Author: Anele Herbet Dube, October 3 2016 - One of the key challenges facing Civil Society Organisations (CSO) in Zimbabwe has more to do with programming rather than funding or diminishing funding opportunities. In my more than 5 years involvement in the work of civil society, I have been convinced that there is a need for serious reflection by many organisations on how they approach programming especially if they are to contribute to social change. The call to put people or communities at the centre of any project through incorporating them at every stage of that project has been an old tale, but, however, very few organisations take that seriously. Defining and perceiving themselves as ‘experts’, Programme Managers, Officers and Directors and those involved in project development have tended to replace communities with technological gadgets (computers, laptops) and the internet in terms of problem identification and solution finding (desktop programming). 

In my two and half years involved in the Taking Media to Rural Areas (TAMERA) Project implemented by Radio Dialogue, I learnt a lot in terms of developing community/people centred projects and that, by doing so, one will be a step ahead in terms of being able to see and measure the results. Just to share a bit, TAMERA project was designed to 'provide' information, especially media products, to rural communities in Matabeleland. A wide network of communities was established where a needs assessment was conducted to evaluate the information gaps and needs and possible intervention measures for such. The project covered: Lupane, Tsholotsho, Nkayi, Matobo, Bubi, Mangwe and Bulilima districts. 

To deliver these products, rural transport networks became a key stakeholder in transporting the packaged CDs and flash sticks to information access centres (shops and bottle stores) where these were played to the readily available audiences. At first the content covered general news updates as some of these communities had no access to local radio or TV signals or even newspapers. However, my experience on this project reflected greatly on why project flexibility is also a huge factor that organisations have to adopt as communities and the operational environment are fluid due to a number of factors. As argued by the Brazilian Paulo Freire (banking model), the notion that an organisation's team (employees) are 'experts' should be tolerated with caution as one cannot be an 'expert' in finding solutions to problems that do not necessarily affect one directly. 

Through TAMERA, the basis was that communities lacked and needed information for them to be informed and make informed decisions on situations that affect them. As a result, we 'delivered' that information. What I observed was that these communities were generally appreciative of information provision at the earlier stages. It was like they were being 'given' the information and therefore they had to 'take' it without queries. One key strength of this project was that part of the content in the CDs and flash drives was generated through interviews with community members on community issues. 

Basically, during field visits, we would conduct random interviews with women, men and youths whom we came across as we tried to understand their plight and let them 'tell their stories' and their expectations from power bearers and other stakeholders in general. I noted that it took sometime before the communities started directing and shaping the project. They influenced the programme content especially on what mattered to them and this differed from area to area. Issues of socio-economic rights started dominating the content as citizens confidence grew. 

I observed that women used to generally refuse to give interviews even on issues that directly affected them as they would either direct us to their husbands or local leadership, especially traditional leaders. However, this later changed as women dominated the programme, sharing stories of lack of access to water, poor health service provision, and challenges in raising fees for their children among other issues. They had new belief in the radio programmes in the CDs and flash drives and gained confidence to speak for themselves. 

Secondly, although we used to share general topical issues as covered by mainstream media which was dominated by political and economic news, the communities started making new demands. To them, political news was a secondary priority. They wanted agriculture and health news which appealed to their day-to-day lives. Due to the flexibility of the programme, such content became key in the CDs and flash drives.

Thirdly, the communities started engaging and discussing these radio programmes, and I remember one man in Ndolwane area saying: 'I never knew or thought that this community can be so active and engaging. You have just resuscitated us and these CDs are now part and parcel of our lives'. 

Some even started saying 'we need our own radio station. How can you guys help us have our own so that we cover our issues using our own (Kalanga) language?’ This reflected on a project whose impact was as bear as a stone. This was a community that has never had access to local radio, more than 30 years after independence. In Kalani area (Tsholotsho), a young lady in her early 20s who was a storekeeper and single mother had a message to the area’s MP, Professor Jonathan Moyo 'Please tell him we need a college especially for single mothers like me so that we can get skills and education which may change our lives’. 

Lastly, rural communities in Zimbabwe are generally labelled as conservative, disempowered, not aware of their rights, especially political rights, etc. However, through TAMERA, I learnt that these generalised labels were not only misleading but also created and popularised by the urban-based organisations, who had no touch with the realities of these communities, as they formulated these perceived justifications as part of their proposals. I would argue that some of the labels were (and continue to be) stereotypes that position many civil society organisations as centres of 'enlightment', especially to the rural communities enslaved in ‘darkness’.

What rural communities need are participatory platforms where they can speak, challenge decisions and influence how they are governed - platforms where they can express themselves and shape development in their communities. When community members in these districts started questioning their local leadership (MPs) which vanished (to Harare) after being elected in 2013, this signalled a need to be heard. In Sinotsi (Bulilima) area, formulating the community’s actually ward development plans, cictzens surrendered to their councillor on what were their development priorities every year, but these were never to see the light of the day. They were not adopted and incorporated into the development plans by the local authorities, a gap that CSOs need to explore.

These participatory platforms which I propose should be provided by civil society organisations in partnership with community based organisations. However, CSOs need to first change their attitudes in terms of approaches and appreciate that rural communities are equal development partners who actually understand their problems better. Secondly, CSOs should appreciate that they may be ‘experts’ in certain areas, but rural communities are ‘experts’ in finding solutions to their problems. This calls for an equilibrium in terms of approaches in problem identification and solving where both stakeholders treat each other as development partners rather than ‘experts’ and ‘beneficiaries’.

As argued by Freire, the relation between the organisations and the community should be a ‘subject-object duality’ where every participant learns collectively via dialogue and interchangeable roles. Interestingly, many organisations have challenges in reporting on what they ‘learnt’ during the course of the project which to me is arguably due to their belief that ‘beneficiaries’ are the ones supposed to learn from them (as they are the experts). Until organisations understand that the communities they are working with are ‘knowledgeable, conscious beings capable of negotiating the limits of their worlds and the oppressions experienced in it’ (Chitnis, 2005:236; Morrow & Torres, 2002:1-2) many development projects will not succeed as problems are not only misdiagnosed but solutions also foreign and alien.