|The Environmental Colours of Microfinance
4. Community Development and Participatory Practises to Protect the Environment and Improve Micro Credit Programmes
Good community development practises and participatory methods are essential
tools in the micro-enterprise and the environment equation. In integrating the
environmental dimension, it is important to know how to work with entrepreneurs
and workers as individuals and community members, and when necessary the local
community as well.
This section of Environmental Colours highlights the skills, attitudes and
knowledge that will facilitate participatory approaches to meeting environmental
challenges found at the micro-enterprise level. The information contained in this section was taken from Pallen, Dean, "The Environmental Assessment Manual for Community Development Projects." CIDA. 1996. The manual presents environmental assessment (EA) as a tool to be used by community development practitioners to achieve environmental and developmental goals.
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A. Community Development and Environmental Well-Being
The environment plays a prominent role in the well-being of every community whether small or large, rural or urban. It influences a wide array of social and economic variables which have a decisive impact on the quality of community life. A vibrant environment contributes to a healthier population and a more robust economy. Likewise, the environment is itself influenced by economic and social factors.
Environmental degradation is a major stress on community life in both rural and urban settings. In rural areas, ecological problems such as deforestation can wreak havoc on a community in many ways. Trees are an important source of fuelwood, construction material, fruit, forage and shade, among other things. They also protect watersheds and prevent soil erosion. Water and land also interact intimately with the economic and social fabric of rural communities and are as dependent upon them to maintain a viable ecosystem.
Urban dwellers do not have the same direct link with the natural environment as rural people. However, there is no question that the urban environment -- defined by the relationship between people, streets, buildings, housing, green spaces and animal life -- still affects their lives dramatically. The major environmental issues in urban settings revolve around land use and transportation, the quality and availability of water and sanitation services, air quality, solid and liquid waste management, as well as noise and the aesthetic role of the environment.
Poor standards in these areas diminish and degrade urban communities. Urban dwellers experience the environment most directly through its impact on their health. Respiratory ailments as well as illnesses such as dysentery which are linked to pollution, poor sanitation, inadequate waste disposal and stress are among the major health problems associated with a degraded urban environment.
Substandard environmental conditions are most apparent in impoverished urban areas. Poor communities tend to be the hardest hit by environmental neglect and the least able to defend their interests. Many poor neighbourhoods, however, have started to organise around environmental concerns. Some have shown enormous ingenuity in dealing with problems such as garbage by creating waste-recycling projects which also generate much-needed income.
Added to this complex mix of factors are community development projects. Community development projects are not neutral - they have a significant impact on the interaction of environmental, social and economic components in a community. The actual effects vary from project to project and may be either positive or negative.
In the past, many communities in both developing and developed countries made conscious decisions to accept excessive levels of environmental degradation in return for higher economic standards. However, in too many instances, the long-term economic and human costs imposed by environmental degradation were not sufficiently understood at the outset. Coming to terms with this dilemma is never easy for any community.
There has been a long history of community action to safeguard the environment (see Box 1). Local environmental protection efforts can be traced back thousands of years (Borini-Feyerbrand et al. 1994). Today, environmental initiatives are flourishing in communities throughout the developing world. In the barrios of Latin America, community groups and co-operatives are finding creative ways to cope with a multitude of problems plaguing the urban environment. In the Philippines, NGOs are working actively with communities on a host of critical natural resource issues. There has been an upsurge in community forestry and agroforestry projects throughout Asia and Africa. In many locales, community groups are joining forces with health workers and urban planners to undertake innovative urban housing and environmental initiatives (Borini-Feyerbrand et al. 1994). In both Kenya and India, the environment has become a major focus of rural development initiatives. India's National Forestry Policy of 1988 is a good illustration of a national government policy which supports the local management of natural resources.
Box 1: Tula Region of Bauchi State in Nigeria
Living in a sustainable manner is often thought to be a new idea. Actually, long before the term "sustainable development" was even coined, communities the world over were living this way. Many had developed highly advanced ways of cooperating with nature to provide for their needs without destroying the environments. A good example can be found in the Tula region of Bauchi State in Nigeria, where the villagers have farmed the fragile land intensively for centuries, maintaining and even improving its capacity to sustain them. Their techniques of stone terracing, organic fertilizing, intercropping and crop rotation have been perfected over hundreds of years and have proven extremely effective in maintaining the community's agricultural base.
Source: Meyer and Moosang 1992: 86.
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B. Community-Based Knowledge
Development practitioners often fail to appreciate the extent to which a community understands and cares about its environment. It is usually assumed that local people who destroy natural resources (such as forests) for short-term gain do so out of ignorance. While this may explain some negligent behaviour, there are other more tenable explanations. Traditional values and local customs may account for some harmful natural resource management practices. However, more often traditional values and customs have a positive influence on the environment. In many developing countries, the disregard for conservation practices can be explained by their association with coercive colonial regimes in the past.
The one major reason that communities engage in careless and destructive environmental practices is this: they lack the resources and/or the authority to do otherwise. A wood gatherer who walks ten kilometres a day to collect firewood knows there is a problem with wood shortage. People don't live in garbage-filled, polluted urban neighbourhoods by choice. Such actions are a direct result of poverty. People without material and financial resources have no hope of arresting escalating environmental problems which threaten their communities. This powerlessness is often exacerbated by inequitable territorial arrangements which deny communities legal control over their immediate environment. Too many local people have little or no say in the management of the natural resources upon which they rely completely.
All too rarely do environmental specialists and development practitioners take time to find out what communities already know about their environment. As a result, resources are mistakenly devoted to "raising awareness" among local people about their place in the ecosystem. The fact is that most communities are very conscientious and knowledgeable about their local environment. They have a good grasp of both problems and potential solutions. This is especially true in rural communities where people's livelihoods are directly dependent on the quality and availability of local natural resources. More emphasis needs to be placed on environmental and developmental approaches which value and build on local knowledge.
A community's environmental knowledge may not be expressed in terms that are easily understood by outsiders. Like other forms of community knowledge, environmental knowledge tends to be intuitive, spiritual and inconclusive. Often it is conveyed through unorthodox methods such as story telling (Wolfe et al., 1991). This contrasts sharply with the more rational and empirical approaches to knowledge favoured by technical experts.
Throughout the world, rural people are using indigenous resource management systems which display an excellent understanding of ecological principles. Over the last ten years, much interest has been shown in these traditional practices and growing numbers of development practitioners are attempting to incorporate such knowledge in project work. A recent study by the International Institute for the Environment and Development identified 20 countries in Africa alone where indigenous soil management practices were being researched (IIED 1994).
Researching community knowledge is a good way to avoid protracted technical studies and cut down on the time and resources spent on EA (Chambers 1992). Where it exists, local environmental knowledge is inherently well-suited to explicating a community's relationship to its environment. The case study in Box 4.2 shows how non-specialists can take advantage of community knowledge to derive conclusions which complement and reinforce scientific findings. Community knowledge can be a rich source of inspiration and ingenuity, offering project planners a vast array of new programming options (Bolton et al., 1990).
Despite the pressing need to pay more attention to traditional knowledge, there is still a significant role for science and technology in environmental assessment and environmental protection. This is especially true in light of the rapid disappearance of traditional knowledge linked to environmental protection. This is further compounded by increased mobility and the tendency for people uprooted from a community to take environmental knowledge with them to new settings in which it may have little or no relevance. As well, many of the dire environmental problems facing local communities may require multi-faceted approaches that combine the best insights of both science and traditional practices.
Different concepts of space and architecture as well as social customs are also types of knowledge which can inform project design. Local attitudes and beliefs on a wide range of issues may provide a foundation for sustainable development projects. To begin an exploration of local knowledge, it may be useful to investigate the links to the five elements of sustainability defined by CIDA -- society, culture, politics, environment and economy (see CIDA 1991). Annex 1 provides a description of the various components that can be included in a study of traditional knowledge systems.
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C. Sources of Community Knowledge
There are many sources of wisdom in a community. Different groups possess distinctive and specialised knowledge. Elders, for example, may provide an illuminating historical perspective on environmental issues. Young people may be highly sensitive to the need to preserve natural resources for future use. Farmers are well placed to furnish expertise on soil management issues. Artisans and other trade persons who work with raw materials can offer valuable input on the rate of depletion of natural resources. Other groups which can provide valuable information include:
- Municipal, town and village councils.
- Informal and formal collectives and associations such as farmers, wood gatherers, and artisans.
- Community development and environmental groups.
- Church groups.
- Social and cultural groups.
- Local or district planning commissions.
- Traditional healers and other guardians of traditional ways.
- Community health workers, doctors and nurses.
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D. Women's Knowledge
As the main providers of water, fuel and other basic necessities, women have a unique and direct relationship to the environment which has been well documented in the literature (see Rhodda 1991). Given that women are often hardest hit by the negative impact of environmental degradation, it is not surprising that their concerns and priorities differ starkly from men's.
Women have demonstrated this difference by spearheading community-based environmental initiatives throughout the developing world. One notable example is women's leadership of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. Women should be centrally involved in all EAs. Special efforts may need to be taken to ensure that they are able to participate fully. Women are too often excluded from formal participation in projects, even those intended specifically for their benefit.
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E. Community Participation
Community participation is currently the subject of much discussion in the development field. Large and medium-scale projects are following the lead of small projects in making increasing use of participation as a means to improve project performance. The term "participation" is being used to describe a wide variety of activities -- from community action to volunteer service to involvement in the political decision-making process.
There can be no doubt that community involvement is a critical element in all project planning. A study of 121 rural water supply projects undertaken jointly by 18 development organisations found community participation to be the most important ingredient in a project's success (Narayan, 1994). For the purposes of this manual, participation refers to a process which gives local communities a say in all phases of a project's decision-making process -- from the identification and design phase through to the final evaluation. According to this definition, communities play an active role in the project throughout its lifespan.
Involving the community in an environmental assessment can:
Gives stakeholders an opportunity to influence and gain control over development projects in their community.
- Builds community skills over the long term.
- Improves the quality of the EA as well as the project.
- Helps secure the trust and support of local communities for the project; promotes community ownership.
Following are some of the potential benefits of community participation in environmental assessments:
- Creates more options for conducting EAs.
- Helps to lower costs and improve efficiency.
- Uses valuable local knowledge.
- Provides information on community goals, attitudes, values, preferences and priorities which serve as crucial input to both the EA and overall planning process.
- Increases awareness of the causes and solutions of environmental problems.
- Supports the effective implementation of EA findings by giving participants a sense of ownership for the decisions made.
- Promotes consensus building. (Participation in the EA can help avoid confrontations or win-lose situations.)
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F. Barriers to Community Participation
Numerous barriers can hamper effective community participation. Even though EA does not normally require as much community involvement as the project itself, it is still essential for team members to be aware of factors which can inhibit participation. These barriers can be attributed to both community members and project proponents, and include:
Barriers Associated with Community Members
- Diffidence in the presence of authority.
- Fear of speaking up in group meetings. (This is especially true for women and other marginalised groups.)
- Low self esteem.
- Distrust of the motives of those in power.
- Reluctance to take risks.
- Fear of economic consequences or social loss of face.
- Fear of criticism for overstepping customary roles.
- Factional differences.
- A sense of powerlessness or fatalism.
- Lack of experience in working with groups.
- Lack of skills in planning and problem solving.
- No interest in the project due to different priorities (This may or may not be expressed.)
Barriers Associated with Project Proponents
- Failure to understand community goals, attitudes, values, customs, preferences and priorities.
- Failure to gain the community's confidence.
- Failure to understand, work with, and build community organisations (formal, informal, traditional, modern or indigenous).
- Failure to have realistic expectations about project deadlines and achievements.
- Failure to build sustainable patterns of community involvement.
- Failure to sustain long-term commitment and interest on the part of the community.
- Lack of involvement of community members in significant project planning or implementation methods.
- Lack of respect for the knowledge and skills and community members.
- Unwillingness to go the extra mile to ensure the community's support.
- Diplomatic errors.
- Overestimating the capacity of communities to participate.
- Underestimating the community's skills.
(Adapted in part from Srinivasan 1990: 21).
Many of these problems can be avoided by using common sense, tact, diplomacy, and listening carefully to the community. During the short period of time that it takes to complete the EA, a concerted effort must be made to develop a genuine partnership with the community. If the project's identification and design stage are done in a participatory manner, then an important part of the groundwork for the EA will have already been laid. Regardless, people must not be viewed simply as sources of knowledge or cheap labour. What is needed is a healthy exchange of ideas and information between the EA team and community members.
Achieving effective community participation is a demanding task which develops slowly over time. It is very important to have realistic expectations about a community's capacity to commit to and support an EA process. A community may have previous experience in managing and designing projects which can be drawn on to facilitate their participation.
It is not wise to overload communities with tasks that go beyond their abilities and willingness to participate. If a community shows little or no interest in becoming involved in the EA, don't force the issue. Try to find out why this is the case. The reasons may have less to do with the EA per se and more to do with their attitude toward the project. Also, community participation in the EA process can occur to varying degrees. Project officers are the best placed to judge what type of participation is necessary and feasible.
Finally, keeping these key points in mind will help ensure that EA is undertaken with the right attitude towards the community:
- Intervening in a community without properly consulting its members is a classic and all-too-common error which has lead to the failure of countless community development projects.
- All efforts to involve the community in an EA must be sincere. It is pointless to go through the motions of participation just because the idea sounds good. Don't be discouraged if early efforts do not bring results; with a certain amount of experimentation, this should eventually change.
- Never lose sight of the fact that communities have an inherent interest in ensuring that the EA addresses their concerns.
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G. Beyond Participatory Rural Appraisal
It is a good idea to be on the lookout for other ways to facilitate involvement in an EA. The World Bank points out that in most communities "a whole range of organisations are operating: formal or informal, traditional or modern, indigenous or externally established from which participatory process can be developed" (1994d: 111). Local and traditional cultural, religious, and political practices can all be used as the basis of participatory EA practices. Good PRA always builds on local and traditional practices. Project managers and local NGOs should make themselves aware of characteristics and organisational structures within a community which may be conducive to participatory activities. It is also possible that charismatic and dynamic community leaders through their skills and influence can mobilise community members in support of the EA.
If you have resources to suggest, project descriptions or activities, lessons learned or internet links with related contents, please send an email to
Hari Srinivas - firstname.lastname@example.org or Dean Pallen - email@example.com
Hari Srinivas - firstname.lastname@example.org
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