Before the project, there was a general perception that politicians are not open to discussing development options, and that criticism would label them enemies of the political hierarchy. Communities suffered in silence instead of constructively engaging government. But many things have changed as a result of the project.
The skills in communication, leadership, group dynamics and advocacy processes are essential skills for meaningful engagement with their DAs, while awareness of their rights to public services and the duty of DAs to provide them has given them essential knowledge. Communities have told us time and again that they did not know they have these rights to services or that they are allowed to approach their DAs. Now they confront their DAs by writing write advocacy letters and leading community visits to their DAs to advocate for service provision.
Communities have also invited senior officials such as District Chief Executives to visit them. This has resulted in their first ever visit from DA members to some communities, and the relationships developed as a result have been positive and sustained. The DAs have shown willingness to engage communities and develop a positive working relationship, and this is building trust and confidence. Negotiation and relationship building have engendered mutual respect, trust, and openness and have shown that communities can discuss their problems with their DAs, and that the DAs will listen and meet their needs when they have the capacity to do so. This has also helped build confidence in the DAs.
Communities had previously been unaware of DAs’ budgeting processes and did not know they can participate in budget discussions and decision making. They now know that at least one community representative should be present at budget meetings to voice the concerns of their people, and the DAs have been encouraging them to attend because, if not, the DAs will make decision of their behalf, which may not always reflect communities’ most pressing needs. The communities have been taking up these invitations.
The media engagement has been crucial, partly for raising much broader awareness and reaching many thousands more people than durbars alone could reach, and also because they help us put pressure on the duty-bearers to fulfil their duties to communities. The media can expose where DAs are doing very badly and commend them where they are doing well. The community radio programmes have been the most successful media activity, reaching communities far and wide who have taken their own actions to visit their DAs and demand their rights.
The trainings for communities, community leaders, assembly persons and DA representatives in rights-based advocacy, policy dialogue and participatory governance have brought these actors together and strengthened their relations, connection and communication. Communities are able to communicate their concerns in a respectful and constructive way to their DAs to ensure effective advocacy and dialogue.