By Priscilla Quiah
During the hay days of the Liberian civil war, Women of Liberia adopted “Nothing about us, without Us,” a slogan often used as a call for participation by communities that feel marginalized.
It’s important to utilize a range of mechanisms and avenues to facilitate the widest possible participation from different interests groups. Local community development networks and support organizations should be involved in identifying community stakeholders, their particular interests and needs, and how best to engage with them.
A case in point came after the Liberian civil war, when interventions of donor organizations and international NGOs were at a tremendous peak in the country. Some organizations went into towns and installed water pumps in town squares without consulting the local population. They assumed that it would be convenient for the people to fetch water there rather than walking several miles to fetch water from the creeks. Later, during their evaluation of the success of their interventions, these organizations were dismayed to find out that the communities were not utilizing the water pumps and that people still walked several miles to fetch water from the creeks.
It took community engagement efforts by local NGOs and advocacy groups to understand attitudes and preferences of the community; especially, consultation with women who, in this case, were the direct target group of these interventions since they were the ones socialized to fetch water for family use in this society.
During consultations, the women explained that walking a couple of miles to the creeks afforded them leisure time after their grueling work of planting, cleaning, caring for family members, cutting wood to make fire, cooking and all other work expected of them.
The time between the creeks and the main town was when they were able to take a break from work activities, meet friends along the way and catch up on gossip. They looked forward to it, and therefore, would have preferred those coming in with such interventions to have built pumps away from the town squares.
The above scenario, though a development intervention case of lack of community engagement, can be compared with situations when we as media or journalists fail to fully engage communities we report on.
To report about communities and issues that affect them without extensive community engagement is not only unfair to our audience who are at risk of a huge misunderstanding of others and their situation, but also very unfair to those whose stories we have the privilege to tell. It may portray an incomplete story of them, where their authentic personal experiences are misrepresented if not missing.
I, along with many other West Africans, were victimized by this neglect of community engagement during the Ebola crisis news coverage because the media failed to employ some community engagement methods with those affected by the situation. Some, rather, assumed that they were doing a favor by bringing to light the plight of those unfortunate people, so that the rest of the world could sympathize and lend support. Instead, the media frenzy of shock stories and misconceptions presented as reality created hysteria that resulted in stigmatization of West Africa and served to significantly slow help to those in need during the Ebola outbreak.
As a journalist and an African, I was initially shocked, then angry and finally frustrated, and a sense of helplessness overtook me followed by hurt and betrayal of the media failure to reflect the personal resilience of the thousands of West Africans who strived to survive in spite of bad governance, an almost non-existent health system and meager resources – who were sacrificing and battling an alien disease while buying time for the rest of the world to prepare for the possibility that the disease could be carried to their territories.
When we neglect engagement with communities we report about, we miss opportunities to tell rich stories of personal values and resilience in the face of their struggles.
Stories matter. They have been used to dispossess and malign people, and they can be used to empower and humanize. Stories can be used to repair the dignity of people.