Friday, February 29, 2008

Data about communities are needed

Dear Colleagues

Data about communities is needed. There is all sorts of data about companies that are quoted on the stock exchange, about sporting teams and their players, about countries, about commodity markets, about the weather ... but hardly any data about communities.

Yet it is the community that has the most impact on our life ... community is where we live. The saying that all politics is local may be true, but life is also local.

I was guided to the idea that community was important fairly early in my development career when I realised that some communities were significantly richer than others ... why, and the answer was clearly that the communities had different situations. In another learning situation, the discussion was about a radio program to advise farmers on good practice for their farms, and it was pointed out by local people that what worked on one side of the valley did not work on the other side of the valley ... there was a lot of detailed geography that needed to be taken into consideration.

The idea that policy level decisions made in a capital city are going to make a big difference in any specific community needs to be challenged ... there are many other factors that need to be taken into consideration, not least of which is whether funds disbursed in one place will actually arrive in the community, and if not, why not. But even discounting this, there are few policies that can be designed effectively unless there is a recognition that a community is not an average of the country, but specific and perhaps quite different from the average.

In the specific case of malaria ... different communities have different experiences. Much can be done at the community level to reduce the impact of malaria on the community ... starting off with the level of awareness about mosquitoes and malaria and taking some steps to reduce malaria transmission (but more on this under malaria).

With data about communities it becomes very much easier to understand what development initiatives are working and what activities are merely wasting resources. In a community, results can be seen, and then measured and performance metrics created. What is important about these metrics is that they directly relate to the impact on people ... which is what development ought to be about. This, of course, contrasts with typical development sector monitoring and evaluation that usually has a project focus, or an organization focus, and usually only indirectly addresses the community and people impact.

Tr-Ac-Net has been developing performance metrics that have a community centric perspective. It turns out that some of the ideas are very similar to those that have evolved over many years within the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and in other Grameen related initiatives in other parts of the world.

Getting data about communities would have been a very difficult task just five years ago ... but with modern technology it should be very much simpler. The challenge is no more the technology, but getting people to understand its potential value in helping to achieve optimal development progress.


Peter Burgess

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