Lesson #3: Advantages of Accountability

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on February 26, 2018 | Print

Most of us have some degree of fear or skepticism when it comes to trust. This rings true for community development workers who almost always have these two questions of community members who will be implementing programs: “How do I know they will do what they say they are going to do?” or “How do I know that they are really being transparent or truthful?”

Inevitably, the time will come (or several times will come) when we feel “burned” or let down by these individuals. At best, we lick our wounds and try again. At worst, we begin to view everyone as having an agenda and trying to take advantage of our good graces. It can lead us to mistrust, skepticism, apathy or, in the worst-case scenario, abandonment of efforts to try and help anyone.

I experienced this early on in my career. Many individuals got off to a great start, but soon backed away or dropped out all together.

For example, I worked with one older gentleman who was enthusiastic to plant a different kind of hedgerow on his land; one that would reduce erosion and enhance the soil. Literally, within a few months, his crops, income, and animals all improved. However, just a few months in, he abandoned the new farming system. When I asked why, he remarked, “I was waiting on you to pay me for my work and you never did.” I was frustrated. I never agreed to do what he was hoping for and even though he was seeing the benefit of the new system, he was much more comfortable returning to his old way of doing things.

Years later, when I began to work more with communities and groups instead of individuals, I saw the error of my earlier ways. It wasn’t that working with individuals was all bad. It was just that working with groups of individuals or communities was better. With time and experience, I became more aware of certain patterns, pitfalls and problems that arose time and time again when working with individuals. Nearly all of them boiled down to these three elements:

  1. Divergent Expectations
  2. Absence of Ownership
  3. Lack of Accountability

The farmer in the example above had very different expectations and desired results from the project. His expectation of payment also revealed a lack of ownership, as if he was working for me, the perceived initiator of the project; not with me. Finally, given that he and I were the only two players in this scenario, there was no way to have an effective system of accountability. Inevitably the success or failure of the project fell back to me.

This began to change as I worked more groups and communities as a whole, as opposed to individuals. In one community, the overwhelming majority of people wanted to start a gardening program. One influential gentleman, however, stood up and said, “No, what we need is a new road into our village.”

I could tell that no one else felt good about this and was tempted to jump in and confront (or probably run over) the old leader. However, I realized that this was not my problem to solve. I had seen the value of allowing the community to struggle with their own issues without my interference. It was hard, but I sat back and let the community handle that situation.

In the end, the community (in their own time and way) confronted the old leader, put the garden project back on track and achieved a positive outcome for everyone. By collectively owning the issue, solution and implementation of it, this community not only thrived; their transparency, ownership and accountability fortified the relationship between me and them, proving it could be trusted. Maybe you have a similar experience that you would like to share?

Janie R. Wise 6 years ago

Thank you for this post! Not only does it help me be more aware of your needs,this morning it has helped me. Our work involves both individuals and groups, but the development of new groups for leadership and accountability is taking me in directions I have not been. The greatest challenge thus far has been to walk with and coach the groups through the developmental struggles rather than to take the lead and do it for them. There is strength and perseverance in the struggle; I am going to learn that.

Jeff Palmer 6 years ago

Janie, thanks for your insightful comment! Accountability and appropriate levels of accountability are as much an art as a science. And getting communities to be accountable to one another is priceless. When it does happen, and the whole community begins working together for the common good, it is a joyful day for the community development worker. I pray God's blessings in your struggles! JP

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