Lesson #4: Don’t Underestimate Local Community

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on March 1, 2018 | Print

The small tribal village was like many others in which we had worked. Forty to fifty households lived in simple bamboo homes, largely isolated from the outside world. Electric lines hadn’t breached the community’s perimeter, so life revolved around the natural rhythms of the day. The houses were clustered together in a smaller area for community and safety. There was a local water source (spring) and pretty much everyone farmed for a living, though their farms were in the mountains several kilometers away.

In between planting and harvesting seasons, the men typically left the village to find work, generally in construction or the fishing industry. The children went to school usually up to and maybe through high school but not much further. To attend school, they walked several kilometers morning and evening.

When our community development team was invited to work inside the village, we started with introductions and a “leveling” of expectations – making agreements of what we and the community could expect or not expect out of our relationship together in the community development process. In the next few months, we met with, worked with, and a couple of our staff members actually lived with the community, getting to know them, their culture, their problems, and their dreams.

From an outsider’s perspective, we could see all kinds of problems in the community. They had spring water, but the water quality was poor, especially during rainy season. There was evident undernutrition in some of the children. Food and income was seasonal. Health care access was non-existent – the closest government clinic was several kilometers away. It was a community development worker’s dream assignment and we couldn’t wait to walk through the development process with the community and see what problems and solutions they would identify for us to begin working on together.

After several months of trust building and walking through the community development process, the community identified the most pressing issue they wanted to tackle first. You can imagine our surprise when they announced: “We need a basketball court.”

I was at the meeting when the community choose this “project” to be their first. I was a bit shocked and, honestly, a little bit angry. I tried to hide my surprise and confusion, which is hard to do since most cultures read our faces and actions better than we read our own. Thankfully, one of the Filipino development workers stepped in and stopped me from saying something that I would later regret (it happened frequently).

The Filipino CD worker helped us to step back, revisit some of the community development tools that the community had used to come to this conclusion, and re-analyze, with the community, their decision. What unfolded was an amazing perspective.

In the Philippines, basketball reigns supreme. It’s the national sport and everyone, especially the young people, loved to play. Without a court of their own, however, the young people would frequently leave the village to play in a neighboring community, which created a host of problems. Drugs and alcohol were a problem in the other communities and the villagers feared the influence such an environment would have on the young people. Additionally, most of the people leaving to play basketball were the youngest, strongest and most adept at working the farms. The community came to the conclusion that if they had their own basketball court, it would encourage their young people to stay in their village and they would have some control over the bad choices such as the “vices” of alcohol and drugs. In addition, they would keep their youngest and strongest at home, closer to the farms that needed their labor.

It was amazing to see the insight of a community that worked together and truly knew its needs. It was also amazing to realize how hard it is for us as outsiders to truly understand all that a community is going through. This story has a happy ending in that the community did construct a basketball court using primarily their own resources. Following this first major community project, the people then moved on to several other areas of need, including building a new water system, improving roads and community access, launching new agricultural projects and even building and opening their own village health center.

Lesson learned? Don’t underestimate the local community’s insight into their own problems. The most effective and lasting change is that which occurs from the inside out.