It’s a common assumption among development organisations that people in a community can come together to solve a shared problem. Community mobilisation is often a sought-after solution for development problems like a lack of teachers or poor maintenance of a water pump. NGOs frequently develop programmes which encourage communities to take action to improve a local service, or to hold local officials to account.
But would this kind of community action happen without an NGO or other organisation instigating and coordinating it? During my recent research into education in Niger, I found that ‘organic’ community mobilisation does happen – but not necessarily in the way development organisations might expect.
First, here’s what state-instigated, NGO-supported community action looks like in Niger: each school has a management committee, consisting of representatives from the local community. The committee works with the school’s teachers and director, encouraging parents to donate money and labour to improving the school.
The committees appear to function well, but it seems that without the state or an NGO playing a role, parents would be unlikely to self-organise and work together to improve their local schools. Afrobarometer results suggest that despite severe teacher shortages, better public education is not the people’s primary concern, and as voters went to the polls in February, education reform was not a headline.
But, perhaps a different form of education is a public priority. As Niger is a secular state, few public schools offer Islamic studies. In order to provide a religious education to their children, parents in one middle-class community in Niamey come together to collectively pay for an Islamic teacher to provide weekend lessons for adults and children. And this is not unusual.
Interestingly, it seems that parents will pay for a private tutor to support non-religious education (if they can), but for religious education, they’ll pool resources to pay for a local teacher. Perhaps this is because of the value placed on an Islamic education, or because they feel social pressure to contribute to something which their community considers important.
Either way, this indicates that religion, as a driver of social norms, is a powerful force behind community action in Niger, where other drivers may be lacking. A unifying belief, religious or not, is important for provoking community mobilisation.
What could this mean for development? My experiences in Niger suggest that when searching for community-led solutions to public service problems, development organisations need to look more at what drives people to work together.
For development organisations working in Niger, the idea that parents could mobilise to solve problems in the education system seems overly optimistic and assumes that parents would act in their rational collective interest. This overlooks the importance of belief systems in influencing how individuals and groups behave.
On reflection, it may be that supporting community-led action is not an effective way of improving education, or that perhaps development organisations could work with Islamic schools to channel concerns about Islamic education into improving education more generally.
There could be multiple strategies for improving education in Niger but underlying them are shared social values which drive – or coerce – how individuals act. So, before pursuing community mobilisation as a solution to a public problem, development organisations need to step back and ask: what are the core values and beliefs that people share, and can these beliefs motivate people to act together on a particular development problem?