Ten Lessons from the Field: Taking an Asset-Based Approach as a Facilitator
with Victoria Apondi and Langat Kipkorkir
by Nabeela Jivraj
As an Oceanpath Fellow with the Coady Institute, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Triple A project, that is implemented in part of Kisumu and Kericho counties in western Kenya. Together with the two field staff of the project, Victoria and Langat, I visited community members with whom the project has been working since 2015 to interview them about their experiences with the project. Victoria and Langat have worked in these communities for several years, implementing project activities, co-designing training modules and materials with project management, and evaluating outcomes of the project. Throughout the week, I was able to meet with project participants, but also had the chance to observe how Victoria and Langat worked as a team to facilitate conversation and learning. Both of them are practitioners of Asset-Based Community-Driven Development (ABCD), an approach which emphasizes the strengths, autonomy, and resilience of individuals and communities, as opposed to taking a needs-based approach, in which facilitators typically try to find and respond to “deficits” or “problems”.
Though I myself have visited and worked in community projects prior to the visit, I realized that any facilitation I had done myself had essentially been freestyled. As a very recent graduate, I hadn’t had any specific, practical, experience and guidance on how to interact with communities to foster meaningful exchange and mutual learning. I am grateful for the opportunity to have observed the facilitation styles of Victoria and Langat, and wished I had learned some tips from them before any of my own experiences in community development.
For anyone just starting in the field, and all those who are interested in facilitating asset- or strengths-based approaches to communities development, but don’t quite know how to go about it: here are my top “elementary” lessons learned. Though some seem as though they should be intuitive, I was surprised how many simple things can go amiss when trying to build rapport with a community. Here are Ten Ways to Take an Asset-Based Approach as a Facilitator; principles to take to the field with you.
Fostering Trust & Professionalism in Community Relationships:
1. Separate work visits from social visits
In any context, forming friendships with the people you work with is inevitable. Especially if you are living on site or working in a small community, you will be fortunate to be able to build close relationships with the people you work with. Nonetheless, it’s important to separate “work-related” home visits from “social” visits, to maintain the professionalism of your work as much as possible. Though a farm visit can easily turn into a meal being shared together, the nature of the visit then becomes vague, which can result in further miscommunications down the line. By maintaining a boundary between “working hours” and your own social time, you send a message that you take your work seriously, and maintain your own credibility in the field. Over time, this fosters mutual respect with the community for each other’s time.
Though you can maintain social relationships in the community and continue to cultivate friendships in your own time, re-establishing professional credibility once it has been lost is difficult. Politely reschedule a social visit if it is offered while at work, and do your best to reconnect with community members in relevant time. This doesn’t mean being cold or unapproachable though. Find a balance that works for you.
2. Always say “yes” to giving the time of day
When doing “community field work”, you are responsible for being available when feedback or support in your area is wanted. If a community member requests a visit or is asking for feedback, always make sure to drop by, even if you only have a little bit of time. This can go a long way – not only will you learn from these visits, but by demonstrating that you are always willing to make time- , you are building trust and respect. In certain settings, community members may be hesitant or unwilling to ask for feedback or openly speak about their lives, so if they are reaching out first, it is important to honour this. Responding to community requests also places agency in their hands, and reverses the typical relationship between community workers and communities, where the latter are often rather the objects than the subjects of interaction.
3. Share your time Equitably when visiting a Community
Again, you will make friendships with community members, and some community members will be more willing to ask for feedback or a visit. However, it’s important to also make sure that you visit people who won’t ask, or who you rarely hear from. By being equitable in how you treat and how much time you spend with community members (eg. not spending more time with people of power and fairly dividing your time), you promote healthy group dynamics, and encourage people who may be more shy to reach out when they want to.
4. Don’t give advance warning for M&E visits
When conducting Monitoring & Evaluations visits, a useful tactic Victoria and Langat use is to do these on a “drop-in” basis, where community members are not given excessive advance notice. Do give community members warning that you are coming, but only the day prior or the morning of the visit. By telling the project members closer to the actual visit itself, , the facilitators eliminate anticipation, stress, and any “expectation management” on the part of community members.
For most of us who have been through a standardized testing system, we know that “random tests” encourage us to be prepared at all times, and consistent with our efforts. Though “drop-in” visits do initially encourage project participants to be consistent in their daily activities, over time, what they really do is foster respect. There is no expectation that community members take extra time to “prepare” for drop-in visits, or that there is a need to “host” visitors. Ultimately, random visits build trust and respect, and help the facilitators to observe community realities.
5. Buy from community members where possible
When community members are involved in entrepreneurial projects, it’s important to support their economic activities by paying for the goods or services they offer. While it may feel appropriate to accept gifts from community members (and they may be very happy to give them!), you are supporting financial accountability and good record-keeping by purchasing the goods and services yourself. You’re also supporting your local entrepreneurs, and demonstrating confidence in the product or service, which can go a long way.
6. Be humble (and sit down)
Though it is important to keep professionalism in mind, it is appropriate (and necessary) to graciously accept when community members show you hospitality, and have taken the time and effort to host you. Those of us who have worked with a community development project, especially as foreigners, have certainly experienced the awkwardness that overcomes hosts when their hospitality is turned down; even when the “guests” have no intention of offending their hosts, which is often informed by a lack of understanding local cultural norms If you are not from the community you are working in, take some time to learn the cultural norms regarding dress and hospitality, and don’t assume that people will immediately know or understand the norms of the culture you are coming from.
Making Visits Productive:
7. Tag Team- Go in Pairs !
While too many visitors can crowd a visit, going in pairs to the field can make your visits much more productive. Overall, having an additional person can be helpful to get a more dynamic understanding of each context. With two facilitators, one person is able to engage with the intended visitor, while the other can talk to other people who join or pass by. As a pair, you have double the attentive capabilities, benefit from the ability to have more conversations, and can then compare notes after. In the case of Victoria and Langat, they often benefit from having a gender-balanced team, but also from the fact that they are from the two different ethnic communities with which the project primarily works in the area to socially and linguistically access different kinds of realities from different project participants. On that note- regardless of your respective views, be on the same page during your visit- never undermine your colleague when in community.
For people to take you and your work seriously, it is important to be both accountable to your word, and to hold people accountable to theirs. No matter how many visits you are doing, keep track of individuals and what people are saying to you, so that you can follow up the next time. If someone tells you that they plan to take a loan to start a project, check on the status of that project the next time. When people contradict themselves, show them you have been paying attention, and gently hold them accountable.
Equally, if you promise something (a visit, a training, to return in the future), be sure to honour that promise. If you don’t think you will be able to, don’t promise anything ahead of time. Short-term staff, interns or staff who do not reside in the community commonly make social promises that they know they can’t keep- because it supposedly eases tension- in order to justify why community members should dedicate time and attention to what one has to say in the short term. In the long run, this undermines the credibility and relationships between community members and these members of staff Don’t forget that no matter how “different” you think you are, you have to put your actions where your words are; and for community members, especially in areas where many “development” projects are implemented, other external actors might end up being faced with hesitance, resistance or even open hostility if you “burn the ground” with the community. By starting with accountability, Victoria and Langat have fostered a strong mutual understanding with community members. This rapport has enabled project activities to run smoothly, for trainings to be more productive, and for individual activities to grow.
Fostering an Asset-Based Mindset:
9. Be Appreciative
When visiting community members, be appreciative of what they share before being critical. Whether they choose to share their context, their successes, or their struggles, providing clear acknowledgement of what they have shared is incredibly important. All too often, facilitators immediately jump to talking about, and even proposing, “solutions” when they arrive at a visit, without considering context, and, most detrimentally, without listening to what community members explain about their context. Others immediately start critically questioning the situation, hence pushing community members in a defensive position, where they are made to feel as if they had to justify themselves for the way they live. In contexts where “needs-based” programs have been most prevalent, both community members and facilitators are often accustomed to speaking first about the problems, and then jumping to what external solutions are available. The conversation that recognizes the individual’s autonomy and agency, at the status quo, and in possible “solutions”, often never happens.
While providing honest feedback is important, recognizing and appreciating the individual and their situation first is fundamental. Watching Victoria and Langat facilitate, it is obvious that they bolstered people’s self-confidence simply by listening and appreciating. This involved a lot less talking, and a lot more listening. Though for your own purposes you may be internally critiquing and evaluating programs, always be encouraging, and not critical, nagging, or intrusive.
10. End with Motivation
Regardless of what comes up during the visit, make sure that you don’t leave the visit with any stress left on the community member. Ask motivating questions that are personal and relevant, and which focus on individual successes. Leave people with the confidence and motivation to drive their own change- whatever that looks like in their specific context.
Overall, effective and productive facilitation can take a lot of patience and effort. Though many of these principles are intuitive, it’s easy to forget a lot of these a frustrations, bumps in the road, and the sometimes simple discomforts of living away from home arise. By demonstrating consistency and accountability, Victoria and Langat have built strong relationships in communities across Kenya. By being appreciative and encouraging, they’ve been able to support community-driven development in 24 different groups, with 600 group members, and among numerous members of the surrounding communities, over the past three years.
I graduated from my undergraduate degree a year ago, where I had studied Life Sciences and Global Development Studies. When I had the opportunity to work on a community development project in Western Kenya as part of the Oceanpath Fellowship, I was excited for the opportunity to translate what I’d learned in the classroom into reality. Reality was much different than what I had expected and planned for, and I’m grateful for having been able to learn so much about the complexities of community development during my time here.
I wish I had gotten this list two years ago, alongside the chance to meet these two lovely people. Instead, I’m excited to take these lessons with me moving forward, and to expand an approach that is fundamentally #asset-based.