A Tree of Dreams bears fruit in a Nicaraguan community

Nicaraguan leaders inspire community commitment
to improve health, education, and citizenship

The assembled community leaders had tears in their eyes as one woman described how the bombs in Nicaragua's civil war ended her pregnancy. Divided in the 1980s by an internal war, these auxiliary mayors and community leaders from the Waslala municipality were brought together by Management Sciences for Health (MSH) for a value-based leadership and management development program. Hearing each other's stories, rural leaders from 30 communities collectively faced the challenges of poor community health and education.

Health reforms at Nicaragua's national level will not succeed without community participation at the local level. In communities traumatized by civil war and hurricanes, it takes concerted effort to bring people back together to collectively rebuild and create a better future. Politicians and academicians call this effort building social capital, which means creating "networks of confidence, solidarity, and cooperation, as well as the norms and values that facilitate the action and the collaboration of the members of a community, for mutual benefit" (Robert Putnam). Recognizing this need to develop local governance and the capacity to improve, USAID presented MSH's Management and Leadership Program with a difficult request in 2003: generate social capital within Waslala as groundwork for advancing child health, nutrition, and education in the rural area.

To meet this request, MSH is encouraging community leaders participating in the values-based leadership development program to practice ethical and spiritual values at personal, familial and community levels, as well as to use tools and strategies to manage their communities and to improve participation.

The challenges they face are numerous. Waslala is a rural area where the level of services is quite low, and information on disease prevention and treatment is often nonexistent. These obstacles translated into poor health practices and services. School children did not get enough to eat, and no adequate school kitchen existed to provide lunch. Only 8 of the 30 communities monitored child growth, and 4 of these had ineffective monitoring programs. Few under the age of 15 had birth certificates, which would exclude youth from civic participation and ultimately diminish the area's capacity for effective governance. To address these obstacles, local leaders needed to rally their communities and build consensus on ways to move ahead.

In rolling out a program focused on moral leadership and management skills, MSH has been a part of the first ever measurable success in building social capital. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health gauged the program's impact in 10 targeted communities and reported a 192% increase in community activities, 48% increase in democratic participation, and 45% increase in overall confidence in the communities, as expressed by community members ("El Impacto de Acciones de Generar Capital Social en Nicaragua", Nancy E.L. Brune, Harvard School of Public Health).

What is leading to greater community involvement? From the entire municipality, community leaders representing disparate religious and political groups engaged in program exercises that opened communication and promoted self-reflection. After each workshop, participants evaluated how they individually promote communication and democratic values, not just as community leaders but also in their own homes. They learned that to be an effective leader one must consistently model behaviors that demonstrate trust and cooperation.

Community leaders in Waslala, Nicaragua constructed trees whose branches contained community goals, most of which have now been accomplished. Photo by Susana Galdos, 2005.To channel new leadership practices toward achieving community results, the leaders of each community drew a "tree of dreams" for their respective community, each branch representing a goal for infrastructure, health, or education. The trees that participants initially drew had few branches, but by the end of the program, their trees had grown substantially—some had branches running off the page, listing constructions and activities they hoped to undertake with their communities.

The community leaders took their visions of the future back to their communities. With assistance from MSH staff, they drew up plans with stakeholders to accomplish stated goals. They obtained the support of community members, who collected materials and donated their time and money. Teachers were enlisted to sustain community efforts. Collectively, the communities have accomplished 93 infrastructure or community development projects, mostly related to health, water and sanitation-30% of them with community funds most of them. Thanks to consistent community participation, 30% of the projects were accomplished within existing community budgets.

After a lot of hard work, the communities of the Waslala municipality have much to be proud of. The Waslala school now has a new kitchen, and many communities have new community centers, which they will use for immunization campaigns, community meetings, and more. And in cooperation with the Waslala municipal government, the community leaders facilitated 1,795 birth certificates for previously unregistered children.

In making strong commitments to their communities, those who participated in MSH's moral leadership development program have inspired others to contribute to common goals that have improved Waslala. As one mayor said, "This program has unified us.. We are working together to achieve our dreams. The community sees the fruits of our labor and they trust us and participate more." By showing that leadership development correlates positively with social capital, the Harvard study of MSH's work in Waslala confirms that community involvement in the framework of values and leadership and management is key to improving community health.