It is time to translate the community’s goals for improvement and sustainable development into measurable, achievable terms, and this requires that you set objectives for progress you want to make toward rectifying the problems underlying the definition of the goals. Objectives toward sustainability become the sum of problems identified by community members. Attaining a community’s stated goals requires that stakeholders set realistic objectives toward achieving them. The community of stakeholders must define a process for identifying and understanding the variables at work in a particular problem system, and the influence they exert. Community members should pay careful attention to underlying trends in the problem analysis, which will help them to better understand the problem systems they are working to improve and thus establishing more reasonable objectives to accomplish.
A community problem is an issue with six (6) dimensions:
- it occurs frequently (frequency),
- has lasted for a while (duration),
- affects many people (scope, or range),
- is disturbing, and possibly intense (severity),
- it disrupts personal or community life – deprives people of legal or moral rights (legality), and
- the issues are perceived as a problem (perception).
This last criterion – perception – is perhaps the most important one. If people perceive the streets as unsafe, that is a problem, regardless of what crime statistics say. If people think that the schools are rotten, that is a problem, no matter what objective facts are offered. A problem can be a psychological fact; it doesn’t have to be based on hard evidence.
In a nutshell, analyzing community problems is a way of thinking carefully about a problem or issue before acting on a solution. It first involves looking for possible reasons behind a problem, and checking out whether those reasons are true. Then (and only then), does it involve identifying possible solutions, and implementing the best ones. This kind of approach can often eliminate issues that people believe are community problems, which really are not, before more time is wasted in their analysis. It can also suggest the coming together of several different issues that appear connected after cursory evaluation and can be combined into a single problem statement.
The techniques for analyzing community problems are easy to state. They require simple logic and sometimes the collection of evidence. But sometimes these techniques elude us in practice. Why should you think about analyzing a community problem? Why not just charge ahead with what you might be told by other community members? For example, kids gather on a street. Sometimes they drink; sometimes they get rowdy. What is the problem here? The drinking? The rowdiness? The gathering itself? Or, the possible fact that kids have nowhere else to go? We act on impulse rather than logic; or we neglect the evidence. Before looking for solutions, you would want to clarify just what is the problem (or problems) here. Unless you are clear, it’s hard to move forward. A careful analysis of the problem can put us back on course.
A problem is usually caused by something; what is that something? We should find out. Often the problem we see is a symptom of something else. How do we seek out the root cause of the problem instead of just focusing upon its symptom? Its good practice and planning to anticipate barriers and obstacles before they might rise up; by doing so, you can get around (or over) them. For example, root causes are the basic reasons behind the problem or issue you are seeing in the community. Trying to figure out why the problem has developed is an essential part of the problem-solving process in order to guarantee the right responses and also to help all community members own the problems. Identifying genuine solutions to a problem means knowing what the real causes of the problem are. Taking action without identifying what factors contribute to the problem can result in misdirected efforts, and that wastes time and resources. However, by thoroughly studying the cause of the problem, community members can build ownership, that is, by experiencing the problem they will understand it better, and be motivated to deal with it.
The “But why?” technique can be used to discover basic or “root” causes. For example, if you say that too many people in poor communities have problems with good nutrition, you should ask yourself “but why?” Once you come up with an answer to that question, probe the answer with another “but why?” question, until you reach the root of the problem, the root cause.
Analyzing community problems can also help community members understand (and find) the resources they need by matching resource assessment results with the identified problem causes. And the better equipped they are with the right resources, the greater their chances of success in tackling whatever problem they are facing.
In general, when you tackle a problem that requires an objective of the planning process, it’s always smarter to analyze it before you tackle defining the objective. That way, you’ve got a deeper understanding of the problem; and you’ve covered your bases. There’s nothing worse for community member involvement and morale than starting to work on an objective for the planning process and running up against lots of obstacles due to misunderstood problems – especially when they are avoidable. When you take a little time to examine the caused problem first, you can anticipate some of these obstacles before they come up, and give yourself and other community members better odds of arriving at a realistic and executable objective.
Image by Nancy Flint