Engaging effectively with communities requires a solid foundation of trust based on mutual respect and understanding of priorities. Establishing principles as a code of conduct helps the relationship process by setting expectations for all parties.
PRINCIPLES FOR EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
The following principles have assisted Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliances in developing its approaches to and activities around community engagement. And it sets the stage for transparency, which grassroots conservationists agree is critical to building lasting, meaningful partnerships and solidarity actions with the forest users communities.
Some organizations use guiding principles as a foundation for their models of engagement. For example, we at Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance emphasize its principles of community engagement: the presence of conservationists among the community members; the aptness of interventions; relationships built on respect; transparency with local communities; negotiations based on conservation linkages; empathy and attention to perspectives; responsiveness to emerging problems; and support to increase resilience of community conservation efforts.
When donor imposed timelines require NGOs to meet benchmarks and deadlines, there can be a tendency to push the process along. However, when working with communities, rigidity is not favourable. It is important to remain fluid, flexible, and responsive to the momentum and pace of local people. The specific values reflected in the principles will undoubtedly vary based on culture, project, and setting. Still, in virtually all cases, agreed upon, documented principles serve as a lens that is critical to ensuring conservationists remain mindful of the concerns of residents.
Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance believed the following to be the most essential principles for community engagement collaboration:
Remaining responsive to shifting community interests and issues, adjusting direction and momentum as necessary
Upholding cultural institutions, local governments, and community decision-making structures in conservation initiatives
Optimizing benefit-sharing and improving livelihoods through transparency, equity, and reciprocity
Eliciting inclusive community participation and collaboration with stakeholders
Embracing a shared learning environment that emphasizes understanding and empathy through dialogue, listening, and support of local languages
Incorporating traditional knowledge and diverse perspectives of local communities and indigenous peoples
Inspiring community involvement by committing to resource ownership, capacity building, and accountability
DEFINING SHARED GOALS
One of the most important phases of building strong relationships with communities is discovering the goals we have in common. Just as all members of a community must share some trait in order to identify with that community, we must learn which environmental goals we share with a community in order to integrate effectively. This process may begin informally and gradually shift toward formal goal-setting exercises; it may be years long or even an ongoing phase of community engagement. In defining common ground with the community, we should promote open dialogue and foster collaborative relationships that help MEFBA become not just tangential to the community, but a part of it. Importantly, this places local people squarely at the centre of the conservation discourse
Goals. Objectives. Results. Benchmarks. Targets. Milestones. Project. Program. Activity.
As NGOs, we often get caught up in defining and differentiating terms. While this can be extremely important for donors and within organizations, it is beyond the scope of this framework. Thus, we focus on concepts rather than precise definitions. Some terms may be used interchangeably, and it is up to MEFBA to determine how we fit within our own organizational structure. Remembering: When working across cultures and languages, this flexibility is key!
TIPS AND TOOLS:
CLARIFYING INTERNAL GOALS
Before engaging with communities to determine mutually held goals, we should have a strong sense of our own identities and priorities. This will help ensure we come prepared to meetings with community leadership. MEFBA already has a vision, mission statement, or desired end state defined in our organizational frameworks, which can serve as an internal guideline for priority setting exercises. However, broad visions must be pared down to goals that are relevant to the scope and context of the intended project site. Goals should be feasible, but also ambitious! Goals that are too lofty may leave a project with no realistic targets, whereas goals that are too easy to achieve may not allow for project growth and expansion. Before conducting visioning workshops with community leadership, we should understand our own priorities, areas for expansion, and red lines they won’t cross. For instance, an NGO focused on stabilizing apex predator populations may draw a red line if a community goal is to extirpate the predator population in their area. Without defining red lines before meeting with community leadership, an NGO may be subject to mission drift or lose its foundational vision. Thus, we must recognize, as conservation NGOs, that there is some inherent, and yet essential, risk in community driven goal setting.
Tool 3 in the toolkit can help NGOs clarify their internal goals, areas for expansion, and red lines and organize them before meeting with communities.
Accessing the Community
Depending on how established or evolved an organization is, the precise starting point for engaging with a community may vary substantially. A new NGO may struggle initially with zero or few contacts to begin a relationship. it is preferable to work with communities where the NGO has some connections. However, new relationships can always begin through the simple act of being present in a community and establishing friendships. Attending community events, celebrations, and meetings or visiting eating establishments and places of worship can be excellent ways to begin meeting community members.
Through our local connections, we should try to identify at least one community champion. A community champion is an individual in the community who has strong connections to local leadership and the community at large and is willing to facilitate introductions to other people. If the NGO is lucky, a community champion will be a member of the village council or other local governance institution. Finding community champions may take time, but without them it can be more difficult for NGOs to engage effectively and consistently. Individuals who know the influencers in a community can help inform the NGO about the local decision-making and social processes and ultimately endorse and give credibility to conservation interests.
Community champions should help facilitate introductions with, or provide contact information for, members of a community executive council or other leadership authority. When getting to know local leadership, it can be helpful to arrange a brief introductory meeting first to build trust before planning for larger presentations or discussions. This meeting should include introductions with key people from the NGO and the community and may involve a brief description of the NGO’s mission statement.
TIPS AND TOOLS:
ASSESSING INTERNAL CAPACITY
When working with communities, we have a responsibility, at the very least, to “do no harm.” Before implementing a project, organizations should have a strong grasp of their own skills and strengths in order to maximize their engagement efforts. If done comprehensively with a self critical lens, internal readiness assessments help pinpoint gaps and areas where additional resources are required to be successful.
Using STEP analysis, Tool 4 in the toolkit guides organizations through the process of assessing internal capacity for social, technical, economic, and political work in their target communities.
Importantly, the community leadership should be encouraged to describe the critical environmental issues in their community and how the NGO’s mission fits or doesn’t fit within existing priorities or programming and initiatives.
Understanding the Local Context
After an introductory meeting, the NGO should learn as much as possible about local needs, priorities, issues, existing systems, and other NGOs working in the region. This phase of community engagement is critical to truly understanding the people, their culture(s), and the social dynamics within which an NGO intends to work. A suite of assessments can be conducted at this phase, all of which comprise a Context Assessment.
This is also an opportune time to begin collecting baseline information, even though indicators for monitoring may not be defined.
Depending on the region, community, NGO mission, and assessment capacity of the NGO, a Context Assessment may include the following:
- Needs appraisal
- Conflict analysis
- Historical background research
- Land-use change analysis
- Market assessment
- Attitudinal survey
An individual in the community who is knowledgeable about community structure, has connections with community leadership, and is willing to facilitate introductions to other people.
While all these assessments may seem cumbersome or complicated, they will often overlap significantly in results. Some organizations may choose to conduct rigorously sampled assessments, while others may find it more useful to glean this information through informal discussions and conversations with community members. Either way, this initial scoping phase will help the NGO deepen its understanding of the community while strengthening relationships with individuals, subgroups, and leadership.
Remember to keep the principles of community engagement in mind so that all communication with community members is respectful and the NGO’s intentions are transparent. This can expedite the relationship building process and alleviate suspicion of newcomers.
Connecting with the Community
With a better understanding of the local context, grounded in developing relationships, we can now begin connecting more deeply with the community leadership to identify shared goals and mutual priorities. At this stage, it is important to remember and acknowledge that community leadership and members will have their own interests and red lines, which may overlap, conflict, or complement those of Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance.
When meeting with community leadership for a visioning workshop, we should allow significant time for members of the community to state their perspectives, issues of interest, and goals, recognizing that the community will not have homogenous views. Understanding local politics and the multiple perspectives within communities can help Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance build layered alliances that span multiple levels of governance. There are several strategies that we use in visioning workshops with communities to foster an inclusive and participatory atmosphere:
- Joint facilitation: MEFBA Identifies facilitators from both the community and our team who can meet before the visioning workshop to delineate the roles and responsibilities of each facilitator.
- Language inclusion: MEFBA ensures that translators will be present for all languages spoken in the community (Nepal has 103 dialects and languages spoken by different ethnic groups) so that all subgroups in attendance will have the opportunity to understand the proceedings and voice their perspectives in their preferred language.
- Disaggregation: Consider offering separate visioning workshops for women or other minority groups to ensure their views are included. Members of minority subgroups may not feel comfortable voicing their opinions in front of the greater community. Disaggregating may help avoid the pitfall of homogenizing community perspectives.
- Mirroring: Encourage the community facilitator to lead the proceedings as they would in any other community meeting, with the NGO facilitator representing the interests, goals, and red lines of the organization. The location and atmosphere should mirror those of community meetings in which the NGO does not participate. This will avoid the pitfall of the visioning workshop becoming purely NGO driven and the workshop results appearing to be initiated from the top down.
- Structured participation: Create an agenda for the meeting in collaboration with the community facilitator that encourages each subgroup within the community to state its priority goals and red lines. This often requires strong facilitation to ensure the discussion remains targeted on the topic of potential shared community NGO programming and not all societal needs as recognized by the community.
- Actionable agenda: At the beginning of the visioning workshop, ensure that the facilitators clarify an end goal or deliverable that should be completed by the end of the meeting. This will help each member of the community frame their thoughts around that deliverable and allow for more productive and actionable discussion. Community members should be able to see how their perspectives and input are reflected in the final deliverable.
TIPS AND TOOLS:
Building relationships in new communities can sometimes be overwhelming, with many new people, organizations, and civil society groups vying for their voices to be heard. It may be difficult initially to determine which individuals and groups can help, which will oppose, and why. Examining these new relationships in depth through a stakeholder analysis can help orient MEFBA while also providing necessary context for building community partnerships.
Tool 5 in the toolkit provides two templates for stakeholder mapping. The first, Tool 5.1, allows Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance to categorize stakeholders as “opponents” or “supporters” of their cause along with their levels of engagement. The second, Tool 5.2, asks NGOs to rank the level of power that each stakeholder may have and thus determine if that stakeholder’s support or opposition will be significant in programming.
Conflict Transformation Model
One model that can be used for conflict resolution within a working group is the Conflict Transformation Model. This model conceptualizes conflicts as opportunities to understand and change the factors shaping priority conflict. It entails long-term engagement with conflicting parties and acknowledges that disputes about a given issue may be based on underlying histories of conflict.5 Members of the working group must therefore meet regularly, and are encouraged to discuss their shared values, differing perspectives, and personal connections to the conflict issue. Only through repeated, respectful human engagement can meaningful relationships be built between conflicting parties on an issue. When members of a working group understand each other’s socio psychological needs and begin to develop relationships outside of the conflict sphere, open communication is more likely and resolutions to conflict issues become more feasible.
Managing Conflicting Goals
Of course, while some goals of Mt Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance and all subgroups of the community will overlap or complement each other, other goals will conflict. Red lines may be crossed where one community group’s priority goals directly contradict those of another group or MEFBA.
For instance, a farmers’ association or other agricultural community group may have land-use priorities that conflict directly with the land conservation goals of the NGO, the infrastructure development goals of a transportation authority, and the economic goals of a community-owned tourism venture. Reconciling these directly conflicting priorities requires committing to genuine conflict resolution. Many organizations might advise NGOs to focus on complementary goals to maintain positive relationships. However, as per our own past experience while working with some ethnic groups, embracing and attempting to resolve conflicts can be a powerful entry point for building trust and commitment. Meanwhile, ignoring or setting aside conflicting goals can lead to resentment or tension that is sure to raise issues in later stages of the project cycle. When conflicting priorities are identified through visioning exercises, it can be more productive in the long run to create a working group tasked with discussing and designing a resolution around the issue. Thus, a visioning workshop can continue as planned when a venue for conflict resolution has been created.
The case study below describes two scenarios of conflict in which NGOs and community subgroups had directly conflicting priorities. Comparing the community engagement strategies of each demonstrates how priorities can be reconciled or conflict can escalate between parties.
Though the Ijara pastoralists of eastern Kenya value the hirola antelope as a heritage symbol, livestock had depleted grazing land and left the hirola critically endangered. When the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) tried to translocate the remaining hirola to a national park, conflict ensued between conservationists and the Ijara seeking to protect their cultural heritage. After years of court battles, the Ijara proposed creating the community-managed Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy. In the conservancy, managers and youth scouts are elected by the local community and trained by KWS. Reformulated grazing rules and enforcement mechanisms have increased not only hirola populations but also those of elephants, giraffes, hyenas, warthogs, and African wild dogs. The project’s success relies on four key factors: The community had direct interest in the conservation goals; conservation strategies were initiated and controlled by the community; there were secure communal property rights; and government and NGOs played supportive roles, including for capacity building, without ever imposing projects or solutions.
In rural Nevada, where ranchers and the timber industry coexist with tourists and relocated environmentalists, development and growth are seen as key instigators of conflict. The Natural Heritage 2020 (NH2020) plan was designed as a collaborative response to the perceived risks of rapid growth. Planners of this “inclusive” approach, however, did not take into account the political interests and divisions that pervaded the conversation. This left them blind to the resentment of ranchers and farmers, which powerful interests recognized and capitalized upon. The opponents of NH2020 successfully campaigned against what they framed as a “stacked” process that served environmentalist goals and subsequently derailed the process by publicly attacking the program’s legitimacy. Here, attempts at community- based natural resource management created the conditions for a more contentious management climate, deepening long-standing divisions and precipitating new conflicts. This is a risk of any management process that fails to recognize, analyze, and address the power dynamics embedded in environmental management.
Even when no mutually ideal solution is proposed, a working group gives individuals in conflicting parties a venue dedicated to engaging with those competing priorities. Since much conflict is shaped and inflamed by individuals’ feelings of marginalization, lack of respect, or lack of power in decision-making, a regular working group can offer the needed platform for influence and appreciation. As individuals begin to feel respected, heard, and included, histories of conflict can naturally de-escalate and amiable resolutions become more feasible.
IT MAY TAKE SEVERAL ITERATIONS OF THE SHARED GOALS DELIVERABLE BEFORE AGREEMENT IS REACHED. HOWEVER, THE VISIONING PROCESS CANNOT CONTINUE FOREVER; WHEN GENERAL AGREEMENT AROUND SHARED GOALS HAS BEEN REACHED, EVEN IF SPECIFIC WORDING HAS NOT BEEN SOLIDIFIED, THE PROCESS OF CO-DESIGNING ACTIVITIES CAN BEGIN.
Arriving at Goal Agreement
When expanding the dialogue from individual priorities to shared goals, visioning workshops can easily stray into broad discussions of human values. Certainly, all groups may share the desire for respect, power, ownership, and wealth. However, specific programming cannot be designed around these values.
Thus, the final deliverable should be a relevant and achievable list of specific goals that are shared among all subgroups and the NGO. Remember: The NGO should bring to light issues of interest and discuss its organizational priorities, but in the end, act as a catalyst for the community to implement its own goals where they are shared with the NGO. These goals will likely have social and economic outcomes that encourage sustainability and local relevance, but they should also be directly tied to conservation outcomes. The community and MEFBA facilitators will likely need to define goals more specifically by meeting in small groups, proposing wording of certain goals, and allowing individuals in the visioning workshop to suggest edits, amendments, or additions to the goals. At this stage in community engagement, it may be necessary for community leadership and MEFBA representatives to review notes from the initial sessions of the workshop and develop preliminary drafts of goals before reconvening with the community as a whole. It may take several iterations of the shared goals deliverable before agreement is reached. However, the visioning process cannot continue forever; when general agreement around shared goals has been reached, even if specific wording has not been solidified, the process of co-designing activities can begin. The initial goals defined in the visioning exercises form the beginnings of a common theory of change, shared between the community and Mt. Everest Forest Botanicals Alliance.