From the Ground Up: Community Engagement in Rural Development

Smart Village Movement, March 10, 2024

– Anna Fitter with Smart Village Movement India Team Inputs

Community, compassion, and commerce are woven together in the spirit of Open Innovation for rural development by the Smart Village Movement. We scout innovative technology solutions for every aspect of human life—Healthcare, Education, Livelihood, Infrastructure, and the Household. By approaching rural communities mindfully, mobilizers can build trust and strengthen relationships with community members, leading to more successful project implementation and long-term sustainability.

Importance of Community Connections and Engagement:

Our mission at Smart Village Movement is to redefine rural development through sustainable and collaborative projects. We base our approach on our experience in rural Meghalaya in Northeast India. The unique challenges presented by the region’s topography, demography, and social-cultural moorings are essential factors to consider when designing a program that can be both sustainable and deliver true impact. We combine age-old indigenous wisdom with cutting-edge technology and only introduce opportunities, market products, services, and business models conducive to the region.

However, the most critical element is community engagement in determining the success or failure of any initiative to improve rural populations’ lives.

A story to highlight the importance of community engagement in rural development projects:

Students from Myngken School, Meghalaya at 1st STEM Exhibition after successful first quarter implementation

Implementing a STEM pilot program in rural Meghalaya revealed a significant disparity in outcomes between the two schools. At one school, coordinating efforts proved challenging due to a lack of teacher engagement and a shortage of power and network, with the administrators failing to strategize for success adequately. Despite daily follow-ups and encouragement, integrating the STEM curriculum into the school’s existing curriculum remained elusive. Some teachers exhibited hesitancy toward the program and declined a final training session, rendering the efforts ineffective, leaving the SVM ground team with no option but to move the pilot to a different school where teachers and students were both eager for new opportunities to explore STEM.

Through our hands-on experiences and challenges like these when working with some of India’s most remote areas, we learn the more subtle nuances and significance of strong community engagement. If the community leaders, ambassadors, and influencers are not truly involved and excited about a new project in their village, there will be challenges at every step of the way.

Rural communities often possess a strong sense of camaraderie and willingness to collaborate. To effectively engage them, it’s essential to approach them mindfully. This involves connecting with the community through understanding their culture, language, and traditions. By respecting and integrating these elements into the engagement process, mobilizers can build trust and strengthen relationships with community members. Ultimately, this approach fosters a sense of ownership and commitment among the community, leading to more successful project implementation and long-term sustainability.

Smart Village Movement Core Values

SVM CORE VALUES: Open Innovation, Collaboration, Sustainability, and Empowerment are the pillars of every organizational decision we make. But how can we truly give meaning to these values and implement them in our day-to-day operations?

In the past, working with the State Government has led to the launch of some pilot projects with a top-down directive. However, SVM has always merged this with a mindful bottom-up approach, in combination with our core values, which focus on collaboration or co-innovation with our beneficiaries.

At the start of any new initiative, our project fellows lead teams of interns, village ambassadors, and block coordinators to meet with village communities and understand their concerns and aspirations firsthand. Any socio-economic development project succeeds only when village communities’ voices are heard, and their suggestions and concerns are respectfully noted. For us at SVM, the REAL measure of success is manifesting two more of our core values: sustainability and empowerment.

Community engagement is crucial for the success of rural development projects.

Village Level Meeting for Pilot Project Discussion

Some of the benefits include: 

Trusted Promoters Within the Community: Witnessing other villages embracing new models boosts communities’ confidence. One brave community leader’s welcome in Sohrarim Village in Meghalaya allowed for the demonstration of different models and made communities across the state more receptive.

Effective community engagement taps local knowledge and expertise, leading to tailored solutions:  It fosters ownership, commitment, and responsibility for long-term sustainability. Parents in a rural community express gratitude to the Alternative Learning Center—Salesforce Trailblazer Lab Program for boosting their child’s confidence, communication skills, and academic performance. Parents, leaders, and representatives must be involved from the beginning.

Students from Sohrarim STEM Innovation Hub excelling in STEM concepts in and outside of school

Ownership and Empowerment: Involving community members in the planning and implementation of a project can foster a sense of ownership and empowerment. When individuals feel that they have a stake in the project, they are more likely to be committed to its success and take responsibility for its sustainability in the long run.

Increased Support and Participation: Community engagement can help garner residents’ support and increase participation in project activities. When communities actively engage in the project, they are more likely to contribute their time, resources, and expertise, leading to more significant project impact and success.

For instance, the initial pilot of a STEM Innovation Hub failed due to insufficient teacher engagement in Tyrsad village as we mentioned above. However, after implementing a different approach in Myngken and Mawngap schools, teachers were thoroughly trained, incentivized, and fully onboarded before the project commenced. Consequently, they thrived and successfully ran the program.

STEM Innovation Hub students showcasing their Projects

Building Trust and Relationships: Effective community engagement can help build trust and positive relationships between project implementers and the community. Trust is essential for successful collaboration, and strong relationships can facilitate communication, cooperation, and problem-solving throughout the project lifecycle.

Time and Resources: Meaningful community engagement requires time, resources, and commitment from project implementers and beneficiaries. Many initiatives involving technology need buy-in from farmers to have network access and adopt new technology for communication & project participation. Resource limitations and tech adoption can pose challenges and hinder the project’s effectiveness.

Example: SVM’s Bharat Rohan Ginger Farming Project integrates hyperspectral technology through drones, enabling real-time data analytics for enhanced crop monitoring, early disease detection, and precise resource management. One notable challenge SVM encountered was the limited technical resources available for disseminating prescription maps after surveys, as many farmers needed access to smartphones and were not active on WhatsApp. After iterative refinement, advisory content was shared via text messages, ensuring accessibility for all farmers. Furthermore, prescription maps and advisory information were distributed through village-level meetings and door-to-door delivery methods. Additionally, the team is actively assisting farmers in acquiring smartphone skills to facilitate their participation in the program.

Conflict and Resistance: In some cases, new initiatives may lead to conflicts of interest, resistance to change, or disagreements among community members. Managing these tensions and navigating competing priorities can take time and may slow down project progress.  For instance, the Nongwah Salesforce Trailblazer Lab faced challenges due to local staff’s lack of Salesforce expertise

Sustainability Concerns: If community engagement is not sustained throughout the project lifecycle, there is a risk that the community’s involvement and commitment may wane over time. This can impact the project’s long-term sustainability and effectiveness.

By addressing the people’s real needs and aspirations, proactively addressing challenges, and prioritizing inclusive and participatory approaches, project implementers can maximize the positive impact of community engagement on rural development initiatives.

Fail Forward: Learn & Pivot: 

An example of community-engaged rural development is SVM’s Clean Water Access Pilot with its partner, Tata Swach. SVM aimed to provide clean water access to a village that had long struggled with water access. Initially, SVM focused solely on the technical aspects of water infrastructure without much consideration for community involvement. However, the organization soon realized that the lack of community engagement was hindering its effectiveness.

SVM learned the importance of understanding the local community’s unique needs and perspectives. By actively involving community members in the planning and decision-making processes, SVM gained valuable insights into the village’s specific challenges and priorities. This collaborative approach ensured that the project aligned with the community’s needs and fostered a sense of ownership and empowerment among villagers.

Community engagement was key to the project’s long-term success and sustainability. By involving local residents in the maintenance and management of the water system, SVM transferred knowledge and skills to the community, empowering them to take ownership of the infrastructure and ensure its continued functionality. This participatory approach enhanced the project’s impact and build capacity within the community for future development initiatives.

Demo of Marine robotic boat showcasing AI driven cleaning capabilities in Umiam Lake Meghalaya

In conclusion, SVM’s experience serves as a reminder of the critical role that community engagement plays in executing successful rural development projects. By prioritizing collaboration, communication, and empowerment, organizations can achieve their project goals and foster meaningful change within rural communities. True progress in rural development can only be achieved when the voices and contributions of the community are valued and integrated into every stage of the project.

About SVM: The Smart Village Movement is a collaborative process facilitated by the SVM organization with the Berkeley-Haas Center of Growth Markets to create a Smart Village ecosystem. We partner with Government, Academia, Corporations, and Rural Communities to foster independence and sustainable rural development in Indian villages and other emerging markets. We aim to empower rural people through digital technologies and open innovation platforms to access global markets.

To participate in a Business-For-Good Pilot with us in serving emerging communities, please contact us at Visit our Open Innovation platform to learn more about our Projects.