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Local Community

Community involvement is imperative in assuring the success and sustain-ability of a project. Involving the community in a project can be the greatest challenge, but if the community is not involved the technology will not serve their needs, nor will it be accepted. Moreover, a community might be afraid and could subvert an initiative. Regardless of the complexity of the undertaking, a successful project needs support and buy-in from those it will serve.

An effective strategy in gaining support is to find a respected champion whose motives are palatable. Find the person, or persons whom are most likely to be interested in the project. Often, you will need to involve such champions as advisors, or as members of a steering committee. These people will already have the trust of the community, will know who to approach, and can speak the language of the community. Take your time and be selective in finding the right people for your project. No other decision will affect your project more than having effective, trusted local people on your team.

In addition, take note of key players in an institution, or community. Identify those people whom are likely to be opponents and proponents of your project. As early as possible, attempt to earn the support of the potential proponents and to diffuse the opponents. This is a difficult task and one that requires intimate knowledge of the institution or community. If the project does not have a local ally, the project must take time to acquire this knowledge and trust from the community.

Be careful in choosing your allies. A "town-hall" meeting is often useful to see local politics, alliances, and feuds in play. Thereafter, it is easier to decide on whom to ally, champion and whom to diffuse. Try to not build unwarranted enthusiasm. It is important to be honest, frank, and not to make promises that you cannot keep.

In largely illiterate communities, focus on digital to analog services such as Internet for radio stations, printing on-line articles and photos, and other non-textual applications. Do not try to introduce a technology to a community without understanding which applications will truly will serve the community. Often the community will have little idea how new technologies will help their problems. Simply providing new features is useless without an understanding of how the community will benefit.

When gathering information, verify the facts that you are given. If you want to know the financial status of a company/organization, ask to see an electricity bill, or phone bill. Have they been paying their bills? At times, potential beneficiaries will compromise their own values in hopes of winning funds or equipment. Most often, local partners who trust you will be very frank, honest, and helpful.

Another common pitfall is what I call "divorced parents" syndrome, where NGOs, donors, and partners are not told of each others involvement with the beneficiary. Savvy beneficiaries can earn handsome rewards by letting NGOs and donors lavish them with equipment, training and funds. It is important to know which other organizations are involved so you can understand how their activities might impact your own. For example, I once designed a project for a rural school in Mali. My team installed an open source system with used computers and spent several days training people how to use it. The project was deemed a success, but shortly after the installation, another donor arrived with brand-new Pentium 4 computers running Windows XP. The students quickly abandoned the older computers and lined-up to use the new computers. It would have been better to negotiate with the school in advance, to know their commitment to the project. If they had been frank, the computers that are now sitting unused could have been deployed to another school where they would be used.

In many rural communities in under-developed economies, law and policies are weak, and contracts can be effectively meaningless. Often, other assurances must be found. This is where pre-paid services are ideal, as they do not require a legal contract. Commitment is assured by the investment of funds before service is given.

Buy-in also requires that those involved invest in the project themselves. A project should ask for reciprocal involvement from the community.

Above all, the “no-go” option should always be evaluated. If a local ally and community buy-in cannot be had, the project should consider choosing a different community or beneficiary. There must be a negotiation; equipment, money, and training cannot be gifts. The community must be involved and they too must contribute.

Last Update: 2007-01-25