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Harnessing the power of community for the common good

Community, in different human contexts, can be based on interest, action, plan, practice and circumstance. Many of the world's current and emerging issues are experienced at the neighbourhood and household level. Not all neighbourhoods' and households' experiences are the same, from shocks to the economic, social, and ecological environment because of geographical location, equity, different historical trajectories, equality and so forth.
Dr Shafick Adams, executive manager, Water Research Commission
Dr Shafick Adams, executive manager, Water Research Commission
Aggregating the different dominant national or regional issues to represent the challenges experienced at the neighbourhood level is flawed. Different neighbourhoods have different needs depending on their physical location, proximity to economic opportunities, access to resources (water and land), employment profile, and sense of place. These issues give rise to many social, economic, and environmental impacts that positively or negatively affects neighbourhoods through feedback loops.

Many neighbourhoods can and have become isolated from district and regional development. There is growing interest to restore and develop neighbourhoods, improve collaboration between and within neighbourhoods and to create an alternate future where these communities can foster an environment and social dynamic that improves conditions to the household and individual level.

How do a community of place (neighbourhood) benefit from other communities, such as communities of interests (share the same interest or passion), communities of expert practitioners (in science, engineering, technologists, humanities), and communities of action (trying to bring about change)?

Co-operacy between communities

In most instances, these different communities operate in silos because of competition for resources, relevance, and attention. The different communities’ modus operandi creates a paradigm where the interventions are either 'top-down' or 'bottom-up'. In addition, it creates an environment for spectators and active participants. Both these approaches have their merits and demerits based on the contexts and desired outcomes. Can a model of co-operacy between the different communities (place, interests, practice, and action) lead to better decision-making, implementation, and ownership? Is it possible to harmonise between the distinct groups their beliefs, values, methods, processes and techniques to organise for improved local development?

Many community initiatives fail because it organises interventions around a key actor – this can be a funder, implementer (practice), community activist(s) or interest groups (action), political party (interest) and a ward system based on political affiliations. These individualistic approaches often lead to interventions that do not have the support by all because of differences in beliefs, values, methods, and techniques.

Excessive use of 'whataboutism'

We live in an era of the excessive use of 'whataboutism' as different actors try to position themselves within communities (place) to establish relevancy and authority. However, the current and emerging challenges can only be mitigated through developments that are sustainable and accepted by the majority. The primary objective should be to realise a positive impact on communities of place to navigate issues of poverty, health, growth, and an improved sense of place.

The concept of ‘common good’ has been around since ancient times, popularised by philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Amitai Etzioni defines it as “ … those goods that serve all members of a given community and its institutions, and, as such, includes both goods that serve no identifiable particular group, as well as those that serve members of generations not yet born”. Based on Aristotelian principles, “ … it is attainable only by the community, yet individually shared by its members”.

Improving water security

A community in Limpopo has been using this co-operacy model to improve its water security. Water services to several communities are not where it should be and many communities were still receiving water at or below the 25 litres per person per day RDP standard. The community of place has been water insecure for some time until a community of action intervened and improved their water security. Out of this, a community of interest developed that bought into the idea and the opportunities related to access to a more reliable water supply.
The different communities were born out of the same section of the village. Using available know-how (indigenous knowledge), water supply sources were identified, and they developed an infrastructure layout plan. Using a crowdfunding approach, they raised the required funds to buy the required material. The community of interest provided the labour force and motivation to install about 4km of pipework in less than 10 days!

Mutual trust, contextualised solutions

Enter the Water Research Commission and its partners (African Development Bank, Tsogang Water and Sanitation and the International Water Management Institute) – the community of expert practitioners in science, engineering, funding, project management and stakeholder engagement. The aim was set to develop the scheme, started by the local communities (place, action and interest), into a multiple-use water services scheme that would improve water and food security and economic opportunities.

With the local communities, the community of expert practitioners set out to optimise the schemes using and explaining the science and engineering approaches - the merging of local know-how (indigenous knowledge) and certified expert (trained) processes and techniques. This approach led to the nurturing of mutual trust and contextualised solutions that would ensure that the scheme remains maintainable into the future. The improved and more reliable supply scheme resulted in the stimulation of the local economy (through fruit, vegetable, and livestock farming). Improved sanitation and the concomitant impacts on dignity and health are also being realised.

The scheme is not yet perfect but it has come a long way from households only having water for a few days in a week. This scheme has also shown that if we organise all towards the common-good, the provision of reliable water supply is possible. The team also won the WRC’s Knowledge Tree Award in 2019 in the category Empowerment of Communities. We can juxtapose this project with many schemes where there are only one or two communities involved – they tend to be not sustainable and maintainable over the long period.

Developing an enabling environment

In many situations, there is an obvious need to develop an enabling environment that supports co-operacy between different communities (place, practice, interest, and action). These can be places where open dialogue takes place within communities using different engagement models that tap into the unique gifts and human capital existing within communities - to come up with practical and context-driven solutions to social, economic and ecological challenges, developing and nurturing individual accountability and active responsibility and a move away from entitlement and the projectionist stance (where issues must always be solved by someone else, like the state).

Rigid and hierarchical approaches rarely support the dynamism required for the active and equal participation of the different communities. There must be a shift in trust, relatedness, and the nurturing of our social capital to create a new movement that will help us create an alternate future. We can expand this model to different challenges faced by communities to improve service delivery, food security, social ills and sense of place.

About Dr Shafick Adams

Dr Shafick Adams is an executive manager at the Water Research Commission
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