The value of the community voice

07 November 2013 | Jolene Shaw | Insight

One of the most resilient anti-apartheid forces in the late 1970s through to the 1980s was the grassroots civic association. Stokvels, burial societies, youth and church groups rallied together, meeting in churches, homes, and streets to discuss their challenges and decide on plans of action. They played an instrumental role in building defiant communities capable of effecting change. Their success lay in the fact that they were not solely focused on political action, but also on community development.

They mobilised communities around issues which affected them directly, such as access to water and electricity, the threat of crime, and the restrictive and dehumanising legislation of the apartheid government.

An effective tactic used by some civic groups was the manipulation of their economic circumstances. These groups would put pressure on the local economy by not supporting businesses affiliated with apartheid. The message was clear: if the majority of South Africans were not treated like human beings then business would not be allowed to exist outside the political reality; businesses would not be allowed to succeed. There would not be stability in the country.

Efforts like these hammered away at the apartheid system and, alongside overtly and overwhelming political resistance, international sanctions and condemnation, and the virulent articulation of the principles of non-racialism, eventually rendered it unstable, and by so doing made the birth of a democratic country possible.

In 2013 the country still faces incapacitating poverty, lack of access to basic services, and endemic inequality. The same determination and persistence displayed by civic organisations during the struggle against apartheid is now required to drive those developmental tasks that are needed to transform communities. This tenacity has, however, dimmed in the wake of the new democracy.

The National Development Plan (NDP) has recognised that the unintended outcome of government’s efforts in bringing about democracy has been the reduction in incentives for citizens to be direct participants in their own development. The authors of the NDP felt so strongly about this aspect that they chose to canvass the views of all South Africans in the formulation of the development plan, in what they state is an invitation for South Africans to get “actively involved in processes to advance our shared goals”.

The way in which businesses are attempting to address social need (to effect socio-economic impact by way of social investment), is increasingly being scrutinised and measured against the ideal of sustainable, socially conscious and ethical investment driven by communities themselves. If businesses in South Africa want to play an active role as corporate citizens, they can help harness that energy within communities through their corporate social investment policies.

Corporate social investment programmes should consider participatory solutions that have greater impact and greater effectiveness in the communities in which they are operational. And the answer to achieving impact could lie in placing greater value on the community voice and using community consultations to inform worthwhile interventions.

This is encapsulated by the move away from a “needs-based” model of social investment, whereby “needs” were identified within communities, often by the funders themselves, and then an amount given to address those “needs”. Such a one-way relationship did not result in satisfaction or effective implementation. Misunderstandings and resentment often led to failed projects.

Instead, the idea of an asset-based approach has revitalised the grantmaking process. In this approach, a community’s assets, be they economic, environmental or social, are identified through genuine conversations between funders and the funded. Both parties agree on how best to work together to make the most of the strengths of each. Involvement leads to pride, commitment and the possibility of effective long-term planning. The asset-based approach, although only one example of participatory development, is an effective way in which community engagement can be encouraged and is a good way of utilising community resources for sustainable impact.

If more value is placed on community involvement, then the by-product of Social Investment will be empowered communities that take active and responsible roles in their development. Shared value is created when a business can strategically place itself as a key influencer in the development of society, and when communities can play an active role in ensuring their own sustainable growth.