How we first enter into and engage with a community can set mutual expectations about the respective roles of the outsiders and the community and about who holds the power.

Most often, child protection workers from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) visit communities, establish a modicum of rapport, explain their purpose, and then conduct an assessment of the child protection issues in the community. Typically, the assessment focuses more on risks and deficits than on community strengths. Based on the findings, the NGO workers design an appropriate program and invite the communities to partner on its implementation. This top-down approach concentrates power in the hands of the NGO, does little to build collective agency and resilience, and quietly casts the community into a position of dependency.

A useful way of turning this around and creating a foundation for community-led work is to enter the community in a more respectful manner that focuses on deeper learning about community resilience, views, and strengths as well as risks to children.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the initial learning phase that sets the stage for community-led work. Its objectives are to:

  • outline an approach that builds trust, positive relationships, and community agency right from the initial engagement;
  • show how an open, grounded approach to learning goes deeper than most rapid child protection assessments and helps enable a community-led approach; and
  • emphasize the importance of feeding findings back to the community in a way that prompts reflection about what local people can do to help address the harms to children.

Key Question for Practitioners

In working with communities on child protection, what is potentially lost by asking mostly pre-packaged questions, and what do we potentially gain by asking more open-ended questions?

Relevant tools from the Toolkit: FAC 1–8; LNG 1–5.

Even before the learning phase begins, how we engage initially with the community has significant implications for the power dynamics and relationship with the community. To enter into a community in a respectful manner, we should adhere to local norms and expectations. For example, in a Muslim country, the norm may be to meet first with key imams and the shura, the group of male community elders.

In the first meeting, it is essential to greet the local leaders in the appropriate manner, and to dress and behave in a way that local people will see as respectful.

To enable deep listening about the local context, it is important to take a slower approach to assessment than is typically used and to adopt the attitude that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” After all, local people may have views and categories that do not fit outsiders’ understandings. Even their view of who “children” are may differ considerably from that of outsiders.

Although community members have participated in the learning process, different people may have taken part in different activities and may not have the “big picture” that comes from a collective sharing and discussion of the overall findings.