Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Seeds for a Future Part 2: Understanding communities and traditions

This post is a continuation of Seeds for a Future Part 1: Getting your NGO off the ground.

When starting a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in a community other than your own, it is important to recognize that there are cultural barriers (try to call these "opportunities") to consider. Men, women and young adults live within age and gender roles that are deeply ingrained into their communities and ways of life, which can affect your operations.

Before you invest too much time and financial resources into your NGO, it is wise to get to know the community and participants: identify potential leaders among the men, women, and young adults, and adjust your cultural orientation to see things through their eyes. Hold discussions with participants and find out what will work for them, and in which motivated community members are afforded opportunities to put their vision on the table. Draw people on the exterior of the circle into your discussions. It is not that they do not have ideas, but rather, that they need to feel safe in putting their ideas on the table. Small, intimate round table discussion among peers using a talking stone can lead to a lot of insight and consensus building.

When we first began work in Chocolá, our consulting anthropologist and community resident insisted we work principally with the elders of the community to win their support and to gain an understanding of their vision for the community. However, the majority of the elders (all men) were frozen in place by fear and resisted change that did not conform to their worldview or their traditional role as decision-makers. Younger men in the group may have seen a different vision, but cultural barriers prevented them from challenging the reticence of the senior elders.

We also learned in this process that it is pointless to advocate “community” consensus on “community goals” because the village was really just a collection of neighborhood and family clans who tended to put clan above community, and the elders really only governed themselves. This called for a refocusing of priorities from who we should be working with to what we should be working on. We concluded that we needed generic programs that transcended elder or neighborhood issues and which could be the template in which people could experience the values of learning, working together, and earning a little bit of extra money.

The most successful approach proved to be one in which women could take the lead: gardening. Gardening was a traditional role for women, but also one in which younger members of the household could participate … and be successful. And, because women also play a traditional role in vending vegetables around the neighborhood or in the small village market, it also cracked open a door for them to create small retail vegetables businesses. The women gravitated strongly to the program, quickly sorted out leadership issues and made a success of it – putting more food for the table, spending less money in the market for food, selling some of their surplus, and earning for themselves a stronger economic role in the family.

So what did we learn and how did we apply that learning? The first is that women are powerfully motivated to become bigger players in the family economic unit, and are less afraid of experimenting. Second, younger adults are similarly motivated but need an institutional shell within which to work. Youth groups become a vehicle for them to select areas of work and make a statement.

These experiences also taught us that it is important to abandon the notion that we were engaged in a “community” improvement project. What proved more efficacious for the purpose of helping the “community” come to appreciate the power of visioning and working together, was to identify smaller groups that were motivated and showed potential to (a) be inclusive and (b) work together in specific programs. These smaller efforts provided a platform in which successes, no matter how modest, could be achieved early and become visible. More importantly, the program structures were not conditioned by approval of the male elders ... the most conservative elements of the community.

The success of these women was not lost on younger adults or on the male elders, who found themselves in the unaccustomed position of not being able to withhold their support from the new economic contributions of their wives and daughters. As they watched the women have success in their work, heads began to turn, and we have begun seeing more gender and age inclusiveness in their agro-forestry endeavors.

The positive results that we have begun to see were a result of understanding the cultural traditions and customs of the community that we were working in. International NGOs need to be aware of where change is accepted, where it is not, and who in the community makes these kinds of decisions. All cultures are different, and accepting this is will be the first step to achieving your organization’s goals.

The founding members of Semillas Para al Futuro (Seeds for a Future) include Suzanne and Earl de Berge, and Hal Green, successful business people and generous philanthropists, who were first introduced to Chocolá as Earthwatch volunteers in 2004. While working on an archaeological site under the village of Chocolá, they discovered much more than ancient relics. They found an opportunity to help a small community work its way out of poverty while preserving its historical heritage.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog