Mobilising communities to reduce vulnerability

Published: 21 September 2004 0:00 CET

Roy Probert in Algiers

There are many buzzwords in the Red Cross Red Crescent. Since the 5th Pan African Conference in Ouagadougou among the most important for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Organisations have been “Social Mobilisation”

Everyone agrees that it is one of the Red Cross/Red Crescent’s strongest selling points, and one that makes it more relevant to Africa. But what is it?

Social mobilisation is, in essence, having volunteers working in their own villages, engaging their communities in activities that contribute to their own development.

It is, the Red Cross and Red Crescent believes, the most effective way of tackling the scourges of the African continent: preventable disease, HIV/AIDS and food insecurity. For that reason, social mobilisation has been at the core of discussions during the 6th Pan African Conference, held in Algiers.

Underpinning the concept of social mobilisation is the belief that, although vulnerability can be caused by outside factors, such as drought and floods, in most cases it is within the scope of most communities to improve their own lives. This could mean adopting healthier lifestyles, ensuring that children are vaccinated or rehabilitating sources of safe water.

“The implied, though not explicit, trigger for social mobilisation in Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was Ouagadougou, when National Societies pledged to make a difference to the health of vulnerable people in Africa and massively scale up HIV/AIDS work,” says Esther Okwanga, the International Federation’s Organisational Development Coordinator for Africa.

However, she explains that attempts at social mobilisation were all too often ineffective because of the structure of many National Societies, which often mirror those of government.

“I call it the hanging branch syndrome,” Okwanga says. “The Red Cross branch is often at district level – and that means volunteers are too far from the village level. If you live 100 km away, how do you know who is most in need of assistance?”

While Ouagadougou laid the foundations for Community Social Mobilisation, it was a meeting in November 2003 in Namibia that truly cemented the concept. “The meeting in Windhoek resulted in a number of National Societies making a conscious effort to establish a presence where it matters most – at community level,” says Okwanga.

One immediate outcome of the Social
Mobilisation meeting in Namibia was that six African National Societies – Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe – launched pilot projects to support their countries’ programmes to deliver anti-retroviral treatment (ART) to people living with HIV/AIDS.

With their existing home-based care programmes, which themselves are founded on proximity to the community, these Red Cross Societies are well placed to ensure that those people getting ART are well fed, receiving counselling and are actually taking their medication.

Perhaps the best known way the Red Cross Red Crescent uses social mobilisation is during mass vaccination campaigns. Partners such as the World Health Organisation and UNICEF value the unparalleled access National Societies have at grassroots level through their network of volunteers.

In a mass campaign against measles or polio, it is essential that a critical mass of children receive their vaccination, and it is often the Red Cross Red Crescent’s ability to reach even the remotest villages that ensures success.

This will hopefully be the case in December, when the Togolese Red Cross (CRT) takes part in a measles mass vaccination campaign, which will also seek to distribute insecticide-treated bed nets to all children under the age of five.

It is a massive undertaking, but with 7,400 well-trained locally-based volunteers in 400 communities, the job is made that little bit easier.

“Big measles and polio campaigns offer the opportunity to mobilise large numbers of volunteers, but what happens between campaigns?” Okwanga says. “Community Social Mobilisation should never be put in place specifically for these big campaigns. It should be ongoing.”

This is certainly the case for the CRT, which was quick to adopt the community-based approach.

“Before, we were more disaster response-oriented. But after we conducted an evaluation of our health programmes in 1998, we moved towards prevention,” says Dr Antoinette Eya Awaga, CRT health coordinator.

The volunteers of the Togolese Red Cross are divided into three categories: community health workers, peer educators and mothers’ clubs.

Their areas of activity, all geared towards building up a community’s resilience, include HIV/AIDS awareness, immunisation, community surveillance and epidemic response, maternal and child health and water and sanitation.

“What interests the Togolese government most is disease surveillance. It’s often the volunteers who are first to inform the authorities about cases of cholera,” Dr Awaga says. “We have volunteers who know every child in their community and what vaccinations they have had.”

She says that, in line with the International Federation’s Africa Health Initiative, ARCHI 2010, the Togolese volunteers have well defined responsibilities, and do not work for more than 15 hours a month. They operate in their own neighbourhoods and with the same households.

They are trained and equipped by the Red Cross, but not paid.

The question of motivation rather than remuneration is crucial for the sustainability of community social mobilisation. There is an acceptance that problems exist with the concept of volunteerism in Africa. Unlike in other regions, some volunteer for the Red Cross or Red Crescent as a means of earning a small amount of money.

The community-based approach obviates the need to pay volunteers a daily allowance. With social mobilisation, volunteers give up a small part of their time to improve the lives of their neighbours – because they want to.

Social Mobilisation is not just concerned with improving the health of communities. It could also bring benefits in terms of protecting livelihoods and so contribute to food security by reducing poverty and improving nutrition.

“At the moment, most of the Red Cross Red Crescent’s work is in relief and recovery. But existing activities could be developed into a concept of strengthening communities by protecting their livelihoods and giving them relevance to everyday life,” believes Terry Cannon of the University of Greenwich, one of the keynote speakers in Algiers.

“As well as helping vulnerable people once a disaster has happened, you could reduce vulnerability before the disaster strikes by strengthening livelihoods,” he adds.

A good example of this is a cash for work programme run by the Ethiopian Red Cross, whereby vulnerable drought-hit farmers are paid to carry out projects that contribute to the development of their villages, such as protecting water sources, terracing, building latrines and repairing roads.

Elsewhere, the Danish Red Cross has provided fishing nets to communities living on Lake Victoria.