Sustainable Change: The Seed process and community level action

The Annual Cycle of Seven Steps

In many areas of life, we use a cycle of steps. To grow crops, there are the seasons of plowing, fertilizing, planting and weeding, before the harvest. To graduate from school, there is a routine of classes. Our studies of worldwide development experiences indicate a frequent failure: communities and governments often just keep starting over, without ever completing a full cycle of action.

Much like a farmer who never goes beyond plowing and planting, or a child who keeps repeating the same class in school. The process of community change can begin by focusing on any given need. The initial goal may be a health clinic, a conservation effort, a jobs program, or a road. The first activity matters far less than how community choices are made, and the cooperation that follows. What is crucial is that community action starts a process that builds momentum, where one success adds to the next. It is imperative to complete an annual cycle. Passing laws then not implementing them is all too common. Funding a project, but not building the skills to use those funds appropriately, is another frequent error.

Time and again, we have observed that each year seven steps are required to complete a cycle of community effort. Such effort, however well intended, is essentially wasted if only some of those steps are accomplished. Our conclusion: do the whole cycle, even if poorly, then next year do the cycle better.

The First Three Steps: Building Community Capacity

Step One: Create a coordinating committee. One individual who seeks to lead will likely get caught by factions or personalized demands. But a coordinating committee brings groups together and distributes responsibilities.

Step Two: Identify each community’s successes. Whatever a community has done best in the past will be the most likely base for future success. Outside experts can help identify these successes.

Step Three: Study other communities. Find options that have worked for other people in similar circumstances, options that can be adapted and used. Send community members to observe these other successes, especially those people who will actually do the work.

Choosing a Vision, Steps Four & Five: SEED (Self-Evaluation for Effective Decisionmaking)

Step Four: Self-Evaluation. Gather data specific to each community. Gather information on resources and problems. Look at human needs, financial factors, and environmental change. Such objective data provides a better basis for action than the more common practice of bringing together people’s opinions.

Step Five: Effective Decisionmaking. Working from data specific to each community, discussion will identify and clarify actions that can solve problems and build community confidence. Discussing these matters collaboratively, the community probes the sources of problems and explores alternative solutions. Once community members (in public meetings, guided by the coordinating committee) have agreed on an achievable course of action, it’s time to create an annual work plan that assigns specific jobs and functions to all.

We refer to these two steps by the acronym SEED (or Self-Evaluation for Effective Decisionmaking. But additionally we have developed a survey technique which facilitates this all-important part of the annual cycle of community action. SEED surveys represent an accurate but simplified data gathering process. Instead of trying to measure every possible factor affecting community and environmental life and health, certain key indicators are selected to be surveyed, indicators that measure multiple interconnected variables.

An example of key indicators used in a SEED survey comes from our Himalayan fieldwork. The question was: how can communities monitor their environmental change? Traditional monitoring would gather data on trees, flowers, animals, water, climate, etc. Each area is complex, and assembling and integrating such data challenges even the best experts. But key indicators make monitoring change simpler. In the Himalayan areas where we are working, the presence of pheasants indicates a pristine habitat, while babblers are found where a brushy forest is being cut down, and sparrows are common in fields. Thus, bird counts can monitor change. The changing proportions among these three birds tell us whether the environment around them is improving or declining.

Taking Action, Steps Six and Seven

Step Six: Start popular projects. Aggregate specific activities so momentum converges and builds into an evolving process. Building progress that will lead to further progress means involving as many people in the community as possible.

Step Seven: Maintain the momentum. Keep improving what works, so as not to waste the community experience. The issue here is not so much to find the perfect solution but rather to test a promising option, adapt it, and keep building on it. Tackle projects everyone believes in. Monitor the momentum of this community action, in order to make necessary midcourse corrections in the way the work is actually performed and, when needed, reassign tasks to make sure they are accomplished.

Communities generally tend to slip toward exploitation. The wealthy will seek more wealth. Those with power will not want to share control. The selfish will exploit the environment. It is essential to stay on guard against such exploitation. A community cannot continue to develop when it is dividing internally. Improvements will only be short-term when the natural resource base is declining.

On-going, multilevel monitoring is critical, with all three partners participating, gathering data, and revising targets to maintain the collective focus on creating more just, sustainable, and community-specific futures. Involvement of objective outsiders can be very important in this phase.

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