Celebrating ‘governance’ from the bottom up

Governance is one of those fancy, rather complicated words that shows up in so many development and peacebuilding projects.  Many people think it means  “government”, even though we know that governments around  the world often have problems with “governance”.

At its most fundamental, ‘governance’ is about how we manage our families, associations, and communities. It is about how we organize ourselves to get things done that we think need to be done. But if we don’t think about this work as ‘governance’, we don’t see it as the base for rebuilding societies and economies from the bottom up.

I was thinking about this last week when I made a presentation during a workshop in London. I was talking about the work done by local peacebuilders, and as I only had a short time, I decided to focus on the Radio Clubs created by a local NGO in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

I began by asking the group what images came to mind when they thought about eastern DRC. Those tended to be the images that are reflected in the media – a gloomy picture indeed. Then I told them a story about a project that gave radios to 119 communities, so they could listen to weekly radio broadcasts.

As people came together around the radio to listen to the program each week, they began to talk about their communities and the things they could do to make life better. One group thought about how people had to stand at community events because there was nowhere to sit – they built benches that the whole community could use for meetings, feasts and weddings.  And then they began to think about bringing electricity to their village, and started working on that.

In another case, a small village realized it had 15 different small groups working on different aspects of community life. What if they brought them all together? So they did, and each week after the broadcast, they gathered to do what in the corporate world would be called ‘strategic planning’. That village also thought about bringing light to their village and was working on an electricity project.

I can imagine how life would be different in these two villages if they can successfully complete their electricity projects. Children could study at night, mothers could sew, fathers could work outside in the field longer. Life would change so dramatically and then, I am quite certain, they would find other projects to work on. All they need is some technical design support.

In many other cases, Radio Clubs had begun cultivating land and selling crops, using the money they earned to support vulnerable people in the community – people in hospital, orphans, people in prison. Others were providing literacy training. The diversity of their activities was amazing, and they were doing it all from their own resources and their own initiative.

Each Saturday, as many as 50 or 60 Radio Club representatives would walk or ride into Butembo and take part in a two hour radio broadcast. People called in on their mobile phones and by holding up his mobile phone to the microphone, the radio station manager made it possible for everyone to hear the caller. People asked for advice and got advice, shared stories, and listened to one another. In an area where communication is a big problem, this low-tech two-way communication system was an amazing accomplishment.

All of these activities are ‘governance’, in its truest sense. They are what happens when people are given the tools and the opportunity to work together to make life better in their communities. They will do everything from making soap to building health facilities, creating livelihood cooperatives, and forming soccer teams.

Another part of the NGO’s work involved creating Task Forces that brought together community leaders and mediators, who solved problems that people brought to them. These people were not elected, but they were recognized as being people to whom the community had always gone to solve problems, and they volunteered their time to continue doing so.

These are examples of ‘governance’ from the bottom up , governance that offers the possibility  of rebuilding societies in a participatory way that draws on peoples’ existing strengths and capacities. By celebrating them, and working with them, we can help people build their own peace and security in a sustainable way.