Having selected which harm(s) to children they will address, communities can turn next to thinking more systematically about how they want to address those harms through community-led action.
Most communities already have experience in collective action planning, as they regularly take decisions about issues such as where and how to farm, how to help provide education and clean water for their children, how to deal with crime-ridden urban neighborhoods, and so on. Of course, the communities are free to develop their own action plans and planning processes.
Communities frequently decide to select particular community members to help enable the planning process. The work of this community planning group is facilitative rather than directive—it does not act as the decision-maker. The group calls meetings, encourages full participation, enables dialogues that explore different community actions and their strengths and weaknesses, and helps the community decide which actions to take and how. The planning group works according to the wishes of the community.
If, for example, the community have decided previously to use planning cycles of community meetings, small group discussions, and home visits for the identification of the harm(s), and the community wanted to continue using this approach, the community planning group would continue to use these cycles in the action planning phase.
If the community decides to form a planning group, a key issue to help them consider is who should belong to it. The community might decide that the planning group members should be the people who had played a significant role in the community-led selection of which harm(s) to children to address. Or the community might decide to use a different approach. For example, it might decide that the members of the community planning group should not only be good facilitators but should also have a strong interest in addressing the particular harm(s) that the community has selected.
An important consideration is whether the members of the planning group represent the wider community. If, for example, all the planning group members were male, women and girls would feel disempowered. Similarly, if the planning group consisted only of adults, children and teenagers would feel disempowered.
Community reflection on these issues could be stimulated by asking questions such as:
- How should members of a planning group be selected—should they be the most popular, or are other qualities important? Should they be all men, or all women? Should children be involved?
- How will the planning group work? Will they help to continue full community discussions, small group discussions, and home visits? Or should they work in some other way?
If the planning involves inter-community collaboration, it could be useful to help communities think about the above questions with multiple communities in mind. If the communities decide to have a cross-cutting planning group, they will need to think how the members of the inter-community planning group would be selected and how the group would work with the individual communities in enabling a participatory process of planning the inter-community action to address the selected harm(s) to children.
As part of the community planning process, it can be useful to help communities think about whether there are criteria or qualities that the community action should embody (see Tool MGM 6). For example, communities may decide that they want their actions to endure over time and have long-term effects on behalf of children, or to engage many different parts of the community.
Some key questions that communities might consider include:
- Looking ahead to the community action you are planning, how would you like the community-led action to be?
- Would the action be undertaken by a small group of people, or would many different community members be involved?
- Would the action be short-term—for example, something that is useful for children only in this school year? Or would the action continue longer and help children across different school years?
- Would the action benefit only boys, or only girls? Or would it benefit both girls and boys?
If an outside NGO is supporting the community planning and action, the NGO may have criteria that need to be met if it is to fulfill its obligations to donors, board members, and so on. Three commonly used criteria are low cost, sustainability, and linkage of the community process with formal stakeholders.
It is important, however, to avoid imposing these criteria, which could disempower the community. A useful strategy in this regard is to help communities reflect on these three criteria.
For example, community members can be asked whether most NGO projects continue beyond their period of active funding. Typically, community people answer this in the negative. The facilitator can then ask whether the harm(s) to children that the community wants to address is likely to continue over time.
Having answered this issue in the affirmative, the community members can reflect on how they want the community actions to benefit children over longer periods of time. In this process of reflection and dialogue, communities may embrace the sustainability criterion as being within their own interest.
Once communities embrace the importance of sustainability, it is a short step to helping them to see the benefits of using a low-cost action approach. Impoverished people are quick to realize that expensive approaches such as building schools will not be sustainable if there is a shortage of qualified teachers and little support from the Ministry of Education.
Consistency with children’s rights is also an important action criterion. After all, it would make little sense to support a community action that violated children’s rights. Few NGOs would be supportive if the community had decided to address a harm such as sexual abuse of girls by encouraging or compelling girls to marry at a very early age.
Fortunately, there are steps that the facilitators and community people can take to avoid this kind of situation. One way is to have the facilitator ask questions that help to raise awareness of the problems inherent in forcing girls to marry at an early age and to explore alternative actions that are consistent with child rights. Without lecturing people about child rights and imposing the child rights approach of the NGO, the agency facilitator could ask whether marrying girls at an early age could cause harm to them.
The ensuing discussion alone would not by itself change a norm of early marriage, if such a norm were present. However, the discussion would likely help to raise ideas about how early marriage harms children physically and psychologically and to enable dialogue about different points of view on the issue.
The sharing of divergent viewpoints can also help community members to see that not everyone agrees with the practice of early marriage. This divergence of views makes it natural for the community to ask whether there are ways of addressing the problem of sexual abuse of girls. If there are and the discussions generate significant community agreement, then the action planning process would have regained its consistency with child rights.
This consistency can be achieved even without naming child rights per se. As this example illustrates, it can be useful during community discussions of which harm(s) to children to address to blend in preliminary discussion of what the community could do to address the harm(s) to children.
The third action criterion of linkage and collaboration with formal stakeholders is highly important in strengthening wider systems of child protection. Throughout the child protection sector, it is well recognized that communities are not islands and need the support of higher-level government mechanisms in handling matters such as criminal offences against children.
In many countries, however, local people may initially see the government as not helpful or corrupt, as an obstacle, or even as a threat to people’s well-being, and their inclination to collaborate with government services may be correspondingly low. These concerns warrant attention since it will not help communities to plan to work with a particular Ministry, only to find out that that Ministry lacks requisite capacities or are unlikely to be a good partner on the action.
To help stimulate community willingness to collaborate with government actors, it may be useful to share with communities the example from Sierra Leone.
Here, having selected teenage pregnancy as the issue to be addressed, communities wanted the Government to help by, for example, providing contraceptives. As a team, the facilitators and mentors worked via UNICEF to determine whether the district-level department of the Ministry of Health could be reliable partners in providing contraceptives. Having received an affirmative answer, they visited the district authorities and began discussions that eventually led to government-community collaboration. The communities were happy with this process since it was not imposed, and the collaboration helped them to address a problem—teenage pregnancy—that they had selected and that they had been unable to address successfully on their own.
This example illustrates the important role of the mentors, who were vigilant behind the scenes, scoping out whether and how various action options might find government support, or not find such support.
Government actors may also take steps to increase community willingness to collaborate with them. For example, district officials might invite communities to think through how they would like to address a widespread problem such as teenage pregnancy, early marriage, or HIV and AIDS. Although this is a government-led selection of the harm(s) to children to be addressed through community-led action, relatively high levels of community ownership may be achieved since the problems are widespread and may already be of considerable concern to communities.
The action planning process should be as inclusive as the selection process has been. This stage may even provide opportunities for engaging more people since interest frequently builds when concrete actions are under discussion.
At all levels, it is important to discuss questions such as the following:
- How can parents get involved in the planning and community-led action?
- How can neighbors help support the community-led action?
- What role can schools play in the community-led action? How can faith communities support it?
- What do communities already do that helps to address the selected harm(s) to children?
- What resources do we have as communities that can help to address the selected harm(s)?
- Have people here heard of steps and actions that are not currently being used here but that could possibly help to address the selected harm(s) to children?
- What can we do to learn about the latter steps and actions?
- What can children themselves do to help address the selected harm(s) to children?
Iterative discussion of these and related questions will likely raise numerous action options. From there, the process becomes one of narrowing down and enabling the selection of one or more achievable options.
Through ongoing dialogue at multiple levels, the communities should come to see particular options as better than others and as having greater applicability across all three communities. As the dialogues continue, the need for capacity building may become apparent, even for planning purposes.
For example, in the Sierra Leone discussions of how to address teenage pregnancy, people said things like: “We’ve heard of Marie Stopes—we need something like that here.” Such comments helped communities to identify partners, in this case the NGO named Marie Stopes, that could train people on how to prevent teenage pregnancy. In the initial visit, community people had learned about the potential importance of family planning and subsequently discussed how this could help the communities achieve their goal of reducing teenage pregnancy. Eventually, after the community action had been planned and included family planning, sexual and reproductive health, and life skills, the communities selected Marie Stopes to help train peer educators on the family planning aspects of the action.
In order to succeed, the action planning process needs to focus on what is practical or feasible. If the action tries to do too much, it will likely fail. On the other hand, if it does too little, it may not make a sufficient difference in improving children’s well-being.
To encourage people to strike an appropriate balance, it can be useful to invite local people to think in terms of their daily activities. If a business person tries to sell too many things, they may be less successful than someone who sells particular things that people know them for. People trust the product and see them as the “go-to person” for those items. But if they try to sell too many different items, they might not sell as effectively as they would have through a focus on particular items.
Discussions about keeping the action practical and not trying to do too much can help to enable feasible, community-led actions. In general, it is wise to move in relatively small steps that enable the community to succeed. Having achieved success in addressing one issue, the community may feel more confident and then go on to address a wider array of issues.
Throughout the process of action planning, the mentors, who have extensive practical experience, can help communities to think through how to avoid taking on too much.
The action planning ends when the community members feel that they have achieved an appropriate level of agreement and are ready to move onto taking action steps to address the selected harm(s) to children.
By this point, the community members will have a plan in mind for moving forward, and this plan may be oral and informal or in written form. Particularly in communities that have low levels of literacy, there will probably not be a written plan, which may fit with the traditions of oral communication. Rural communities already make decisions about when, where, and how to plant their crops, and they do so in a systematic manner but without written plans. Similarly, urban neighborhoods may discuss how to address problems such as extreme poverty without developing written plans.
Yet some communities may want to have a written plan that spells out in simple terms the “who, what, when, and where” of the community action, as in an action matrix (see Tool MGM 11). NGOs often favor written plans since written documents are the means by which plans are communicated.
Although written plans can be useful, it is important to keep in mind that if most community members are illiterate, the use of a written plan can shift the power toward the people who are most literate and who are most likely better off. Written plans can also limit flexibility by implying a level of finality. The community may be more accustomed to taking an oral plan as a “work in progress” that is to be revised as they take action and learn better ways of moving forward.
Written plans can also stifle creativity, as communities may have the custom of communicating their plans by means of song, dance, proverb, and other modalities.
NGOs should therefore give communities space to develop plans that are useful to the community people and should not have to answer to the NGO requirement of written plans. If written plans are developed, they should be primarily for the community members. At the end of the day, a significant number of community members should agree on and feel ownership of the plan, seeing it is their considered way of taking action to address the concern(s) they had selected.
This sense of ownership of which harm(s) to address and of the planned actions to address those harms tends to generate high levels of motivation to take collective action to prevent and respond to the selected harms to children.
It is useful to identify benchmarks and things to avoid during this planning phase:
- Collaborative, highly inclusive process for deciding which steps or action to take in addressing the selected harm(s) to children.
- Community develops flexible action plan that fits with the broad action criteria.
- Community identifies and is willing to allocate its own resources to the action.
- The action plan is gender-sensitive.
- Girls and boys contribute regularly to the action planning.
- Agreement is reached with community-selected formal stakeholders who will collaborate with the community on the action.
What to Avoid:
- High-cost, unsustainable actions.
- Actions that fail to build on local strengths.
- Actions that are too big or complex and have little chance of success.
- Excessive action complexity (for example, having too many components).
- The community facilitators shift to being the planners.
- Plans and decisions are made by a handful of people in the communities.
- Linkages or collaborations with the government that are unrealistic or not likely to work.