Turning volunteers into social movement

By Rosemary Cairns

Around the world, people are responding to various crises by showing up to help. One example are the volunteers who turned up in Greece and Serbia to work with refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. Many don’t belong to any organizations but feel compelled to be there - in essence, they are self-organizing. Such responses are - by necessity - short-term. However, what many of these crisis situations need are larger, longer term responses.

Can self-organization be scaled up? That happened in Serbia where I worked as a community mobilization and development specialist. I saw how ToP knowledge and strategies could help people work together on locally-focused goals across language, culture and political differences.

I had joined a US-funded project called Community Revitalization through Democratic Action in late August 2001. CRDA aimed to help communities rebuild through local initiative and actions. It had three strands - infrastructure, economic and social development - woven together by community mobilization strategies.

There were five implementers across Serbia, each using different approaches. So it was a live test of different community mobilization strategies in a post-conflict rebuilding situation. Serbia had been bombed by NATO in 1999, damaging its infrastructure. That had exacerbated the economic damage caused by years of isolation.

My group worked in the Western Serbia region. It had three teams, one for each strand of the program. I led the team responsible for social development and mobilizing communities. CRDA had targeted 60 communities in 13 municipalities. An “open town hall” meeting had to be held in each and a small scale project initiated by mid-October 2001. We invited local facilitators from the three parts of the region to help us plan these 60 meetings. Many of them became our “community facilitators”.

I did not speak Serbian and had a week to learn about Western Serbia before CRDA chose the first 60 projects proposed by communities. The second day of the selection, Sept 11, 2001, brought staggering news that planes had been flown into New York’s World Trade Centre. That triggered confusion in some cases about which projects had been approved.

My team grew to 10 people based in Uzice, Valjevo and Sabac. Each unit worked with communities in its area. I invited Bospo, a member organisation of ICA International across the border in Tuzla, to conduct a ToP workshop and strategic planning for our team in December. Bospo did it in Serbian, using Serbian-language materials, with final reports produced for me in English. Having undergone the same training in English, I understood what was taking place. I sat at the back during the workshops, typing up reports.

Using ToP methods - in Serbian - was key to a consistent facilitative approach across our team and the community committees. After our training, we held sessions for the committees. As they were not paid to attend, it was important to hold the events in pleasant hotels with good food on weekends. Food is part of Serbian hospitality and - as I learned later – it was also important because of hidden poverty. As many committee members were women, the trainings were a welcome break from household duties.

The sessions linked up communities which shared stories of their achievements, spreading innovations across the region. One case involved a Roma man from Sabac. After his city council heeded his advocacy for change during meetings, Roma groups requested similar training sessions. With Bospo’s help, he took part in facilitating the trainings and, with great pride, presented the completion certificates.


CRDA moved fast. There was pressure on all implementers to spend money. I heard the term “burn rate” used to refer to how fast we spent. In fact, our project got money taken from a slow burn project.

To me, effective spending was to build a facilitative and problem-solving capacity in the region that would outlast our time there. People took easily to the ToP workshop and the participatory strategic planning methods. They were able to discuss ideas and differing views and plan activities. When their small scale projects got funded, their confidence in the method grew.

We built a strong facilitative capacity over two years. Our community facilitators, who had taken part in the trainings, were able to lead many of the quarterly open town hall meetings. We introduced other participatory methods. One was an Open Space Technology conference on “What kind of Western Serbia would you love to live in in 2008?” Another was a three-day Participatory Rural Appraisal session in a community in Mionica municipality.

One program involved government officials and community committees. We brought health, education and social welfare officials in the 13 municipalities together to suggest social development projects which could then be reviewed by the committees. The committees felt they didn’t have the specialized knowledge to develop social projects while the problem for the health, education and social welfare officials was that they did not meet and so did not make municipal social plans together. Our participatory approach overcame both issues.

We also created and trained “cluster” committees of youth, women and Roma. They then reviewed and made recommendations on social development projects designed to meet their needs.

Looking back, I recognize how important shared context and knowledge was in supporting self-organization among individuals as well as groups and communities. Because all of us - our team, our community facilitators and our community committees - had taken the same training, we had a common context for planning. I still hear from former team members who tell me that community people had called to say they are still using the methods we taught them. While projects come and go, the facilitative capacity we built in Western Serbia has remained.

Rosemary Cairns (rxc102@gmail.com) has worked with community organizations in Canada and Serbia, as well as with local peacebuilders in Africa and Asia. She helped to create the Serbian Facilitators Network. A Certified Professional Facilitator, she holds a Master's degree in Human Security and Peacebuilding and currently lives in Victoria, Canada.


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