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Community development through indigenous leadership

by Dennis Olson

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 18:30-37
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics

Roles of the various entities involved in the ICW process

Looking back at those times of working together with the Aguaruna leaders, I realize how important it is for each party involved to know what his role is so that one does not usurp the role of the other, misunderstandings do not occur, and activities are carried out that are essential to the success of the project.

The role of the community

  1. It takes responsibility for solving community problems, basically being willing to work on a given project.
  2. It uses the resources available to meet their needs.
  3. It works through their leadership.

The role of indigenous leadership

  1. It serves as a liaison between the community and outside agencies.
  2. It knows and understands what the community needs are.
  3. It guides the community into realistic expectations.
  4. It organizes the community.
  5. It builds community consensus.
  6. It researches community resources.
  7. It organizes and oversees the daily work involved in carrying out a particular project.

The role of the ICW specialist

The skills and strategies used in working with indigenous leadership are applicable whether the projected goal be linguistics, translation, bilingual education, improved health care, or a literacy program.

  1. The most important thing an outsider can do is to be a good listener. This cannot be overemphasized. To listen is to show respect for the person speaking and an interest in working with the people. Also one needs all of the information possible in order to understand the problems facing a community.

    I have seen people come into communities to help. They felt they knew what the community's needs were and would spend their whole time telling the community what they needed to do. When the visit was over the community was terribly frustrated because they had no opportunity to discuss the issues that were important to them.

    Once a person has the confidence of the people, part of listening is being a sounding board to the leadership. They need to talk about things to help them think through new projects. If for some reason they are discouraged or the community is not behind them, they may need to talk to someone to get encouragement and reassurance that they are on the right track. If the ICW specialist senses that they are headed in the wrong direction, he or she can offer alternatives that would help them out.

    It was not until I was out of the Aguaruna work that I realized the importance of being a sounding board. After this type of relationship has been established, a lot can be accomplished with very little expenditure of time. It is like a savings account that can be drawn on at critical times. It takes years to establish deep respect and credibility. Once this has been done, help and guidance can be given that would not be possible for a new worker to give. In this respect SIL is in a better position to help with ICW than agencies who do not maintain a long-term presence with a group.

  2. An outsider needs to earn the right to be heard. He earns that right by having a certain level of understanding of the culture, the various tribal factions, the mestizo contacts, the process of buying and selling goods, and so forth. Using this knowledge, he can give advice that is helpful in a particular situation.
  3. In relationship to the community and its leaders, the ICW specialist is a facilitator. As such, he presents new ideas, makes suggestions, and offers alternatives. He does not make decisions for the community. If he does insist on a certain course of action and the decision is wrong, the community can always blame the failure of a project on him. The end result is that the community has not learned anything from the bad decision. If the community makes the decisions, then, whether they are successful or not, they are more likely to have gained experience which will help them make good decisions in the future.

    Another facet of being a facilitator is that of making sure that the components are present that are necessary for the success of a project. This role might include arranging funding or training, or making sure that necessary equipment is available.

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