The Role of Community-Based Organisations in Development

The wellspring for community-based organising is located in people who, even in situations of abject poverty, are able to mobilise around specific needs and interests. This drive has been variously described as an innate human capability (Van Blerk, 2011) or civic agency (Fowler, 2011), which is motivated by different drivers and produces grassroots formations which are more or less formally constituted. Fowler stresses that such formations have the power to shape collective action and constitute institutional responses to specific areas of need and complex social problems. Community-based organisations are one form of institutional response. Development policies in many African countries conceive of a large role played by both the state and the market, forming a mix between the developmental state and neoliberal politics. However, civil society often emerges as the somewhat unrecognised, but nevertheless profound contributor to development at the grassroots level, particularly where the state’s intervention is limited—such as in rural areas (Moyo, 2011).

In the context of deep poverty, the imperative for community organisation is a drive for survival, based on human need in the context of poverty, rather than a purposely altruistic response to need (Van Blerk, 2011). Community ownership is reflected in the different forms of the CBOs and the way in which the organisations draw on community assets and knowledge. Typically CBOs are ‘grounded’ entities that involve members of the community in which the organisations are operating. As such the organisations are accountable to their community-based constituencies that are invested in the nature and outcomes of their activities.

In their five-country study of civic service in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, Patel et al. (2007) found that civic service formed part of local community-development intervention strategies and contributed to local institutional impact. This is supported by findings from a volunteer management needs assessment study among South African civil society organisations, which show clearly that the majority of the organisations had close connections with the local communities they were serving (VOSESA, 2011a).

It goes without saying that CBOs take a myriad of forms and develop around a wide range of community-based issues and interests. One distinction made by CIVICUS (2011) is between socially based civil society organisations such as cultural, religious, or sports associations, and politically oriented civil society organisations such as advocacy groups, NGOs, and trade unions. Generally the imperative for setting up community-based organisations is intrinsically related to lived experience: ‘When the poorest of the poor.. .begin to organise themselves, they do so on the basis of lived experiences and collective suffering rather than on complex and nuanced worldviews or a particular ideology.. .they are in a sense forced to build the plane while flying it’ (Ndlovu, 2004 in Van Blerk, 2011 p. 173). This factor contributes to the success of civic service programmes and helps build social capital and community assets.

Such origins make it important to distinguish between community-based organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While both types of organisation may be concerned with poverty alleviation, for example, they work in different contexts, have different cultures, operate in different ways, and are accountable to different constituencies (Ndlovu, 2004 in Van Blerk, 2011). Community- based organisations surveyed in Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe were linked to large national, international, and governmental programmes. In some cases the community-based organisations worked in partnership with the other agencies, implementing programmes on their behalf. In one case, however, a respondent described this relationship rather negatively as ‘CBOs are the unpaid volunteers of the NGOs’ (Patel et al., 2007, p. 37). Many of the community- based organisations in which community members volunteer may be compensating for inadequate service delivery on the part of local authorities.

The above point is supported by data from The Civil Society Index (CIVICUS, 2011), which found that from 2008-2011 across all countries surveyed, including five African countries, survey participants were far more likely to be involved in socially based organisations than politically focused organisations. This finding is further supported by a household survey conducted in Malawi some years earlier, which found that two thirds of volunteering activities were community-based and that 69 % of servers were actively involved in one or more community-based organisations, the largest concentration being involved in faith-based organisations (Pelser, Burton, & Gondwe, 2004).

Despite the dire situations in which they operate and their lack of resources, there is evidence of a relatively high level of resilience in many community-based organisations throughout the Southern African region. A study of international volunteering in 12 host organisations working largely in rural areas in Mozambique and Tanzania (VOSESA, 2011b) found that all the organisations had been operational for between 4 and 43 years. A South African study of volunteer management in 622 community-based organisations found that two thirds of the organisations surveyed had been in existence for more than 11 years. Among these organisations, 37 % said they had used volunteers for more than 10 years, 18 % had used volunteers in their work for between 6 and 10 years, and 31 % had used volunteers for between 1 and 5 years (VOSESA, 2011a). These trends correlate with the Civil Society Index findings from Zambia where 70 % of civil society organisations surveyed reported that they depend on volunteers to function, and Morocco where 86 out of 104 members of professional associations, 46 out of 70 development organisations, and 40 out of 49 environmental organisations depend on volunteers.

This suggests that despite the challenges of human resource capacity and low levels of financial resourcing, the community-based organisations found various means of sustaining their operations and were relatively stable. In Tanzania the organisations surveyed were active in microfinance, schooling, and vocational training; in Mozambique the organisations were active in youth development, land and agriculture development, and HIV/AIDS work. No doubt the role that volunteers— both local and international—played in supplementing human resource capacity was a key factor in their sustainability. None of the organisations that participated in this study had any government support, although some of the larger organisations in Mozambique did have relationships with various government departments. In most cases, the organisations survived on local resourcing from membership fees, volunteer efforts, and external grants.

Reliance on volunteers produces a number of challenges in the organisations in which they serve. While volunteers are recruited from a wide variety of skill and education backgrounds, organisations report that there is a higher turnover of volunteers than paid staff, which makes it difficult to ensure continuity in their operations. Very often organisations have difficulty in mobilising volunteers with specific skills and experience, which affects the quality of their programmes. In South Africa, some of the organisations surveyed preferred to recruit volunteers who are passionate about voluntary service and then train them in specific skills, but others said they need to recruit professional volunteers who are experts in their fields. Financial and infrastructural challenges in the organisations make it difficult to support the volunteers adequately, particularly when volunteer management systems are weak or non-existent. This is why some volunteers said that they operated in difficult working conditions with limited support, insufficient resources, and few incentives (CIVICUS, 2011; VOSESA, 2011a).

From the above, it is clear that community-based organisations play a vital role in providing services despite often difficult conditions, that they are resilient, and that they rely heavily on the involvement of volunteers to deliver services, despite the challenges that come with managing volunteers.

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