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.

Introductions and Stating Our Purpose

A necessary step is to explain to the leaders who “we” (the visitors) are, including not only our name but also any agency affiliation. How we introduce ourselves, though, can bring complex power dynamics into play.

If, for example, we say, “Hello, esteemed Chief, my name is Mary Smith and I work with Defend the Children [a hypothetical international NGO]…”, that statement could trigger power dynamics and game-playing that are not conducive to a community-led approach.

This introduction fails to create a level playing field since Defend the Children, like most international NGOs, will be wealthy by local standards and staffed by well-educated people. Wanting to attract this wealth, the Chief might begin playing the familiar game of saying: “We villagers are very poor and uneducated, and we need your help.”

Indeed, he might make the village situation look worse than it really is and downplay what the community is doing to support children. The Chief might even have heard about some good projects the NGO has run in the area and might express his hope that it will run such projects here.

With the emphasis on what the NGO can do, it can be difficult to have authentic discussions about the community and its children or to lay the foundation for community-led action. It is important to manage this challenge in an honest manner that focuses on learning and avoids an emphasis on a particular NGO.

For example, in community-led work in Malawi, Save the Children entered the community as part of a district-wide AIDS committee.[1] In the community-led work by the Columbia Group for Children in Adversity/Child Resilience Alliance in Sierra Leone and Kenya, we introduced ourselves as being part of a “Children’s Learning Group.” This was appropriate since learning about children was our initial objective and there was no promise of action or support. Also, multiple agencies such as UNICEF, Save the Children, Plan International, and World Vision were involved in the learning phase.

This approach helped to manage expectations and keep the focus on the community. Maintaining that focus had much to do with how we stated our purpose and the use of open-ended, participatory methodologies for the purposes of learning about the community.

In stating our purpose, it is useful to use a broad, respectful framing that recognizes the community’s agency, resilience, and ability to support their children. If we take a deficits approach that focuses only on problems of children or risks, it can imply that we are judging the community. An exclusive focus on risks limits the learning, which ought to focus on both strengths and risks.

It is also useful to speak in local idioms rather than use the technical vocabulary of child protection. Technical terms keep the focus on us and position ourselves as experts, thereby beginning a top-down process.

A stronger approach is to learn from key informants in advance of the visit how local people speak of the problems that we refer to as “child protection issues” and to use the local terms for them. Alternately, you could ask about “harms to children and what is done about them.” The phrase “harms to children” seems to resonate with people in different countries and often fits with local discourse.

The box below offers a sample of how to state your purpose in a way that embodies these points.

Sample Initial Statement of Purpose

“Thanks for receiving us today. We have come to learn about the children of this village and all the good things that people do to take care of their children and keep them safe. We are part of an interagency learning group that includes global agencies such as Plan International, Save the Children, World Vision, and UNICEF.

“We will not be coming with surveys and fancy equipment. Instead, we would like to sit and talk with different people, including children, in a respectful way to learn about their views of children, what things harm them, and how the community supports them. Our approach will be very participatory, and we think people here will enjoy teaching us about what they do.

“We will not be providing or promising any aid or support for people. Our focus is on learning, so we can help to inform the work of different agencies and the government. In a spirit of learning, we promise that we will feed back to the community what we have learned and give people a chance to correct anything we might have gotten wrong.

“Our learning is not limited only to your village. It is being carried out in several districts. We wanted to work in all districts, but we could not go everywhere. We'll be happy to say more about the learning but first wanted to hear your initial thoughts on whether this learning work is appropriate here and also to respond to any questions you might have.”

This statement sets an appreciative tone by asking to learn about all the good things that people do to care for their children. In addition to being respectful, this wording positions the community people rather than the NGO as the experts. The statement also communicates that there is something like a teacher-student relationship between the community and the outsiders. This, too, helps to position the communities as the experts, thereby placing the community in a position of power.

Variations of this statement have proven useful in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India. However, it is not intended as a universal entry script, as it is always important to use an approach that fits the local context and to avoid reliance on universalized approaches.

Of course, actions can speak more loudly than words. If the outsiders arrive in large vehicles with NGO or UN logos, wear expensive clothing or seat themselves in ways that seem to place them above the community leader, these nonverbal cues can signal that the outsiders hold the power and are not ready to come down to the level of the people.

To manage the nonverbal aspects, it is useful to talk in advance with people who know and respect the community and who can advise on local norms and how to demonstrate respect and humility.

Initial Meetings with Other Key Community Stakeholders

It is respectful to have similar meetings and discussions with other community leaders such as elders, lower level chiefs, imams or pastors, and heads of women’s groups and youth groups. Bringing all the main leaders on board serves to legitimize the work and also builds trust. Often this needs to be an iterative process of meeting first with the male leaders and elders and asking for permission to talk with women, children or youth, and others.

But the initial community stakeholder meetings should include more than the recognized community leaders. After all, if you met only with the recognized leaders who are part of the community power elite, that could be seen as a signal that the outsiders only want to meet and hear from relatively powerful, well-off people. Unintentionally, this perception could quietly marginalize people who are not part of the power elite.

A useful strategy for managing such perceptions is to meet first with community leaders and shortly afterwards with people who are not at the center of power. This can be done, for example, by taking a transect walk—that is, by walking along an imagined straight line all the way through the community and stopping and talking with the people, including very poor people, you encounter.

Even if done in the manner of an informal greeting and chat, this can help observe how people live and learns about the situation of children. Also, local people will be watching. If the encounters are respectful, other people will more likely be open to talking with the outsiders.

Doing this in a sensitive manner requires giving attention to which times are likely to be convenient for talking with an outsider. If the poorest people have been out farming or selling all day, it could be best to stop by in the evening, or very early in the morning. Adjusting our timing to the needs and situation of local people helps to build trust and to open the door for developing relationships and learning in a systematic manner about the community.

[1] 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.