Vol.2 No.8, 25 March 2002

Getting Community Support Right

Many suggestions are currently being made for providing an economic safety net of poverty relief for unemployed and destitute people and communities. In this issue of SANE Views, Dr Norman Reynolds relates his personal experience of how the small rural community of Busiesvlei, with some enlightened guidance and very limited external funding, created a safety net for itself while also providing meaningful work for its members and revitalising the community.

Dr Reynolds has been involved in a wide range of development initiatives in Zimbabwe, South Africa and earlier in India as a Rural Development Officer for the World Bank (see SANE Views, Vol.1, No.10). In 1992, he was appointed by the Independent Development Trust (IDT) to design a drought relief and development programme. His report illustrates many important elements of a successful programme, viz:

All of these are also core SANE concepts.

The paper has been abridged. If you are interested in further details and ideas of his work you can contact him at [email protected] .

Aart Roukens de Lange
Editor, SANE Views

Getting Community Support Right

Norman Reynolds

In 1992 the then SA government provided R15 billion to commercial farmers for drought relief and to cancel debts to its own Land Bank. At the same time the Independent Development Trust (IDT) set aside a fund (R100 million) for small black farmers and for farm labourers who had lost jobs. I was asked by the IDT to design a drought relief and development programme. The major focus for the project was to help communities develop a meaningful programme with limited resources, just as most households and businesses experience. This would require a community to generate

A: a new level of capability and financial know-how, and
B: the ability to define and manage its business boundary.

About 940 communities received budgets ranging from R40,000 to R1,000,000 . Each community illustrated, in different ways, the working of the economics rights conferred upon them.

The Busiesvlei Experience

Busiesvlei, which received a R40,000 budget, is a small farm-labour township set amongst farms in the old western Transvaal. About 90% had lost their jobs on surrounding farms. We followed our normal procedures:

Two of us, an engineer in charge of that region and I, visited Busiesvlei and asked if we could meet residents and any committee or other community body.
They were suspicious. About twenty people of all ages slowly arrived in a classroom.
We explained that we came from a Trust that wished to assist them survive the drought and the loss of jobs. Would they tell us about themselves, how many families lived there, how many had regular income and anything else we should know?

Some senior people arrived during the meeting and stated that the community wanted a clinic. We accepted that but countered that the Trust would provide a budget that the community would use to employ each other on projects, thereby seeking as best it could to solve income and other problems. We would then help them work out how best to use the funds. This did not satisfy some present: a clinic or nothing was their attitude. We explained that the budget probably could not build a clinic. A clinic could only be built if the authorities accepted it and agreed to man and service it. We left after about two hours, leaving behind an unhappy group.

A legal letter awarding them R40,000 was hand-delivered three days later. With it were annexures that spelt out the procedures.

The engineer and I returned a couple of weeks later together with the local facilitator. We faced considerable anger. How could R40,000 build a clinic? Why were we wasting their time? Did we not hear what they had said? Slowly, over several hours, working through the Committee, we turned the meeting around. We had them playing simple role model and other games that showed that they had more than R40,000; they had rights that would reward imagination, courage, persistence and discipline. They had a crucial element of autonomy, something they had never had before. Not once did we prescribe what they should do - just questions and games about who they were, what was their surrounding and internal economy, their management boundary, how they related to agencies, farmers and the like.

After six weeks the facilitator began to report interesting activities of the kind that the programme predicted.

The Committee hired a taxi and travelled to see the Provincial Health Department at its headquarters. This cost R640. The officials were intrigued to meet a rural labour group that sought a clinic and also "put on the table" as their negotiating piece some R39,000. This had never happened before. It was agreed that a follow up meeting would take place with the Town Clerk and the Sister who ran the clinic in the nearest "white" town, nine kilometres away.

When they returned there was a celebration; for the first time they were working with the authorities.

Because of the uncertain timing of any official solution, the Committee then spent R260 to travel in a taxi to a hospital to see a white doctor who had a good reputation. They travelled past two other hospitals to see him in the third hospital. It turned out that he was the Hospital Administrator. He was taken with their concern to obtain a health service for the community and that they had a budget to use. He invited them to treat his hospital as their clinic cum hospital for the next few months until they achieved some more efficient solution.

On its return, the Committee called a meeting to announce their success; the community had a clinic cum hospital. The celebration was spoilt when someone asked how anyone could afford to visit that distant hospital. The Committee then phoned the doctor. "Don't worry," he told them; until a particular date his ambulances would fetch them on a regular basis and answer emergency calls. For R900 they had a complete health service, at least for a short while.

A month later a meeting took place in the nearby town. The Town Clerk was adamant. His over-stretched clinic could not take people from another place for which his town had no responsibility. The Sister suggested that she could work extra hours on two days a week if the people from Busiesvlei could organise to come at those times. The Town Clerk would have none of that "infiltration". The town could not afford it. The Sister then enquired if there was a place at Busiesvlei where a clinic could be run. She would come out on her own if the community could provide a suitable place. Like the song about Henry and the hole in the bucket, the Committee reminded everyone present that the lack of a clinic was what had started the whole business. Then an administrator from Head Office remembered that there was a manager's house at Busiesvlei. Could a part of that be used for an occasional clinic? "No", said a Committee member, "It has been locked for years. There is no manager." A phone call followed to Head Office and the manager's house was made available for the clinic. The community, after spending R980 of R40,000, now had a permanent clinic and a visiting sister. It had taken just four months from the time the letter with the budget had been delivered to Busiesvlei!

Further Developments

Two months later a manager in the IDT wrote a letter to the Committee noting that little money had been spent and that, if the balance of R39,020 was not spent soon, it would be cancelled, lost to Busiesvlei.

The Committee then organised the building of a simple youth centre. By now they had so many friends that most of the material was donated by the Department of Health and the Police which at the time, prior to the first "national" elections of 1994, were given community development funds. Labour cost R12,000. At the opening, the Police came with two buses to lift everyone from their homes the few yards to the Youth Centre!

Financial Multiplier

The Committee then invited the engineer and myself to a meeting to discuss how best to spend the balance of R27,000. We reminded them of the games we had first played, particularly two that involved analysing the local economy that created jobs and business opportunities and the principle of investment rather than expenditure.

After some time members began to explore, with rising excitement, the fact that the nearby commercial farmers, their previous employers, could not plant the next crop of maize because they were too indebted to raise loans. But Busiesvlei had funds. It did not take long for the community to instruct the Committee to choose the three or four best farmers - not the nicest - to enter into negotiations about joint farming ventures. Busiesvlei, with a R27,000 deposit could raise additional funds with which to finance crops. In return for finance, farmers would hire labour from Busiesvlei, pay wages and interest and share the profit. Looked at another way, Busiesvlei was hiring the farmer as manager, renting his land and equipment and sharing some of the risks inherent in raising their own crops and employing themselves. R40,000 had bought an economic, organisational and service revolution for about R240 per family.

All the 940 odd communities that received budgets under the programme had successes. The most common was that, paying themselves, they paid very low wages, around R7 per day. Work on official sites, like road building, paid R55 per day. Knowing the total wage bill, they gave as much as possible for the total, not the daily wage, that could be earned.

Some communities completed projects without paying wages. They knew that they had earned the total wage bill. The task was to match the output to that expenditure. Hence, as labourers and as community members, they were able to lift their sights to aim for the greatest output for a given total wage.

Work Rights and Local Multipliers

The programme became highly popular. Committees began to ask if they could take more responsibility for the running of the programme. As they gained confidence in their ability to invest well, so they were prepared to face a rising cost of the funds provided, knowing that that opened up the far larger resources of the financial institutions. The agreed aim was to achieve 60% loan, 40% grant after four years. The loans would come not only to the communities but also to individuals who had productive private investments to make.

The only unresolved problem was that, in some communities, those who were selected to work tended to form a protective monopoly over the right to work. The answer agreed in communities was to distribute the labour budget equally to all adults as work rights with a monetary face value set per day's work (i.e. a type of complementary currency). These would be bought and sold within the community in a local market for work. In that way no group would be able to monopolise the right to work.

Work rights offer a dynamic mobilising way to invest in people. This allows the state to partner communities which invest in themselves. In return for on-going state grant support, the communities would have to accept an obligation to pay higher school and clinic fees from the extra cash circulating locally. This would set up a high local multiplier, releasing the state from the limitations of budgetary expenditure to the dynamics of finance and investment. Through its citizens it would propel the whole economy to higher levels of performance and of participation.

Breakdown and Re-Launch

The drought programme ended in what, publicly unknown, was a disgraceful and self-serving decision. Just as the programme was reinventing itself, so the head of the IDT was informed by the head of the South African National Civic Organisations (SANCO) that, as the programme was so popular, it must either pass the funds to SANCO or leave the field. In response, the IDT passed a ridiculous rule that no community could receive a budget twice, stopping in its tracks the most innovative and successful rural programme ever, not only in South Africa but at least as good as anything elsewhere.

It is time that such a programme is re-launched. Work rights, together with a growing component of loans, is a higher order version of the Basic Income Grant currently being promoted by civil society as the most efficient way to tackle poverty. Communities should be able to vote to move from the latter, the BIG, to the former, work rights, thereby providing the country with an economic escalator for both rural and urban communities.

As investors through a work rights programme, communities would 'modernise' the broken down tribal village system into a Trust Company. This would convert a community with the meaningless birthright of "access to land" into a community of equal, male and female, adult owners of the common properties vested in a democratic asset managing and investing body.

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