I have come up with a list of census questions that can be used to obtain information which can then be used to generate statistics on each household and rank households in the community on their level of need.
There are many challenges that come up when attempting to provide aid to an impoverished community in a developing country. Foreign visitors with good intentions may distribute items such as food or clothing only to cause a riot. To avoid such problems, groups may distribute items through a community leader such as a pastor or government official only to find that the leader’s family is receiving the bulk of the goods and the majority of the community members remain unserved and unsatisfied. Project Esperanza, a non-profit organization that serves the Haitian refugee population of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, has faced these same difficulties. Therefore, I have come up with a list of census questions that can be used to obtain information which can then be used to generate statistics on each household and rank households in the community on their level of need.
Read “Developing Country Community Census and Poverty Points System” to see the census questions along with necessary explanations, as well as the explanation of a point system that awards a different number of points for the different questions depending on the answers, calculating a total amount of “poverty points” used to rank the households. Our organization first completed the census in one community of 88 households. We then used the information and rankings to begin installing rain barrels which give households access to much more water needed for cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes. This census information and household rankings coupled with on the ground sense and knowledge can be used when allocating other resources as well.
Tips for Conducting the Census
1. Make sure the census is conducted by trustworthy community members or in partnership with one outsider and one trusted community member. Some households may give false answers thinking that they will get something in reward for their poor situation. It is easy to trick outsiders but not as easy to trick community members.
2. Explain to the community members you interview that the foreign aid group conducting the census plans on making efforts to develop the community to make it cleaner, healthier, and more organized. Their truthful answers to the census questions are important to assess the needs of the community.
3. Be ready to answer questions such as, “What do you all plan to do?” If the group conducting the census does not realistically plan on making a commitment and using the information gathered in the census to do something to directly meet the basic needs of the people in the community such as installing rain barrels on houses with no access to water or supplying mattresses to households where all members sleep on the floor, then they probably shouldn’t do the census at all. The group will end up making community members feel as though they are being toyed with or are research subject. This will create a heightened mistrust which will only make things harder for potential groups that do plan to make truly committed development efforts in the future. Truly committed development efforts means not giving up when faced with difficulty after difficulty and setback after setback. Truly committed development efforts means continuing to work toward a successful solution despite unsuccessful attempts and other challenges. Committed development efforts means staying in healthy contact with community members and communicating all plans and progress both when resources are available and when they are not; both when beneficiaries are happy and when they are not.
Assessing the Results and Creating a Plan of Action
The community members or leaders you work with in the community will likely see this system of allocating resources quite foreign and be used to doing so on a much more familiar and less scientific or mathematically based method. They may be able to provide your group with valuable insight that does not come up in the census. Consider these circumstances as well and be very patient and explanatory with community members and leaders but do not abandon the system. As long as the census was conducted in honesty, which it will be difficult to avoid since many questions ask for measurable, visible data, it should be solid and provide a fair assessment. Too much discussion about the results yielded will move your group toward favoritism and politics, which does not serve those in most need.
In your group’s development efforts in response to the information gathered by the census, it is, again, of great value to provide tangible results that directly meet the basic needs of those in most need. It is also highly valuable, however, to make efforts toward serving the community as a whole by setting up things such as community centers, schools, and small business opportunities where the brightest, most innovative, and most hard working can be rewarded and set apart as examples. If both types of efforts are made, you will have helped those in greatest need and relieved them from some daily burdens, as well as rewarded those most deserving, and given a pathway of growth for the entire community.
If your group just provides relief to those in greatest need but does nothing to reward the top percentile and set them apart as examples then you are encouraging community members to use deception and appear in greatest need as possible since that is where the only reward is. You are also creating a system where people are tempted to abuse those in greatest need and take the resources your group has given. On the other hand, as a parenting figure in the community, if you only treat institutions that reward the top percentile but do nothing to relieve those in greatest need then your group is spending all of its resources increasing a social gap and leaving many suffering. You are sending a message to the entire community that those suffering are not of importance.
By stepping into a very vulnerable community and making truly committed development efforts, you are inevitably stepping into a parenting role. You should not take this position lightly. Consider the community as a whole and consider the effects of your actions on the community. Your group has the potential to create positive change where it is most needed.