Convergence of activists and community organizers to level up advocacy on the community-led development planning

Text by Carlo Manalansan and Tom Weerachat
Photos by Carlo Manalansan

After a year of virtual meetings and learning, the International Accountability Project (IAP) organized a week-long meeting with the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) on Community-led Development Planning in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We witnessed the power when GAT members and community organizers from 12 countries are together in one physical space where trust, connections, understanding, and solidarity can be deepened and grown. It was not the first time everyone met but it was surely the first time everyone got to share meals, exchange laughs, compare local names of fruits, and write their collective thoughts on physical papers instead of trying to hear what others are saying on the other end of the screen.

“We’ve all been working with each other for more than a year and I feel like the connection has been solidified. And that connection will strengthen the work that we do together going forward,” says Vaishnavi Varadarajan, IAP South Asia Community Organizer.

Participants pose for a group photo after the successful 7-day workshop

Co-creating this space makes invaluable opportunities for the members of the Global Advocacy Team to exchange their experiences and deepen their understanding of each other’s struggles for development and social justice. Development workers from Armenia could understand better how the community in Zimbabwe deals with mining activities. By sharing coffee, a GAT member from Paraguay had a conversation about indigenous knowledge and practices with an indigenous rights activist from India. By walking around an eco-tourism village, an indigenous woman rights defender from Indonesia shared how her communities push back against an attempt by an outsider to interfere with community-led management. By sitting in a circle at a tropical garden, community organizers from the Philippines and Kenya exchanged how they deal with laws affecting the communities, environment, and livelihoods. These interactions are critical to demystify false solutions and harmful approaches to development and are key to promoting evidence-based viable alternatives to the current development model.

Day 01: Opening a co-learning circle

We started the first day by acknowledging the diversity and multicultural identities and experiences everyone brought to the room. We agreed on ground rules to maximize time and space for co-learning over the week.

Participants gather in the garden outside the training room to join a quick introductory activity

We formed a circle to reintroduce our friends and learned more about their personal stories and the important work they do. This has been an essential warm-up activity for everyone who was used to seeing each other in the Zoom room and is now, staying physically together for a week in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The GAT Advisory Group member Hem Vanarath led an icebreaker exercise that aimed at learning trivial information about the country and community of each GAT member.

Hem Vanarath explains the mechanics of the icebreaker exercise

After that, the GAT members presented their community-led research findings and initial ideas on their respective community-led development plan using drawings, pictures, slideshow presentations, and colored meta cards.

Mayalmit Lepcha from Sikkim, India presents her research findings using a drawing of her community

Through sharing insights and comments from the collective, each GAT member has learned practical ways how to improve their community-led research process. Sebastian from Paraguay reflected,maybe it’s the distance, maybe the time difference, the jet lag but I feel we are able to concentrate so much and it has been easy to do so because each one of us made it easy.”

Day 02: Crafting a collective analysis

Pyrou Chung, Director of Open Development Mekong, during her presentation on data sovereignty

Soon after the presentation of research findings by GAT members, Pyrou Chung of the Open Development Initiative shared her experience and expertise in data sovereignty which is a critical component of community-led data credibility. She also provided approaches to promoting and asserting community-generated data as an equally legitimate source of information for various advocacy and campaign strategies. Meanwhile, IAP’s Vaishnavi Varadarajan led the interactive discussion on collective data analysis as a process of interpreting data or findings to identify common themes and perspectives. This session aimed at reaching a credible and shared understanding of the results of the community-led research process as well as coming together as a collective that would advocate globally for community-led development as a tool to create a genuine development plan for the people.

Vaishnavi Varadarajan explains the instruction for group exercise during her session on collective data analysis

Day 03: Creating a community-led development plan

On the 3rd day, IAP’s Alex Sampaio and Vaishnavi Varadarajan facilitated discussions on the community-led development landscape and models that unpacked development models promoted by actors such as development banks, private companies, and governments. The session sought to identify gaps in these models and potential leverages to further advocate community-led development as a model that would truly serve the communities.

Alex Sampaio (left) and Roque Cris Chavez (right) exchange ideas on community-led development practices

In addition, the session looked into various community-led consultation protocols as well as practices of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) and the right to self-determination of grassroots communities. GAT Advisory Group member Jessica Amon shared her experiences in working with organizations and communities for a community-led development plan. She provided a detailed process, personal reflections, and challenges encountered in creating a People’s Plan in the Philippines.

Jessica Amon shares her experiences in working with communities in the Philippines on developing a People’s Plan

GAT Advisory Group member Daniel Faggiano and GAT member Sebastian Codas co-facilitated a learning conversation about good practices and lessons learned in creating a community-led development plan with communities in Latin America. “In this sense, it is essential to have a deep knowledge of the local reality. But we still have to go beyond the local boundaries. Each local social change must be intimately connected to a universal transformation that the emancipation of all mankind flourishes,” Daniel Faggiano said.

Daniel Faggiano facilitates a session on community-led development practices in Latin America

Day 04: Learning from the community’s experience

After learning some practical knowledge from the sharing sessions, the group immersed with indigenous Karen communities in Baan Mae Klang Luang to understand their self-determined practices of community-led development. While fruitful exchanges of ideas were happening, everyone enjoyed strong organic coffee grown in the community as a source of income and a tool to protect their forest.

A woman community leader shows Lenny Patty from Indonesia how they roast coffee beans

Indeed, there are differences in the actual application of approaches and strategies. Nonetheless, the community visit opened up opportunities to reflect on internal and external forces that could influence the realization of community-led development in varying degrees, taking into account geographical area and social and political context. We concluded the day with a refreshing splash of the waterfall at Doi Inthanon National Park.

Participants take a group photo at a waterfall before heading back to the training venue

Day 05: Accelerating community-led advocacy and campaign

Daniel Faggiano, a member of the GAT Advisory Group, steered an interactive workshop activity and discussion on the basics of community-led campaigning. He provided concrete examples of strategies they have employed to achieve campaign and advocacy objectives in Latin America. This session also included a discussion on advocacy opportunities and spaces that can be used to advance our global and local work on community-led development.

(From left to right) Group 1 composed of Guillermo Sequera (Paraguay), Roque Cris Chavez (Philippines), Lenny Patty and Bisma Sampuran (Indonesia), Daniel Faggiano (Brazil), and John Mwebe (Uganda) during a group activity

IAP’s Tom Weerachat facilitated interactive exercises for GAT members to share their vision of the change they want to make and analyze individual and collective power mapping to identify different stakeholders that should be included and addressed to influence changes we want to see. It was interesting and useful to see how different actors of allies and influencers across GAT members are situated in the spectrum of power.

Day 06: Consolidating collective actions

IAP and GAT Advisory Group co-facilitated an intensive workshop activity and discussion on a community-led development plan to co-design and provide guidance as they embark on creating their respective community-led development plan. They were asked to answer the question, ‘what we want to see in the plan?’. GAT members identified thematic and sectoral advocacy and campaign agenda such as environment, climate justice, women and gender equality, indigenous peoples, land rights, hydropower and energy challenges, and other socio-economic dilemmas.

Sebastian Codas from Paraguay presents his group output

After several days of collective learning, the group brainstormed and generated a number of interesting ideas to collaborate in collective actions to promote evidence-based and viable strategic engagement for global convergence on community-led development advocacy. “Despite having differences in languages, colors, and ways of thinking, I see a big potential in GAT as a team or network. I will definitely make my contribution and I’m sure that everyone will share their own contribution to strengthen the GAT and make it more powerful,” says Oleg Dulgaryan, a GAT member from Armenia.

Tom Weerachat provides a synthesis of the discussion for day 06 of the meeting

Day 07: Envisioning the next steps

One of the common issues we have been hearing before and during the week is risk and security. On the last day, IAP’s Carlo Manalansan took on the session on risk and security. The discussion centered on understanding various forms of threats that GAT members face particularly in undertaking community-led research processes to create a community-led development plan. Participants learned and discussed information regarding access to support from various human rights organizations as well as practical ways to strengthen their physical and digital security protocols.

Participants share their assessment of their security risk while conducting community-led research as well as their human rights work

Furthermore, the last hours of the 7th day were devoted to community-led development plan discussions. Each GAT member started to visualize their vision of a community-led development plan process by drawing a river of action planning facilitated by IAP’s Tom Weerachat. The river action plan represents their goals, key activities, and anticipated challenges for the year 2023 as we slowly wrap up the work of the current cohort of the Global Advocacy Team. “We started drawing our advocacy plan from downstream of the river because doing advocacy and campaigns require actions that often go against the main streams of the river/people.”

GAT members show their River Action Plan which outlines their vision of a community-led development plan

Stronger solidarity and collective action for community-led development

These exchanges helped the Global Advocacy Team to collectively analyze systems that oppress local communities globally, especially children, women, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities, and obstruct them from building genuine and community-led development. We were able to share our dreams for a better future together locally and globally.

Participants form a circle during the reflection session and share their thoughts about the achievements they have accomplished in the in-person meeting as well as commitments to advancing community-led development plan

Hem Vanarath from the Advisory Group and GAT’s Kundai Chikonzo led a warm circle activity during the closing session where everyone expressed their gratitude to each other as well as shared words of inspiration and commitment. Mayalmit beautifully concluded, to spend one week in Chiang Mai is very motivating because our struggle has been very long. Sometimes we get disappointed, very low, and feel like giving up. But this chance that we get and the skills we have been taught are very important to people like me working with grassroots. If I go back, I can tell proudly that I have shared the stories of our struggle at the international level. Lastly, we need to be connected. We need to work together because we cannot fight alone.” Indeed, these gatherings are the best recipe to sustain the movement and spirit of collectivism.

Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning. Watch a video introduction to the Global Advocacy Team Initiative.

Read the series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team on IAP Medium.

IAP’s training materials on community-led research are available in 13 languages.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.