Members of international no-governmental organizations, academics, NGO teams and various government officials appear to take great stock in their capacity to access and support local communities as they try to endure the challenges created by natural disasters, conflict or climate change.
But what or who constitutes a community? For many of the institutions mentioned above, this term often manifests itself as a small group of community representatives and in some cases, just one spokesperson. In reality, this manifestation regularly struggles to represent the majority of people living in neighborhoods and struggling to cope with disastrous conditions.
As most of the neighborhood’s demographic have more pressing priorities than to engage in research or develop projects aimed at social cohesion, Of those that have, many soon become frustrated or tired from perpetual and intrusive enquiry. An interaction that frequently results in little or no palpable results, receives even less sustained collaboration after completion and often burdens locals with the eco-political impact of intervention. Much of the neighborhood grow to understand that the deluge of help by organizations is conditional and within a short period of time. Many of which are unwilling or unable to share their data or collaborate with one and other (Humanitarian is a business after all).
As a result, the ‘community’ eventually becomes represented by; those with organizational connections, with the means and capacity to continually communicate, by those willing and able to listen to project presentations, engage and offer convenient information, read documentation, articulate and pass on proposed international approaches. Often these are representatives, who aren’t part of the community per se, who are often more financially secure, educated elsewhere or to a higher degree and have a vested interest in the area’s development. Meaning, that due to the pressures and constraints felt by organisations (mainly through ambitious bids for funding, in the understanding that 'community led' project are an integral part of any contemporary application rubric), humanitarian actors are researching and supporting narrowly represented groups of people.
Support based on a ‘particular’ set of information gleaned from, a few meetings, interviews, visits, focus group meeting and/or workshops with project-sympathetic representatives. Activities which eventually inform, civic policy, research papers and approaches which are developed and executed in a larger scale.
Perhaps this needs to be addressed or at least acknowledged, rather than bashing on regardless of potential problems through misrepresentation.
Given that many of the people involved in humanitarian efforts are highly educated and mean well. Is it fair to suggest, that many of us are suitably guilty of ‘burying our collective heads in the sand’? meaning that we are moving forward with selective hearing and selective participation, with our authenticity curbed by timescale, expectation and ambition, to the detriment of those we are trusted to support.
Perhaps the notion of community requires revisiting:
Could it be then, a region challenged by climate change for example, aren’t ‘the community’ in a broad-brush sense, rather, a neighborhood full of diversity, with complicated relationships between a multitude of groups, individuals and families. Each with many seats of social/political power,therefore, reacting to tragedy and coping differently.
Perhaps the notion of community shouldn’t just focus on the so called ‘bottom up communities'. There should be equal, if not more, focus leveled at the various communities involved throughout the project, by that I mean, the NGO community, the governmental community and the funding donor community etc. These other communities after all, are far more in keeping with what many in the business define as community:
In an exploration of etymological dictionaries, Esposito (2013, p. 15) states “community is derived from cum (with) munus (a task or duty). That is, a group of people who are together with a common focus, who have a sense of obligation to each other”. He argues that we “need communities”; they are “both necessary and impossible”......