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Getting Communities to Buy into Your Project

Melissa Williams's picture

We recently held a session on linking communities to markets during the Development Marketplace 2008 with about 40 finalists from all over the world.  This was an excellent session and well received, but I realized one thing during the event: When you discuss how to link communities to markets, you’re assuming that the communities are mobilized, are actively participating in the project, and feel a sense of ownership.  But how do you get to that point?

To be quite honest, if someone says they have a fool-proof way to mobilize communities into sustainable institutions, I would not believe them.  We have learned from experience, however, and I’ll share some of that with you know.  Hopefully, people will respond with examples of their own. 


Don’t try to define communities or community groups.  Self-selection into a program increases the likelihood that participants are interested and will stay in for the long haul.  The important thing is to communicate clearly with the potential target population:

  • What your project is and why it is targeting the area?
  • What are the rules for participation?
  • How do people/groups join the project?
  • What are the responsibilities for participants?
  • What are the anticipated benefits for participants?
  • What happens if the rules are broken? 

This information must be communicated clearly through several different channels so that it saturates the target population. Then let them self-select into the project.  An important note here regarding the last bullet point: you must be prepared to enforce the rules.  If your rules say that a community group is barred from the project for a year if they mismanage funds, then you have to enforce that.  It’s hard, especially when you’re dealing with people in so much need, but it is necessary for the long term health of the project. 


On the rules of participation, a couple of examples come to mind.  The Gemidiriya project in Sri Lanka has the Golden Rules for Village Organizations and Village Companies.  These are:

  1. we must contribute to our development
  2. we must have confidence in ourselves and practice self-help
  3. we are accountable to the village for all our actions
  4. good governance is key to success
  5. let us develop our village step-by-step
  6. cost effectiveness pays
  7. be open and transparent in our dealings
  8. uphold the principles of equity and inclusion
  9. act timely and ensure quality
  10. seek help when required

The Golden Rules were developed with communities through participatory workshops so they resonate with communities.  When you visit the project area, you can see the Golden Rules everywhere; they are respected. 

The milk cart in the picture was purchased by a group of ladies in Kabillegama Village in Ratnapura district using Gemidiriya funds.  They sell milk to houses and schools in the area and also advertise the Golden Rules, which are painted on the back of the trolley.


I’m not saying that every project should apply these golden rules, to communities. Please, no cookie cutters! Rather, every project that is working with communities can build a sense of ownership if they work with communities to define the rules of the game.  There are some rules that have to come from the Bank and the Government, but many can be done in partnership with communities.  When they’ve helped create the project on the ground, they will be more connected to the project.

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