Changing perspectives: What can 'we' do?
By Gemma Todd
One of the key debates that have emerged within development studies is to whom does the responsibility lie? The structuralists among us focus on the 'state'. It is defined as the state's duty, and responsibility, to meet people's needs. Alternatively, perspectives emerge identifying the state as an enabler — the key actors are civil society. The focus on grass-roots action has, however, raised considerable debate. Critics have argued firstly, civil-society is not necessarily positive. The broad category of 'civil-society' — whether communities, NGOs, or FBOs — rely on 'social-capital, defined as the linkages amongst members of society. However, such capital assets by which people are argued to be able to rely, and draw, upon have been shown to have negative components and remain structured within a system of power inequalities. For example not all women joining a micro-finance programme are strategically empowered as the burden of time-poverty remains and not all can have their voice heard. Secondly, the social-capital resources are not indefinite but rather constrained and limited over time through a 'poverty of resources' (Gonzalez de la Rocha, 2001). Thirdly, should we be relying on social-capital to meet needs? However, traditionally, within many cultures in Africa, the community has played a major role in creating self-sufficient communities. Therefore do we need to revitalise the focus on social-capital?
Many organisations are tapping into the resources embedded within people, communities, and ethics of care. A recent workshop on Social Gerontology (or the study of older persons (OP)) in Uganda highlighted this. The workshop integrated a range of enthusiastic local NGOs, community-development officers, retired professionals, and national advocates, all concerned with building the capacity of older people. Two key points need to be noted on the workshop - firstly focusing on OP in the developing world. In Uganda the process of ageing is becoming prevalent: the population aged over 65 is rising and around 80 percent of OP live in rural Uganda. They exhibit a range of vulnerabilities including insecure livelihoods, insufficient health-care, and the risk of abuse. Therefore opening questions concerned what can be done to close the break in care; and how should we be investing in OP as a means of development? Secondly, the workshop participants' created do-able action plans by appreciating the resources — strengths and weaknesses — available in their communities. The problem was re-focused — not simply a government problem, but rather looking at creating community awareness of policy tools and empowerment through participation. Action plans were centralised around communities, and community needs, through innovatively applying the Community Life Competence Process (CLCP). Initially the CLCP may be hard to accept as a sustainable solution. However, its power comes at realising how the proposed way of working builds communities from within and provides a different conceptualisation of the 'community'. CLCP returns back to basics. Communities are dynamic entities; whereby understanding each individual's role within and building on their knowledge is the means to sustain community life. I look forward to seeing how the process is transferred once the workshop participants, and facilitators, return home; and what encourages the communities to get involved. However, one organisation is already initiating the process. Health Nest Uganda has used CLCP to enable communities to become key actors for OP's dignity and self-reliance. Community members have become the lobbyists, providers, and advocates.
An infamous quote across Africa is if you want to hide information from Africans put it in a book. Therefore by removing the book — characterised by numerous policies, constitutionally designed to enable rights to different groups — can the revitalisation of communities be a future resource to fill the persisting gap of failed policy implementation? Such conversations are needed. I remain optimistic; however, my hopes have fears. I cannot help but wonder how long will it be before communities get fed-up with forced compromises made to high expectations and dreams.