AT university we were naïve enough to believe that if we did authentic and quality research, collected the right data and established the problem with the active participation of community members, then we were in a better position to take action. Effective planning would follow from there.
But after working in the development field for a while, it is clear to me that community development is a murky world of some success and even more failure.
With many failed community development projects, or should we call them experiments, one tends to wonder why development ventures that look straight ahead with good resource support do not always survive and become successful.
We do not seem to learn from history, or capture the wisdom gleaned from so many past projects. And, if we do learn, it seems our learning is slow to inform future decisions on many such ventures.
This is not to say that there have not been successes in Papua New Guinea. There are bright spots.
The Domil Community Development Program in Jiwaka Province is one of the most celebrated and outstanding examples of a successful community development projects initiated and maintained entirely by community leaders and members.
The lessons from it are useful for other communities in PNG.
Many committed non-government organisations and church-run agencies work with beneficiary communities. They remain with them long enough to build trust, local capacity and leadership. And the programs and projects they implement are successful on their own merits.
It has been my experience that positive change in community development usually starts at the individual and household level.
This can be difficult to fathom as community development is usually driven for the good of the majority.
Yet the trend in recent times has been that focus on a particular group like children, the elderly or people living with special needs is more effective.
After university, when I was employed by an international NGO, I was young, fresh and obviously inexperienced.
Since my training was in social development, I wanted to help bring about improved service and development and empower disadvantaged rural communities. I was ambitious and full of energy to make a difference.
However, on a project monitoring visit to a remote location in one of the highlands provinces, I encountered situations that challenged the neat view of development I had gleaned from my textbooks. In fact I was welcomed to the reality of local level community development.
I was accompanied by another young man, also fresh out of university. We reached the community in a single-engine Cessna plane. If you think you are a seasoned air traveler, wait until you get into one of these smaller planes and maneuver the deep forested mountains, circling through the low cloud to find the landing ground.
We stayed in that community for a week (there was a single flight out every week) and experienced the lives of the community first-hand.
We inspected the aid post and the primary school, interviewed the project manager and the people, and ticked most of the boxes on our checklist.
We analysed project reports and compared them to what the goals in the design document. We checked the finances.
Towards the end there was a gathering where community members provided feedback and we said a few words on our impressions of the project. We also looked at the next steps to take the project forward.
After the speeches from the community, I was called up to say a few words. I was faintly aware that this community appeared to have been forgotten by the government for a very long time. They had viewed the project as the answer to some communal problems. I did not know how best to start.
I knew I could not express the view that we were the solution to their problems, since it would be disempowering for the locals. So I mentioned that we were there to work with them, not for them.
At the end of my short speech, an old man standing close to the door of the community hall put up his hand. The project manager motioned for him to say something. The old man said he wanted to give me a neatly folded green K2 note he had in his pocket. I wanted to refuse but it was too public and I did not want to embarrass him.
I thanked him but inside I was overwhelmed. I took his gesture as deeply symbolic. He had obviously lived a long time and had witnessed how services were back then. His gesture represented how his community members felt and appreciated the project.
There were many thank you speeches but the old man’s gesture epitomized how communities appreciate something that they lack and need to be able to make their lives more bearable.
My important concern then was whether, once funding folded, the community could support the activities and whether relevant government agencies would have a heart.
Leaving the people after one week was difficult as it seemed we had been there for much longer. We were just getting to know the people and the leaders. But we could not stay and we did not belong there. As much as we meant well, we were outsiders.
Community development leaves me in awe. The best books seem to have already been written. Robert Chambers and Stan Burkey among others offer us attractive tools and models.
Changes have been phenomenal with local and international forces acting on how communities interact and learn. Globalisation and modernisation, the internet and social media all provide the promise of faster learning and more effective action.
Those of us concerned with community development must be learners. We need to be creative and innovative with the tools and strategies to work with communities.
Communities are no longer passive recipients. They are demanding to be partners in clarifying the goals and working towards achieving them.
Development practitioners, managers and planners must have the patience to follow the pace of the community. Simply pushing projects down the throats of local people does not work anymore, if it ever did.
These are interesting times to be alive, and they make development work exciting.
Still there are many pitfalls and challenges. With the best of intentions, many well-meaning promoters and funders of community development projects and activities tend to fall into the trap of becoming development tourists.
Development tourists enter downtrodden and marginalised communities as those with resources to impress those who are less endowed. They are greeted and led by colourful processions.
As esteemed guests they enter the grandstands to deliver their promises and speeches. Then they open a newly completed community project. But less time is given to knowing the community or even how the community contributed to the project.
Once the official ceremony is over, they leave as quickly as they enter.
Should we give up? Absolutely not! We live in exciting times and many people and organisations are learning to be creative and innovative. They are directing resources to areas which they think will make the most impact. And they are challenging themselves to account for the resources they are using.
There is still a lot of positive energy to be harnessed. Maybe now is the time to make another assault on the scourges of underdevelopment in communities and restore the dignity that rightfully belongs to the people. The fight belongs to all of us.