Seeds of Change Chapter 14: Make Models That Work for the Community

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From Vincentian Family News Blog's introduction to the Systemic Change: Seeds of Change series: Pope John Paul II encouraged people to analyze the situation of the poor carefully, to identify the structural roots of poverty, and to formulate concrete solutions.

This article continues a 20-week series offered by the members of the Commission for Promoting Systemic Change about strategies that are useful, often even essential, for bringing about such change.

Adopting as its starting point a group of projects in which systemic change has actually taken place, the Commission analyzed stories of leaders of successful projects. From these stories, the Commission sought to identify the strategies that helped produce lasting change. It soon became clear that many of the strategies that led to structural changes and transformed the circumstances of individuals and communities flowed from the Gospels and from our Vincentian tradition.

Joseph P. Foley, C.M.

by Joseph P. Foley, C.M.

Systemic Change Strategy 13: Construct structural and institutional models where communities can identify their resources and needs, make informed decisions, and exchange information and effective strategies within the community and among various communities.

When Muhammad Yunus, of the Grameen Bank, made his first loan to forty-two poor villagers in 1976, he risked acting on his belief that poor people with no collateral could be trusted to repay their loans, a belief that was reinforced when he saw all of the loans repaid. By 2003, the bank had lent $4 billion to 2.8 million Bangladesh villagers, 95% of whom are women.

With an influx of capital, millions of citizens have been able to feed their families, construct basic housing, send their children to school, and save some money toward old age security. Yunus succeeded in institutionalizing his basic concept, demonstrated that micro-credit is a powerful tool for enabling families to overcome poverty, and he created a very replicable model. Countless factors contributed to the success of this model, among them Muhammad Yunus’ ability to market the basic concept, to attract generous donors and courageous borrowers, and to develop an effective credit delivery system.

Another project – a Vincentian project — has also, against staggering odds, achieved remarkable success. It is now called the Homeless People’s Federation in the Philippines.

When Fr Norberto Carcellar, CM began his work in Payatas, in the northeastern section of Quezon City, Philippines, in 1991 he saw poor families overwhelmed with the multi-faceted issues: high infant mortality, malnutrition, lack of education for children, very limited access to potable water, health risks caused by the growing dumpsite, and lack of financial means to address these problems.

Fr Carcellar and others envisioned a potential solution to these problems in the community-based development program called the Vincentian Missionaries Social Development Foundation, Inc. (VMSDFI), which began to function in Payatas in 1991. Beginning with a wastepicker development program and a Grameen Bank type of microfinance facility that was set up in 1993, the programs of VMSDFI evolved during years of continuous experimentation and learning.

Says Fr Norberto, “The scale of the problems we face is enormous, and it’s hard not to be discouraged. But a big part of the work is to show that change is possible, that there are solutions to these problems, and that poor communities themselves can be the best partners in developing and testing solutions which work not just for them, but for others too. One of the most powerful aspects of the Homeless People’s Federation in the Philippines is that it provides a means to showcase good ideas and spread them around.”

By 2006, HPFP had made possible a variety of savings and credit schemes, land acquisition, extensive house construction, infrastructure planning, employment, horizontal learning communities, community welfare and even government partnerships. It has inspired the creation of similar enterprises well beyond the borders of the Philippines.

What gives staying power to projects like this? When does a project become institutionalized and replicable? Looking at the Grameen Bank or the Homeless People’s Federation (HPFP) in the Philippines one is immediately struck by the compelling vision of each innovator, a vision rooted in a positive and holistic view of the human person.

Equally obvious is identification of what needs to be accomplished to effect a positive change in the existing system. In the case of HPFP, the mission and the goals are widely shared, and the enterprises are owned by the communities involved. The full range of its programs and services are integrated into the vision and mission, thus producing an overall synergy. Projects are designed and implemented in such a way that they can grow and even shift as needs change, and they can be exported to meet needs beyond the local area. Over and over again, the HPFP has shown itself able to effectively create something new, and to access and share the capacity to make the new thing sustainable.

Speaking of HPFP, Fr Norberto says, “the HPFP has continued to evolve as an institution that formulates its own code of policies, management structures and financial systems, manages and implements projects, and engages government and the private sector. It is now present in 18 cities and 15 municipalities all over the Philippines, and has more than 150 community associations.”

The Homeless People’s Federation of the Philippines and the Grameen Bank are excellent examples of Strategy 13. The common beliefs that underlie these enterprises seem to have led to a deepening sense of personal and community identity and to actions that keep its programs on track. People involved seem to know that the results created by their work are broadly valued. The responsibility to donors and boards has engendered in this organization a high degree of accountability and financial transparency. The HPFP now has a well-developed system for learning and sharing relevant knowledge, skills and practices.

In any society, institutions such as this one serve as an informal school to help participants understand their own environment and develop their own capacities and skills, and take steps to respond to their own needs.

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