to think through how they are using or want to use what they are collectively learning.
If more people come on board and want to contribute spontaneously to the action by, for example, organizing community campaigns, street dramas, or community discussions, that, too, helps to build inclusivity and collective ownership.
This improvisational approach frequently unleashes considerable creativity and excitement. Indeed, as people see the excitement growing and many people participating, they are likely to move off the sidelines and into the action process. In a community-led process, there should always be room for greater participation and also for innovation on behalf of vulnerable children.
The cost of community-led action is much lower than the cost of typical NGO-led child protection interventions. The lower costs reflect the emphasis on what communities themselves do, the reliance on community resources, and the fact that community members receive no pay for taking action to address their selected harm(s) to children.
Although costs vary according to the context, the nature of the action, and the action criteria, the cost for the community-led action in Sierra Leone was approximately $30,000 for six communities. Most of these costs were for capacity building and meetings, including transport and small daily subsistence allowances. The small size of these funds helps to keep the focus on what the community does, without looking to an NGO for an infusion of larger funding.
Of course, the costs are higher when the salary, allowances, and travel costs of the facilitators and mentors are added. Although these costs build up over time, this seems a good investment if sustainable results are achieved. After all, there are limited cost savings in using a top-down approach that is unsustainable, as the program has to be repeated again and again in order to protect vulnerable children.
A key question during the action process is how to manage external funding. Providing funding directly to the community can lead to dependency and increase community divisions and turmoil.
As usual, there is no cookie-cutter solution for this set of potential problems. It pays to attend closely to the context, and build upon existing mechanisms for managing the money in a transparent, ethical, and accountable manner.
At the same time, we should avoid slipping into a strictly top-down approach. For example, local people may suggest that it is the community leader’s responsibility to manage the money that belongs to the entire community. If the community prefers this approach, it could be useful for the agency facilitator and mentor to work with the community leader to make sure that his or her management of the money does not create the perception that he or she has become the action manager or director. At each step of the action process, care should be taken to maintain the bottom-up nature of the process.
When to introduce external funding is also an important consideration. Work funded by the USAID Displaced Children and Orphan’s Fund in Malawi and Zambia found that there should be no external funding until after the communities have started to take action on their own. Otherwise, the focus shifts from helping vulnerable children to getting money.
The monetarization of the process not only shifts the motivation for getting involved but also creates dependency. If people are engaged because they want the money, then when the funding ends, so will the community action. Throughout community-led work, it is a priority to keep people’s concern about children as the primary motivation for taking action to address the selected harm(s) to children.
In summary, it is useful to identify some of the key benchmarks and things to avoid in regard to the community action phase.
- Community selects community action facilitators and decides how they will work to enable the community action.
- Steps are taken to develop facilitation skills of the community action facilitators.
- Strong participation in the community action by diverse community members, including children.
- Community discusses and decides whether it needs technical training assistance from an NGO or other actors.
- Capacity building occurs for community selected members.
- Trained community members adapt messages.
- Community takes steps to address its selected harm(s) to children.
- Functional collaboration with child protection actors at other levels occurs.
What to Avoid:
- Gaps between the planning stage and the beginning of the community action.
- Early introduction of funding for the community action.
- Little active dialogue and problem solving by ordinary community members.
- The agency facilitator plays too central a role.
- Too little space provided for improvisation.
- Monitoring information is not used to guide reflection and corrective steps.
 Donahue, J., & Mwewa, L. (2006). Community action and the test of time: Learning from community experiences and perceptions. Case studies of mobilization and capacity building to benefit vulnerable children in Malawi and Zambia. Washington, DC: USAID.