Opinion: Are you really helping? Here’s how you can make the most of community engagement

The overlooked value of listening, how it empowers, and what you can do to champion the voices of others.

Community building needs to be inclusive to produce meaningful, lasting and equitable development. ‘Community engagement’ is increasingly recognised as a crucial part of achieving this by all stakeholders. It has found its place as a buzzword amongst decision-makers — but what does it really mean to engage a community?

To put it simply, community engagement is the process of working collaboratively with community members to address issues that impact their well-being. It is about creating a platform for people to be heard and subsequently act on collective needs.

It aims to empower the everyday person by allowing them to have a part in determining the outcomes within their community.

Challenging the Norms of ‘Engagement’

As someone who is looking to ‘help’, we have the tendency to assume we know better. However, practical wisdom has proven this habit to be toxic. When we turn a deaf ear to the voices of others, we neglect their ability to contribute and stifle the growth of meaningful relationships with them.

A poor relationship with community members often results in uninformed interventions which may not only fail at solving problems, but exacerbate them.

For example, the construction of indoor toilets in the homes of indigenous people in Malaysia. It is common for the majority of urban populations to want indoor toilets. We perceive it as convenient and progressive. However, it is within the culture of many indigenous people to build toilets outside their houses, which is seen to be the more sanitary option. Many toilets built as part of housing aid tend to fall into disrepair because of this oversight in cultural sensitivity.

A failure to take into account local practices and capacity lead to unsustainable interventions even if they are at first successful. This is prevalent in tech-based interventions, such as the installation of solar powered lights which eventually fail due to a lack of knowledge transfer to locals on maintenance.

We need to realise it may go against the communities’ norms to use interventions as they were designed, or that they may lack the capacity to sustain its use.

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We need to stop introducing external support as a solution to problems. Instead, we must shift our attention towards building and capitalising on existing community capacity. External support should only be part of a roadmap to empowering communities to take charge, with dignity and self-sufficiency.

This is why the idea of interdependence and co-creation is so important. It allows communities to lead and play to their strengths while creating a support network to solve relevant issues in a sustainable way. This model can then be replicated to similar communities, with the previous community now in a position to give where they once received.

Interdependence Over Independence

Society, in general, values independence. But often to the point that we segregate people according to those that are able to provide and those who are in need.

To create a truly equitable and sustainable world, we need to recognise that independence, although important, is only secondary. As people living on the same planet, we need to shift towards valuing interdependence because we share more than we think.

Even in the social sector, silo culture is rampant. Many people do good work but just aren’t sure how to coordinate efforts and do it together. This not only leads to redundancy but also confuses the people you are trying to help.

Soup kitchens and NGOs working on alleviating urban poverty in recent times have needed to ask the public to reconsider their contributions due to the implications of too many once-off handouts going to waste and disrupting on-going efforts.

And who wouldn’t be, when 10 different people come knocking on your door offering help that you may not necessarily want?

There are many emergent issues in the field of community development and a lot of them stem from fragmented engagement practices. We need to address the root cause and pave our way forward by developing a holistic approach to working with communities AND each other.

We can start with listening and understanding people. Everything else will follow after.

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If you are looking to begin your path in outreach and empowering people, EPIC recently launched the Pathfinder movement — an initiative to coordinate community engagement efforts.

Daniel Teoh advocates for ground-up community building through bringing people together. He is the resident partnerships and community engagement person at EPIC, where he is currently pioneering the Pathfinder movement.

Daniel Teoh advocates for ground-up community building through bringing people together. He is the resident partnerships and community engagement person at EPIC, where he is currently pioneering the Pathfinder movement.

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