Profiled: A Canadian Community-Capacity Champion

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was on to something when she expressed the importance of “never doubt[ing] that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. In such a way did Martin Luther King Jr. create equal opportunity for African Americans, Harvey Milk provide a forum for gays and lesbians to demand their rights (did you know that in the state of California, tenants used to face eviction if caught having homosexual sex in a rented apartment?), Mothers of East L.A. (MELA) successfully fought against the opening of a state prison, incinerator, and chemical plant close to their childrens’ schools (what the hell, East L.A.?), and Vancouverites triumphed in the abolishment of the HST (there’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking, right?).

In order to effect such change, citizens need to feel empowered to do so – this is often referred to as community capacity. The most basic and necessary component of community capacity is participation. I know you’re thinking that this is fairly obvious – and I agree it is kinda common sense – but far too often it does not occur, and a façade of capacity creates a sham pall over a community.

A Canadian non-profit organization, created by a group of individuals who felt impassioned to make a difference, deserve mentioning on this Obama-endorsed, world-renowned blog (See our established editor-in-chief’s post for details). They’ve successfully embraced the notion of participation within their charitable work in the horn of Africa (primarily, Ethiopia).

rural-water-tap-india-081002Many of their projects focus on bringing clean water and sanitation facilities to Ethiopia. Often, consultations within communities as to what projects or resources are needed are run and dictated by the NGOs, local officials, chiefs, and a few key influential citizens. Marginalized members of the community, such as women and the poor, are often not able to participate in any community decision-making – hence the sham pall. Even if marginalized citizens are able to attend such forums (difficult, given the fact that much of their day is spent working, looking after children or completing domestic chores), other factors such as societal structures and norms (do women feel comfortable speaking publicly in front of men?), and power dynamics (are poor citizens able to express their views in front of their wealthier neighbours?) play a role.

Given all of this, in what way is Partners in the Horn of Africa accomplishing the difficult feat of attaining true capacity? Partners in the Horn is so very different because it works with Ethiopians – many of them women who have come from a disadvantaged background – to gain trust within communities, and obtain information from all citizens (which sometimes means travelling to homes and small villages). They also work with local chiefs towards creating a culture of inclusion and participation – a much loftier and long-term goal. In such a way, they gain community consensus as to what is most necessary within that community. The community then participates even further by helping to see the project come to fruition – by contributing 10-15% of the projects cost (in labour and materials, when available). From start to finish, community members are involved and feel a sense of ownership over the project they’ve chosen. One of my favourite projects involves building pit latrines in rural elementary schools. The absence of latrines means children must relieve themselves on the school grounds – a major reason why some girls stop attending school. Waste from latrines then drain into an underground bio-gas tank, creating methane gas which is transmitted through a copper line to the cafeteria where methane fire burners heat meals AND is also neutralized and applied to vegetable gardens. Really, how cool is that?

Partners was started by a very small group of Canadians who visited Ethiopia and wanted to make a difference. They’ve embraced the notion of participation-founded community capacity, with admirable results. Bravo, thumbs-up, tip o’ the hat, and a round of applause to you, Partners!