The Opportunity Curse in Community Organizing

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A typical community organization in developing countries is stuck in infancy and on the brink of collapse. The group probably struggles with the same small time fights and personal conflicts for as long as it may have been in existence. The problem of the organization is mostly the leadership system and the lack of shared values among the membership. To understand this, let’s look at how most of them are formed.

One person decides that an organization needs to be formed for some reason – great or not (In these days of biting poverty and unemployment, reasons can be plenty including saving oneself from being broke). Irrespective of the reason for formation, the one person would mobilize a few more people around the idea but would insist on being the leader. Eventually, they rarely fail to get quite a number of people to sign up as the members of the new group. They sit down and have an official meeting and walk over to the state department of social services armed with some documents and get officially registered.

The able leader would then set out to get the group members busy. This would sometimes involve very heavy personal sacrifices including mobilizing the now very hesitant members. Common group activities include waste collection, table banking, conservation activities, small time farming, and tree planting among many others. These activities require a lot commitment, trust and everything from members which they give with a lot of laxity. The able leader would be very lucky to have all these.

The group remains largely vulnerable to disturbances to this peace and leadership system if any. For instance, members would not read the constitution until some donor shows up with freebies that are up for grabs. Members will start wondering if they are getting everything they can get from the group after all. They open their eyes to the fact that so and so may be getting an unfairly larger share than the rest of the pack. Everyone becomes suddenly very knowledgeable and active – but unmanageable.

All these events can sometimes happen very fast.  The able leader, founder and vision bearer who by now has forgotten that the group is not a private shop, might find himself or herself sidelined overnight. In worse cases, the group just ceases to exist after everyone just wants a share of the money and no more stories. The group becomes wound up.

And so the donor, who acted in utmost good faith, comes to the sad realization that their objectives were not shared at all by the group. Public funds are wasted down the drain in this scenario and everyone becomes the same after a few months pending another cycle of some new group that won’t stand the test of opportunity. Some donor organizations learn and do differently such as investing in some good quality capacity building programs. Unfortunately, others waste time with superficial measures such as contracts and modifying constitutions.

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4 thoughts on “The Opportunity Curse in Community Organizing

    • Thanks for your comment. Community organizations in this context only refers to community level organizations as described herein. Co-operatives are certainly not within this definition. It is also noteworthy that the article is no way trying to imply that such organizations are homogeneous- there are more success stories than we can mention. The word tyypical is key here.

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  1. Not really. A Co-operative is a community organisation unless there is a different definition of community an organisation. Probably you only see the much bigger co-operatives forgetting the smaller ones with membership of less than 30 and within a village, a company/community….The better explanation would be that co-operatives have a legal framework and have better structures and processes than say self help groups and chamas.

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    • We agree on many things except for your rigidity on an ambiguous phrase “community organization”. In fact lack of a good legal framework and structures is a good descriptor of what I was talking about. Kindly note that this is not an attempt to define community organizations – I doubt there is such a definition.

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