THE POWER OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT/OWNERSHIP – (PART ONE): WHAT COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT IS AND CAN ACHIEVE

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It has been tried and proven over the years in the Western World (Europe, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and it is becoming so in some parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that decentralization is one of the keys to good governance. The Liberian government, through the Governance Commission, is pushing through decentralization as a means of developing and sustaining a stable democracy (government by the people and for the people). It recently launched the decongestion program as a means of implementing some of the fine recommendations from the Governance Commission.

As terrible as Ebola is, it has taught and is still teaching a lot of positive lessons to help citizens and governments of the most affected countries to change and live better lives. One of such vital lessons is the power of community ownership or engagement. This article introduces a short series to aid us reflect a bit on the role and significance of communities in tackling communal and national problems as well as implementing projects and programs for the good of institutions, communities and the nation.

The series will proceed as follows: this introductory article will define what community ownership is and can achieve. The second article will consider how to promote community engagement at every level of the Liberian society. In the third article the focus will be on the role of effective communication for initiating and sustaining community engagement. The thrust of the fourth article will be on the role and responsibility of influential or opinion leaders in the community. And the fifth and final article will delve into the means (how to) sustain community ownership.

What is community engagement and why is it so important for overcoming common challenges and advancing the betterment of all of society? Community engagement or ownership means the community’s full participation in whatever that affects its wellbeing, good or ill. This requires the involvement of the community in decision making, implementation, evaluating outcomes, and the processes leading to them.

In the past, and this is still the case in some instances, community projects were decided and implemented by central government or local and international NGO’s or missionary interventions far from the people of the community. If, for example, the government or a Church or an NGO felt that a particular community needed a school it decided the venue, what aesthetic  style, kind of building materials and under took the entire project and turned it over to the people concerned without their input.

The unfortunate result of this, often, was that community saw whatever was done for it as the donor’s “thing” and therefore looked to that government or institution as the owner responsible for its upkeep and maintenance. If anything went wrong the end users waited on the donor to come and do something about it. A sense of ownership and responsibility was lacking. This promoted the idea of the community waiting for the government or some NGO to come and do something for the people about their needs and challenges. As a result of this state of affair a deep sense of dependency was developed and entrenched over the years.

Community engagement means the community itself initiating and seeing through programs and projects to enable it to overcome problems, and initiate projects and programs to advance its own good causes. It is about making communities realize and take ownership of their own difficulties, strategizing to overcome them and making and implementing things for its own hope and aspirations.

I recently heard an African proverb at two UNICEF workshops for pastors and imams to be trained and supported in order to make a positive difference with regards to helping communities fight and defeat Ebola, the reopening of schools, and any future crises and opportunities that require community participation. The proverb says: “When an egg is broken from outside, life dies but when it breaks from inside life begins”. In other words what is initiated and driven by community participation is by far better than what is imposed from outside. Community ownership overcomes dependency syndrome and empowers communities to grow and tackle common problems.

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