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  • Writer's pictureRick Burnette

Lessons Learned in Thailand about working with organizations and farmer/gardener communities

I recently had the privilege of visiting Thailand and spent several days with Upland Holistic Development Project, the project that Ellen and I founded and directed from 1996-2008. The project’s current team of 12 continues to be engaged in efforts related to sustainable agriculture (e.g., agroforestry, sustainable upland agriculture, backyard farming), documentation of residents and citizenship, women’s outreach, village savings and loans and engagement with local churches among a few dozen hilltribe communities in districts along the Thai-Myanmar border. Over the past 21 years, hundreds of households and thousands of individuals have benefited from the efforts and presence of UHDP. Currently, my main involvement with the project is as a board member of Plant With Purpose, a San Diego-based nonprofit with work in seven countries, including UHDP.

During those six days, I spent considerable time talking with former coworkers, exploring the agroforestry plots of the 14-acre center and visiting four communities that the project is exploring partnerships with. Being immersed in this familiar environment stimulated reflection on the lessons that I learned while working with UHDP; many of which should also be applied to Cultivate Abundance and elsewhere.

The following is a summary of various agricultural community development best practices I learned (sometimes the hard way) with UHDP and other nonprofit efforts over the past three decades:

  • Before engaging a community, do your homework. Learn about the population’s background and current situation using reliable sources (e.g., analytical media, residents, advocates, academics)

  • Be able to use the main local language(s) – In Thailand we worked hard to gain adequate competency in Thai and basic use of the Northern Thai dialect. This increased not only our work competence, but helped to broaden our knowledge base, local relationships as well as credibility. Now we’re working on Spanish as we begin to engage in Immokalee.

  • Find competent and trusted third parties for introduction purposes and to help develop key relationships in candidate focus communities. As one usually cannot walk in just anywhere and announce themselves as relevant and useful, in new communities it is best to be introduced and recommended by mutually trusted third parties. These “insider-outsiders” should continue to serve as advisors related to community relations as well as to improve access to local knowledge sources and power structures.

  • Be relational – Develop social and working

relationships with residents of the focus communities as well as other stakeholders (i.e., representatives of nonprofits, faith communities, public officials). Find approachable local contacts and look for opportunities to spend time with them to learn, particularly about their livelihoods, farming/gardening techniques, crops, culture, religious traditions, etc. For example, our team spent a lot of time visiting with local partners in their gardens and fields as well as in the forest. Take advantage of opportunities to socialize.

  • As soon as possible, enable the local stakeholders to understand your organizational background, purpose and expertise as well as to define potential roles and the possible scope of engagement. In the process, do not inflate expectations and promise more than can be delivered.

  • Only hire staff and/or engage key volunteers based on the recommendations of trusted sources – One bad apple can destroy local trust and derail the process for positive change.

  • Install a competent governing board who not only gets the big picture but will also root for you and your focus community. Mutually establish the necessary ground rules for their level of involvement while not restricting their access to stakeholders and relevant information. Meet/follow up regularly, keep them informed and challenge each member to increase access to financial and/or knowledge resources based on their experience, networks and abilities.

  • Develop a technical advisory group (formal and/or informal) to inform and advise related to on-the-ground technical efforts and challenges.

  • Develop a local advisory group of competent

stakeholders from within the focus communities (resident partners, institutional representatives) including some of their local advocates. As with the board and advisers, meet regularly to learn together, establish strategies with related goals and monitor progress.

  • Early in the process, locate and/or establish local locations in which proven and relevant approaches can be demonstrated and taught. Such sites may include existing agricultural research stations, small farm resource centers operated by nonprofits or ministries and/or household farms or home gardens. If none exist or are inaccessible, then determine the feasibility of establishing a teaching and demonstration site either on the land of partnering farmers, institutions or on rented/purchased property. In Immokalee, one such site will be the Misión Peniel Educational Garden.

  • In cooperation with the stakeholders - particularly community-based partners - develop policies that clarify mutual expectations, particularly the necessary level of engagement of the stakeholders, including expected roles/contributions, resources and benefits.

  • Develop a participatory process of change with the local stakeholders, identifying local issues and assets, ultimately determining the key issue(s) to be addressed within the scope of the initiative (e.g., local food security, access to clean water). To address these issues, formulate strategies that will realistically address the key issue(s) with achievable goals over an agreed upon period (i.e., three years). For example, a key issue among Florida’s farmworker community is food insecurity. Possible strategies that might address this issue would be household and community gardening.

  • Focusing on the necessary goals that result from identified strategies that are required to address the key issue(s), continue to use the participatory process to determine activities that will be needed to reach major goals including indicators of progress that reflect significant improvements. Applied to the Immokalee household gardening strategy, we are proposing an initial one-year exploratory activity related to container gardening whereby 30 households will be trained and equipped to grow vegetables in 3-5 containers per residence.

  • With reference to the essential activities, budget the time, finances and human resources required to accomplish these goals.

  • Engage the community, starting with willing

individuals/households who are locally regarded as “positive deviants” who are already successfully practicing appropriate techniques/approaches relevant to addressing the key issue(s).

  • With community involvement, also identify “early adopters” who are cooperative, understand the issues and have both the interest and ability to begin carrying out prescribed responses, ultimately adapting them to their context. To kickstart community-level efforts through both the positive deviants and early adopters, have clear policies outlining assistance for and from recognized community-level demonstrators and other types of volunteers.

  • Monitor the efforts and accomplishments on a regular basis (e.g., monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, annually) and provide timely reports on the status of the effort for the supporters of the effort as well as stakeholders engaged in the initiatives including the beneficiaries.

  • Keep adequate financial records as well as other key data related to each initiative.

  • Assist local volunteers in developing their capacity related to record keeping and data collection.

  • Enlist successful community members to share information and helpful insights as well as inspiration through farm/garden tours, trainings, etc.

  • Share success stories among all stakeholders to highlight local achievements, being honest/realistic about ongoing challenges and shortcomings.

  • Develop clear dates for successive project phases as well as long-term plans to complete certain initiatives in addition to a final exit strategy.

  • For sustainability, plan and implement any initiative so that local stakeholders can ultimately continue the effort over the long-term without continued outside assistance whether through individual farm/garden enterprises or cooperative efforts.

  • For transparency and organizational capacity building, invite external parties to evaluate efforts and results.

  • Conduct annual financial audits.

  • Celebrate local achievements, making successes, discoveries and innovations known to others who might be inspired and otherwise benefit from such efforts.

  • Analyze the mistakes and shortcomings; lessons learned from disappointing efforts can be broadly beneficial as well.

  • After formal partnerships end, over the next 5+ years, continue to follow up with the community to determine the long-term effects/benefits of the previous effort noting continued local innovations, successes and/or recurring issues.

  • A long-term relationship that engages former focus households and communities as demonstrators and trainers (e.g. farmer-to-farmer visits) that benefit future focus groups would be ideal.

None of these approaches are original. Most of these have been developed and perfected by at least a generation or two of community development specialists and practitioners. I confess to not implementing each one very well; many were learned the hard way while others came “too little, too late.”

I’m pleased that UHDP continues to embrace these approaches with planned implementation in new focus communities. And Cultivate Abundance looks forward to learning and relearning such lessons with the households of Immokalee and beyond.

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