Problems and Purpose
STAR Circles is an approach aimed at encouraging community members to gather together, deliberate, and propose solutions to issues of community concern. The process is intended to result in communities taking ownership over their development.
The approach is a major component of the Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation’s (CRECCOM) Social Mobilisation Campaign (SMC) model, which is used to mobilise and empower rural communities to fully own their development. The model uses a combination of participatory methodologies, rights based approaches, results based management, collective action, policy advocacy and tools to enhance individual capabilities. In the SMC model, STAR Circles largely form part of village level initiatives, other components include: research and verification, field worker training and community-based sensitisation.
CRECCOM is a Malawian non-governmental organisation based in the city of Zomba, located in the Southern Region of Malawi. The organisation aims to establish vibrant communities that help effect change through the use of creative approaches in order to sensitise, motivate, mobilise and empower individuals and stakeholders towards participation in development initiatives.
The STAR Circle approach is also used by other organisations that operate and implement projects in Malawi. These organisations include ActionAid, A Self-Help Assistance Program, Society for Women and AIDS in Malawi and Women’s Legal Resource Centre amongst others.
The STAR Circles are used to highlight issues that are challenging communities and also provide a platform for these issues to be discussed in a public arena. According to CRECCOM Director, Madalo Samati, for organisations like CRECCOM, mobilising communities is key in developing and improving people’s lives as they believe in encouraging communities not to be recipients but to actively recognise their needs and propose their own solutions.(Interview, 8 November 2016) It for this reason that CRECCOM decided to use the STAR Circle approach to help deal with community issues. Furthermore, they realised that when external actors go into a village, the local residents would tell that person what they believe they would like to hear, not necessarily ‘what is happening at the grassroots’(Geoffrey Kamanga , 8 November 2016) level. This realisation prompted CRECCOM to instead take a step back and let the people discuss amongst themselves in order to get a better understanding of the issues they are faced with and how they can deal with them.
Origins and Development
The STAR Circles approach evolved out of strategies for dealing with HIV/Aids issues. STAR is an abbreviation for Societies Tackling AIDS through Rights. It is a participatory approach for community mobilisation, empowerment and response to HIV (Clarke, 2010). The purpose of the intervention is to empower and increase meaningful participation of people living with HIV in issues that directly affects them. The achievements of the STAR Circles Approach in the HIV/Aids field included improved self-confidence which increased participation, reduction of harmful cultural practices and reducing stigma and discrimination (Kuphanga. 2014) demonstrates the value of this approach.
Though initially established to primarily mobilise people against sexual diseases, the approach has evolved due to its perceived benefits for communities. Organisations such as the Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation encourage villages to discuss any topic in the forums and many times it has led to unexpected results. The development and increasing use of this approach reveals its importance in raising community awareness on important community concerns and empowering communities to do demand their rights.
The approach is now largely used as a general vehicle for community discussions and in particular to implement participatory development projects. CRECCOM leaders note that before they introduced this approach, there was a lack of opportunity for meaningful discussion around issues facing communities, instead people only met at funerals and wedding ceremonies (Geoffrey Kamanga, 8 November 2016). So these meetings provide a space for communities to gather and discuss.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The selection process starts with the election of the village agent, who plays and integral part in the STAR Circle meetings, which is then followed by the recruitment of other members including cultural gate keepers such as initiation counsellors.
Each village gets to elect one village agent. The agent is elected in a public meeting called by the chief, and CRECCOM shares the qualities that an agent should possess. For example, village agents are required to be active in the community, to be ‘someone influential, educated at least to junior certificate level, someone who is fully conversant of the traditional cultural practices of the area, so on’ (Geoffrey Kamanga, 8 November 2016). The term for elected village agents is not clear, at times it is linked to specific projects and sometimes it continues beyond a specific project.
Upon the election of the village agent, CRECCOM builds capacity of him/her. Village agents are trained in facilitating community dialogues, research skills, report writing, etc. These skills are seen as essential since CRECCOM believes that community dialogues should be research based ‘not empty dialogue based on what is happening elsewhere, something they heard on the radio, rather they should focus on things that are happening in their locality’(Geoffrey Kamanga, 8 November 2016). . They are also trained on how to advocate for their community and lobby government officials and policy makers. The village agents are central in running the STAR Circle processes as they are tasked with organising the gatherings, facilitating the discussions, documenting and reporting to the chiefs and to CRECCOM.
The members of the STAR Circles are between 12-25 people who meet on regular basis to discuss issues of concern in the community. In general anyone can join the forums, but they have to people who are committed to making change in their communities and those who are willing to give up their time to volunteer to be part of the discussion. Members volunteer to be part of the discussion in a public meeting and they become representatives of the community. When people volunteer themselves to be part of the process, community members may object if they do not believe that person embodies the qualities that are required in order to be part of the STAR Circles.
How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making
The STAR Circles are village level initiatives that have been championed and supported by CRECCOM. However, CRECCOM staff does not take part in the community discussion. The process is aimed at empowering community members to take charge or their own development needs. The frequency of these meetings is decided by the members of these groups, it ranges from weekly to monthly depending on the type of engagement. The process involves the ground work for establishing a circle, selecting participants, the community dialogues and decision making
Establishing a STAR Circle
CRECCOM is only one the organisations that uses this approach to implement its projects. They oversee and monitor the whole process, from the beginning to the end. For CRECCOM, the process starts with the other components of the SMC model, that is, with research and verification, where they conduct action research in the targeted village/community. After the research is conducted, they share their findings with relevant stakeholders, particularly civil servants who work in the designated target thematic areas such as education, gender, climate change, child rights, etc. These civil servants are then trained and capacitated to develop relationships and work in the villages. In turn, the civil servants develop work plans based on the research and target specific stakeholders including chiefs, cultural leaders, religious leaders and community members in a particular community and they also conduct some dialogues. CRECCOM further goes through community sensitisation, where they raise awareness on a particular issue as informed by the initial research. They also engage with the chiefs, the community and other stakeholders. Chiefs are very important in this process as their buy-in is required for any project to move forward. In each village, CRECCOM first approaches the chief and discuss any plan they have for a project and the chief then grants permission for them to work in the village. Without the chief’s support it would be difficult to implement a project as one NGO leader observes ‘When you enter into the village, how you communicate and talk to the chief will determine your success tomorrow, you have to humble yourself...’ (Interview, 3 November 2016). This demonstrates how powerful chiefs are in the villages and that their backing is essential.
CRECCOM also targets village agents where they exist or helps elect them where they do not already exist. A village agent is a semi-formal elected position that is recognised and created by the government as a way to effect change in local communities. However, these agents do not exist in every village and where they do exist, they are not very active. So, in some cases CRECCOM oversees the elections of these agents for specific projects. These agents become the link between the project and the community.
The major role played by CRECCOM in this process is that of funding and monitoring the activities particularly those pertaining to CRECCOM projects.
Community dialogues and decision making
The members of the forum come together to discuss burning issues of the day and at that level ‘solicit the causes and identify possible solutions or mitigation strategies...’ (Geoffrey Kamanga, 8 November 2016). These forums identify the major problems they are facing regarding a particular issue, identify the causes of the problems, propose solutions and develop work plans. The village agent is key in these deliberations as he/she is in charge of facilitating the discussion, documenting and reporting resolutions that have been proposed at these discussions.
The village agents also work closely with local chiefs. The village agents have to report to the chiefs on everything that happens on the forums, they have to report on decisions that are made and they have to explain why those decisions have been taken. The chief then calls a community meeting and then the community would discuss its bylaws taking into account what was discussed in the village forums
If the proposed solutions to village issue require external support, the community reaches out to concerned civil society organisation such as CRECCOM or they reach out to government extension workers or relevant duty bearers. Furthermore, the chief can also escalate an issue to a higher level to get support. The village chief can report the issue in the Area Development Committee (ADC), which is at Traditional Authority (TA) level. This level is made up of numerous villages, and the ADC is where the chiefs from different villages meet and discuss development issues in the area. According to Chasukwa, Chiweza and Chikapa-Jamali (2014:707) the ADC is one the structures ‘through which local people can make their contributions on matters of local public life.’ The public contributes in ADC discussion through community representatives such as chiefs, community based organisations and the like. In this approach issues that are raised in one village may be discussed at TA level and shared with other villages that might not have a forum like STAR Circles.
The major decisions made in this process are those directly affecting the community, particularly those that can be resolved through the implementation of local strategies, particularly the bylaws. The members of the forum become representatives of the community and make decisions on their behalf. They report and explain these decisions to the chief, who is the ultimate decision maker around making bylaws, although there are discussions.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
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Analysis and Lessons Learned
The STAR Circle process is not linear and its use is not limited to CRECCOM. The major achievement of this approach is getting people together to talk. To a large degree in areas where CRECCOM has established STAR Circles, there has been a great change, particularly in terms of communities recognising and acknowledging the problems that they face, whether that problem is related to child labour, education of the girl child, etc. CRECCOM believes this is an achievement. Beyond acknowledging the problems faced in these communities, CRECCOM believes that people are more willing to ask questions and to follow up on government promises. Government leaders are also aware that they cannot just manipulate the people anymore as the communities that have the village forums show more agency (Madalo Samati, 8 November 2016).
Furthermore, the discussion of issues raised in the STAR Circle process in the ADC meeting further promotes the approach. CRECCOM encourages this kind of escalation from village level to TA level, which at times influences other villages to establish STAR Circle processes of their own. As a result of this replication, STAR Circles also exist in villages where CRECCOM has not been championing this process but rather as a result of the benefits seen from existing STAR Circles’ (Geoffrey Kamanga, 8 November 2016). The forums are sometimes also replicated at TA level, where a forum that is made up of all the villages in a TA is established.
However, CRECCOM acknowledges that one of the major challenges in this approach is problems with continuity once the organisation moves on from a particular project. Although there are cases where the village has continued with the STAR Circle dialogues beyond a CRECCOM project, this is not widespread. Since this is a voluntary process, people tend to lose interest when it is not linked to a specific project. Also, related is the lack of male participants in these forums as they would rather spend time doing activities that will earn an income rather than volunteer to be part of village forums.
In terms of the decision making, the process seems limited. The decisions made at these forums seem to be still subject to the chief’s approval. Beyond that, if the proposed solutions require external support, it is difficult to ensure that the action plans that were agreed upon can be implemented. This seems to be a bottom up process, but it is not clear on how high up it can go. Nonetheless, the increasing use of this approach highlights its benefits and importance.
Notable, the approach works with already existing structures of community participation such as village agents, Village Development Committees and ADCs. The use of these structures does not only help mitigate the relationship between already established power brokers such as chiefs, but also seems to revive these structures in areas where they have become dormant due to various challenges.
The role played by village agents in the village forums (STAR Circles) is indicative of the capacity that is provided through this approach, it certainly addresses the lack of funding and skills that is associated with many structures at village level. For instance, Adamolekun notes that the government extension systems responsible for the mobilisation of ADCs and other structures of community participation ‘lack resources and are, as a result, weak, poorly-motivated and unable to ensure that communities can participate in planning and program implementation’ (Bokho, 2014:41). Similarly, Chirwa (2014) believes ‘the local government system is still weak and undeveloped due to the dependency on central government grants, the lack of administrative capacity, lack of experience and inadequate grassroots participation in local authority affairs.’ These highlight the challenges that affect the functioning of the structures that are meant to enhance community participation at local level. Clearly, any dysfunction at this level limits the influence that local communities could have. The use of STAR Circles in local communities and the way they incorporate and work with these structures is beneficial in assisting deal with the challenges such as lack of capacity since organisation like CRECCOM build capacity and empower communities through the process.
Furthermore, the fact that this approach builds on existing structures, means it is easily seen as acceptable by both government and local elites. Both entities do not seem to feel threatened by the contributions made through this approach as it is seen as working within the system. This is arguable one of the reasons that both government civil servants and local elites have welcomed working with CRECCOM.
Ultimately, the space for open community discussion amongst community members empowers the people to act. Using this approach seems to extend some democratisation at local level in a space where traditional leadership dominates. In many ways, community participation in rural areas happens through village level and area level structures through the chiefs and other community representatives. The STAR Circle approach adds a level of community deliberation, where the communities discuss amongst themselves and are empowered through the process.
Geoffrey Kamanga, Senior Programme Officer, Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation. Personal Communication. 8 November 2016, CRECCOM Offices in Zomba, Malawi
Madalo Samati, Executive Director, Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation. Personal Communication. 8 November 2016, CRECCOM Offices in Zomba, Malawi
Non-governmental Leader and Activist. Personal Communication, 3 November 2016. Lilongwe.
Bokho, C. 2014. Assessment of the effectiveness of Area Development Committees (ADCs) in decentralisation. A case study pf Ntchisi District in Malawi. UNISA. From: http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/14353/Dissertation_Bokho_C.P.pdf..pdf?sequence=2
Chasukwa, M., Chiweza, A L and Chikapa-Jamali, M. 2014. ‘Public Participation in Local Councils in Malawi in the Absence of Local Elected Representatives-Political Eliticism or Pluralism?’ Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 49(6) 705–720.
Chirwa, W C. 2014. ‘Malawi Democracy and Political Participation.’ Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. From: http://www.osisa.org/other/hrdb/malawi/democracy-and-public-participation-malawi [23.06.2016].
Clarke, D J. 2010. ActionAid International HIV Theme Review 2005-2010. From: http://www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/hiv_thematicreviewreport_2010_29nov2010.pdf
Kuphanga, D. 2014. ‘Reducing HIV Transmission, Harmful Cultural Practices, Stigma and Discrimination through empowerment and Participation of People Living with HIV. The Case of the STAR Circles in Malawi.’ ActionAid Malawi. From: http://pag.aids2014.org/EPosterHandler.axd?aid=7639