Community committees are representative bodies established as intermediaries between government and the residents of a particular area.
Problems and Purpose
Community committees, otherwise known as 'popular' or ‘ward' committees, are representative bodies established as intermediaries between an area’s residents and a higher level of government. For example, in Egypt, community committees liaise between residents and the Community Development Association whereas in South Africa, community (ward) committees liaise between residents and the municipal government. Community committees differ from neighbourhood associations although the two may overlap in certain geographical or cultural contexts. Benjamin Reed distinguishes between grassroots and ‘straddler’ organizations, the latter of which is “linked to the state rather than independent of it”. ‘Straddler’ organizations are more common outside of North America and are thus similar to community committees especially in the Egyptian and South African contexts discussed below.
In general, community committees are established as a means of increasing the representation and participation of residents in the political decision-making process. The degree of empowerment allocated to the community and their representatives in the committee is analogous to their place in this process. Most often, the committee is involved in the identification of locally-specific problems which then inform higher-level decisions. However, in some cases, the committees are also entrusted with the collaborative or independent (i.e. with or without their governing superiors) development, implementation and/or post-execution monitoring of solutions. Community committees may be established as part of a participatory rural appraisal project since they are an effective means by which to communicate with residents, to oversee a process of capacity building and self-management, and to encourage participation in the identification and resolution of various problems.
Origins and Development
Because they are commonly established through grassroots efforts, community committees most likely have their roots in the earliest establishment of representative government. The delegation of power to high authorities often creates a sense of disconnect between what the voter thinks or wants and what their representatives in government do. Committees are an obvious means by which to narrow or ‘straddle’ this state-society division.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The selection of participants depends entirely on the structure, scope and goals of the community committee. Those committees who ‘straddle’ the line between state and society are often forced to comply with various standards including the selection of representatives. In South Africa, the speaker of the committee who oversees the election of 10-15 nominees is appointed by the municipal government. More grassroots committees may not be as strict in their selection although usually some process of voting or term rotation will be followed. In Egypt, community committees were established by a development NGO to increase local participation in the development process led by Community Development Associations. Members of the committee were elected from a group of individuals identified during a participatory rural appraisal process.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
Like any group representing the interests of a wider body, community committees generally use various methods and tools to mediate between the state and society. Public hearings or meetings are commonly used to gather feedback from residents and to pass on information from the government. Like the selection committee members, the structure and scheduling of public meetings is often mandated by the committee’s superiors in government.
In Egypt, an NGO, San Mark, established a community committee to ‘straddle’ the gap between residents and the local Community Development Association. Through public meetings, awareness-raising seminars, and focus group discussions, the committee allowed community members to vocalize their needs and participate in the development process. As well, elected committee members “conducted periodical and continuous field visits to monitor activities to determine whether the project implementation was effective.” The committee encouraged residents to take a leading role in some of the development projects like neighbourhood waste disposal.
South African ward committees function in a similar many to the community committees in Egypt. According to the national government, ward committees:
- “create formal unbiased communication channels and co-operative partnerships between the municipality and the community within a ward
- ensure contact between the municipality and the community through the use and payment of services
- create harmonious relationships between the residents of a ward, ward councillor, geographically diverse community and the municipality
- facilitate public participation in the process of managing the development, review, and implementation of the municipality’s IDP
- act as an advisory body on council policies and matters affecting communities in the ward
- monitor the implementation of ward plans, programmes and ward discretionary funds (note that control of funds and implementation rests with council)
- coordinate ward programmes.”
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In general, community committees increase the level of residential participation in development and management. Depending on their structure and the methods and tools used to engage with the public, community committees can be an effective way of increasing the say locals have in or over municipal government decisions. According to the South African government, ward (community) committees “giv[e] meaning to the notion of ‘the people shall govern’...because local government is regarded as the level of government closest to the people and ward [community] committees are just one way to ensure that citizens give input in the decisions that local councils make.” Community committees in Egypt have had a similar result; by increasing the level of local participation, the Community Development Associations have become more accountable and transparent in their dealing with residents. As well, community capacity building has been an immediate result of the committees’ establishment. Citizens not only have a voice in higher-level decision-making but they are more involved in the direct management and oversight of their neighbourhoods’ development.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Problems around community committees may include:
- Unequal representation
- Lack of transparency
- Unequal participation or outreach (eg. to socially marginalized individuals)
- Inflexible meeting times
- Lack of funding
- Lack of autonomy (from the state or other interests)
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Community Development Associations
The Shams El-Bir Association Community Committee in El-kfoor Village, El-Minia, Upper Egypt
 "Neighbourhood Association," Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neighborhood_association.
 Hany Ghaly, "The Shams El-Bir Association Community Committee in El-kfoor Village, El-Minia, Upper Egypt," Participedia, https://participedia.net/case/4779
 Chris Bathembu, "Municipal Ward Committees," Vuk'uzenzele, http://www.vukuzenzele.gov.za/municipal-ward-committees-what-you-need-know.
 Bathembu, "Municipal Ward Committees."
 Ghaly, "The Shams El-Bir Association."
 Ghaly, "The Shams El-Bir Association."
Bathembu, Chris. "Municipal Ward Committees." Vuk'uzenzele. http://www.vukuzenzele.gov.za/municipal-ward-committees-what-you-need-know.
Ghaly, Hany. "The Shams El-Bir Association Community Committee in El-kfoor Village, El-Minia, Upper Egypt." Participedia. https://participedia.net/case/4779
"Neighbourhood Association." Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neighborhood_association.
South African Ward Committees: http://www.vukuzenzele.gov.za/municipal-ward-committees-what-you-need-know.
Egyptian Community/Popular Committees: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer265/egypts-popular-committees