Time and experience have taught me that most instances of corruption at the local or regional government level are most effectively countered by the people living in that region. That scenario played out in South Asia following a major earthquake. We had initially been on the ground meeting lifeline needs such as food, water, medical/health care and temporary shelter.
As the dust settled, a new normal began to take shape, revealing the critical need for permanent housing solutions. We worked with the community members to develop a standard plan and identify those who did or did not need housing, worked through and got approval on the house designs and developed a priority system and set criteria to determine the order in which people would receive housing, ensuring widows, orphans, and the disabled would be the first recipients.
Despite our careful planning, the project hit a roadblock when the regional and national government would not approve any building projects for permanent buildings. While they claimed intentions of developing a government standard in the name of safety, over a year had passed since the earthquake and people were tired of living in makeshift shelters. It also came to light that the government was stalling in an effort to extract bribes for housing projects. We quickly made crystal clear that we don’t pay bribes.
At this point, we were at an impasse. While we, the outsiders, were unsure of the next step, the community took the situation by the reigns, organizing a petition to take to the government leaders. They pulled together the specs on the houses, procured support and funding from our organization and, once again, made strong their stance against paying bribes. They simply needed approval.
It took time, but after several weeks of meeting, the local people let us know that they had received approval to proceed. It was a stunning announcement and when we inquired as to how this could be, the local leader said…
“We agreed with the national government that we could not rebuild permanent homes. However, we showed them the plans for our proposed homes with you and we convinced them to classify them as temporary-permanent homes. Then they said that it was okay for us to proceed because we weren’t building permanent homes.”
This situation lent credence to the power of people working together. For those of us in community development, there are three, replicable takeaways from this experience.
- Be prepared. Do the groundwork. From planning to funding, have every component accounted for.
- Trust the locals. When it comes to understanding the intricacies of local issues and customs, outsiders like us will never achieve the depth that community members can.
- Stand strong. We were resolute in our refusal to pay bribes, as were the community members. Those convictions saw through to a positive outcome.