This section provides ideas for strengthening and maintaining community solidarity and working with the community to develop their advocacy messages and demands. It also provides strategies for engaging the first advocacy target: the business managing the project.
What Is Solidarity, and Why Is It Important?
Community solidarity is the foundation of every successful advocacy campaign against powerful actors. Collective action is much stronger than individuals acting separately.
Governments and companies know that collective action can threaten their power, so they often employ tactics to divide and weaken communities. In cases of land grabbing and forced evictions, for example, government officials and company representatives often meet with each family separately to try to convince them to move away or stop their opposition to the project. They may make a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of compensation and threaten those who refuse. Many individual families in this situation feel intimidated and reluctantly agree to the company’s demands, even if they are not satisfied with the compensation offered.
However, if affected people get organized and insist on negotiating with one voice, it is much harder for the authorities and the company to ignore their collective demands.
Solidarity does not mean that every family in a community has to agree on one single advocacy goal. For example, there may be some families that are happy to accept compensation, as long as it is enough to buy fertile land elsewhere and maintain their livelihoods. Other families may prefer to receive alternative land and housing along with resettlement and livelihood assistance. Others may not want to leave their land under any circumstances. This does not mean that the community cannot be unified. The community can still work together to develop and implement a unified advocacy message that incorporates the interests of different groups.
How to Strengthen Community Solidarity
Some communities will be highly organized and unified when you start working with them. Many indigenous people and other local communities have their own protocols, including customary laws, governance structures and decision-making processes. It is important for outsiders to respect and act according to these protocols. Other communities may be less organised and might have divisions and even conflict. If this is the case, you may need to spend more time working with the community to discuss the issues to improve communication and develop trust and coordination.
Community solidarity can either be strengthened or weakened by the negative impacts of the project. The common problem that people face can unite them, but the stress caused by the impacts on their land and livelihoods and other aspects of their lives can exacerbate intra-community, and even intra-household, tension and conflict. The use of threats or bribes by the company or government can also cause tension and divisions in the community, as some people succumb to the pressure, making others angry that they have weakened the community’s position.
While community organizing is a long and intensive process, there are a few things you can do in the short term to help strengthen and unite the communities you are working with. First, if they don’t already have them, you can suggest that the community selects representatives whom they trust and will effectively present their messages. It is generally a good idea for the community to select a few representatives. This makes it more difficult for one community representative to be pressured by the company or government officials. It is also a good idea to select a mix of people that represent different segments of the community, such as both women and men and minority groups. For more information on community representatives, see Box 12.
Another way to improve community solidarity is to organize regular meetings with the community to discuss the situation, share information, ensure people understand their advocacy options, and give everyone an opportunity to ask questions and express their ideas. At these meetings, the representatives can make sure they understand the various views and interests among the community.
If there are particular households or groups within the community that are less engaged in the process and whose views are not being included, it may be worth visiting them individually to discuss their situation and ensure that they understand their advocacy options. If women are less active in community meetings, try to arrange a separate women’s group discussion.
There will inevitably be disagreements among community members during the time you are working with them. Be patient and try to listen and understand the different views. Try to play a role in facilitating communication so that everyone feels that their views and interests are being recognised and incorporated into the community’s messages and advocacy strategy. Regular meetings and community support can help people feel stronger in the face of threats and resist accepting bribes from the company.
Remind the community that they will have a much greater chance of success if they do not quarrel among themselves and instead work together to fight for their rights. You can even bring inspiring representatives of other communities that have been successful in their advocacy to come and talk to the community about their experience and what it takes to win.
Box 12: Case Study
The roles and responsibilities of community representatives
The main roles of community representatives are to:
- Organize and facilitate community meetings to discuss the situation and develop the community’s message and advocacy strategy.
- Be the main point person for the community, by communicating with others, including your organization and other supporters of the community, as well as advocacy targets.
- Attend meetings on behalf of the community.
- Inform the community of any new information and developments.
- Communicate with journalists about the community’s case.
- Lead and coordinate other forms of advocacy based on the instructions of the community.
- Report back to the community about what actions they have taken and the results of this work.
A good community representative should:
- Be honest, responsible and reliable.
- Be committed to achieving the community’s advocacy goals and willing and able to devote time to this work.
- Act in the best interests of the community and defend the community’s interests, including different groups within the community.
- Listen to community member’s concerns and ideas.
- Be a good communicator.