The process of deciding to work together may occur organically in the context of providing feedback from the learning phase to the community. During the collective reflection that accompanies the feedback, community people naturally ask themselves, “What are we going to do about these harms to children?”, and they often ask agency workers, “Will you continue to support us?” The latter question is complex and could carry hidden expectations for financial support or even for a donor-beneficiary relationship in which the non-governmental organization (NGO) leads and takes the key decisions.

A useful, honest strategy at this stage would be to (a) express your interest in continuing to learn from and accompany the community in its efforts to support vulnerable children, and (b) say that in the coming weeks, you (the outsiders) will ask to talk with community leaders and discuss further a community-led process for moving forward together.

This approach creates space for deepening the community-outsider relationship and would likely be seen as respectful and supportive. It avoids making false promises or implying that outsiders will now lead the process. In some contexts, it can be very important to state that you do not have large sums of money or wish to bring in outsider approaches.

Alternately, you could go to the community again and ask whether outside accompaniment, co-learning, and support would be useful following the learning phase. You cannot assume that there will or should be an affirmative response to this question.

Indeed, in the next rounds of discussion, it can be useful to help everyone (including yourself) to question whether collaboration is appropriate and what the expectations are regarding collaboration. If community people show little interest in collaborating, or if inappropriate expectations are apparent (e.g., the community leader demands that the outsiders will give the community material aid as is typical NGO behavior in the area), then there will be insufficient grounds for collaboration.

Either way, more discussion is needed in order for both sides to make an informed decision about whether it makes sense to collaborate and how. These discussions are about potentially deepening and enriching the relationship, and they may have significant impact on the depth of the relationship.

What is outlined below is not a recipe but a set of indicative steps for enabling a constructive discussion with communities. The steps assume that the facilitator has been part of the learning phase and is well known to the community leaders and people.

Indicative Steps for Enabling Discussion About Whether to Collaborate

  1. Follow the local norms by meeting first with the Chief or leader of the area, recalling the main harms to children that the community has identified.
  2. Discuss steps that the community is already taking or has already tried in addressing the main harms to children. Ask: “What are the next steps for the community in addressing these harms?” This often leads to a mention of wanting outside help, which opens the door for discussion about possible collaboration. Keep the emphasis, though, on what communities can do and what local capacities and resources they can use.
  3. If the leader is open to collaborating, repeat the process with community people, engaging with people who are positioned in different ways. Usually, it is possible to do this within a week or two, without taking up too much of community members’ time.
  4. Meet with different community people outside of any large meetings that are held, inviting reflection on the possibility of collaborating as the community addresses a particular harm to children.

Key messages that the NGO can send during the discussions include:

  • Outsiders cannot fix the problems—only communities can do that. We support self-help and the power and action by community people.
  • We, as outsiders, can help communities to address self-selected harm(s) to children, yet our role is facilitative only. We are not the “experts” who will lead an intervention. We can help the community to engage with each of its members to choose which issue(s) to address, decide how to address them, take its own actions, and help evaluate the actions. We want to learn from the community and document their work on behalf of vulnerable children.
  • We work in a distinct way that engages many local people in dialogue and decision-making, drawing on the strengths of everyone in the community.
  • Our role as outsiders is short-term. There are many communities that my organization is concerned about, and we will need to move on to other communities. After you get started, we will be able to check in with you from time to time and may be able to provide information or help you make connections with relevant government or NGO programs that may help to strengthen your efforts.
  • We do not provide large sums of money, which tend to create interventions and processes that are not sustainable. Communities have taught us that they can achieve their own solutions using mostly their own resources, and we would like to support this kind of process.

If there is mutual interest in collaborating, it is valuable to describe the slow, dialogue-oriented process envisioned and to ask questions that invite reflection on how it is best if everyday people rather than community leaders drive the process. It can be useful to do this using local idioms or referring to examples that fit the local context (for example, “Does it takes all the people to raise healthy children?”, or “Can a single farmer/fisherman feed a village?”).

Such questions invite reflection on the importance of everyone in the community working together to address harms to children. From there, you could outline the various stages of the work: selecting which harm or harms to children to address, planning the action, and so on. Throughout, it is vital to stress the importance of the full participation of different people, including teenagers and children.

If there is interest in collaborating, it is useful for the community to define its roles and responsibilities, and for the external facilitator (if applicable) to define what they are prepared to commit to doing and the limitations of their role.

Since the outsider role is facilitative and time-limited, an important NGO responsibility is to support local people in their planning and action, with regular reports and updates given to the community leader. For communities, the main responsibilities are to share their views openly, participate fully at each stage, and work collectively for the benefit of the children in the community.

It is useful to reiterate once again that this is not an NGO “project.” The community itself enables, defines, and leads the work, with light support from the NGO facilitators and, if action research is being done, from the data collectors. Alternately, the community might decide to identify its own, internal facilitator, who is trained and backstopped by the NGO.

Although this process of deciding whether and how to collaborate is highly contextual, it is useful to identify some benchmarks for this process and also some things to avoid.

Key Benchmarks:

  • Community decides to collaborate with the outside group.
  • Community accepts the facilitator’s presence in the community or designates its own, internal facilitator.
  • Clarification of the facilitator’s roles and responsibilities, with clear emphasis on community leadership, decision-making, and power.

What to Avoid:

  • Raised expectations.
  • Promises of money and monetarizing the process.
  • Working only through the community power elite.
  • Making the facilitator the focus and initiator of activities.
  • Creating or strengthening dependency on outsiders.