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Community Action and the Test of Time Learning from Community Experiences and Perceptions. John Williamson Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF). April 23, 2007. Chiwaula VAC, Mangochi District, Malawi. OVERVIEW.

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community action and the test of time learning from community experiences and perceptions

Community Action and the Test of TimeLearning from Community Experiences and Perceptions

John Williamson

Displaced Children and Orphans Fund (DCOF)

April 23, 2007


This 2006 case study process produced findings about the downstream results of community mobilization work supported by DCOF 1996 - 2002 in Malawi and Zambia. It found that long after the funding ended, most of the community committees are still working actively to address the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. The case study process was jointly supported by DCOF and the Africa's Health in 2010 Project of the Academy of Educational Development, which was funded by USAID's Africa Bureau for Sustainable Development. It was guided by a multi-agency steering committee.


Jill Donahue and Louis Mwewa carried out the field work for the case studies June - July 2006 then prepared the report.

The Steering Committee that supported and guided the process included:

  • Save the Children, US
  • Project Concern International
  • CARE (Intl. in Zambia and US)
  • The Academy for Educational Development
  • USAID (Zambia, Africa Bureau, Office of HIV/AIDS, DCOF)
  • Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator

A key aim was to find out what, if anything, these communities are still doing for children and why.

  • The team visited 30 community committees and 4 at district level -- 21 in Malawi and 13 in Zambia
  • All committees responded to orphans & vulnerable children; those in Malawi also addressed other HIV/AIDS-related issues
  • Of the committees visited, all but 2 were still functioning
  • Of all the communities mobilized, all in Malawi still had active committees and in Zambia 60% did

Essentially, the study found that mobilizing community action for especially vulnerable children is worthwhile and sustainable, but how it is approached and supported makes all the difference

case study methods
  • Key informant interviews
  • Semi-structured interviews
  • Focus group discussions

Ranking exercises

Venn diagrams

  • Review of agency reports and program assessments
community mobilization


  • COPE program (later called “STEPS” and now “Tisamalirane”) started mobilization in 1997
  • Training for Transformation tools were used initially


  • Project Concern International did the initial mobilization work in 1999
  • CARE Zambia carried on and expanded the initial work in 2000
  • Both used Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) tools
commnity action for children
  • Examples of community action for vulnerable children:
  • Provide community-based child care, recreational activities, and feeding
  • Make home visits to vulnerable children and guardians to offer psychosocial support and assistance with household chores
  • Use communal garden and membership fees to provide food, soap, clothes, and school fees for vulnerable children
commnity action for children12
  • Promote HIV/AIDS awareness raising and prevention
  • Support youth groups
  • Teach traditional values to orphans who have lost both parents
  • Mentor community groups in neighboring villages
  • Raise funds to send children & youth to school
  • Make sure children are attending school; talk to their guardians if they aren’t
commnity action for children13
  • Use drama and poems to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS, orphans, and vulnerable children and to provide advice to other youth
  • Ensure children and youth aren’t isolated, by inviting them to join a club or attend community-based child care center
  • Work with community leaders to resolve abusive situations
  • Collect maize and distribute to vulnerable children & households
  • Establish and manage a community school
  • Ownership
  • Participatory processes enabled communities to analyze the impacts of HIV/AIDS, which in turn generated a sense of urgency among community members to respond
  • Community members and their leaders came to see it as their responsibility to act using whatever resources they had; the mobilization process galvanized them to act collectively to address the impact of HIV/AIDS
  • Sharing the results of the participatory analysis stimulated a sense of ownership and commitment within the wider community
  • Sustainability
  • Community ownership was an essential ingredient for initiating community action, and periodic attention is needed to sustain and strengthen it.
  • Key elements:
  • Sound participatory processes
  • Capacity building over time, Vision Plan
  • Linking grassroots committees with a wider pool of resources
  • External resources are not the core of committees’ staying power but they can help extend what they can do.
  • What sustained community action?
  • Compassion for children
  • A sense of unity
  • A common vision
  • Participation of the wider community and transparency on the part of the committee
  • What undermined sustainability?
  • Providing external resources before a committee took action using internal resources and before opportunists were ousted
  • Donor pressure to push money to committees too fast
  • Play a catalytic role that enables community members to:
  • Analyze their situation and discuss the implications
  • Identify internal resources, knowledge, skills, and talents
  • Identify priority needs
  • Develop a strategy to address the priority needs
  • Plan activities needed to execute their strategy initially using internal resources
  • Encourage committees to facilitate the participation of the wider community
  • Facilitate opportunities to explore differences in child and adult perceptions
  • An external organizations should set its agenda around community priorities, concerns, capacities, and commitments
  • Any external funding should be arranged through dialogue grounded in mutual respect and ensure that funds do not overwhelm the management capacity of the community group or create dependency
  • Policymakers and donors should develop innovative mechanisms to appropriately provide external funds to community groups
  • Avoid imposing specific eligibility criteria as to which children and households should be targeted for assistance.
  • To scale up community action over a wide area incorporate intermediary bodies to link community groups to information, material resources, and governmental and other programs and services.
  • The report’s main value may be encouraging agencies and donors reflect more deeply and carefully on how they are relating to communities
  • DCOF is interested in helping to shape a multi-agency learning process about working with communities in a variety of contexts

To download the report

Go to:


Community Action and the Test of Time


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