How the community foundation model provides an avenue for middle class citizen engagement – research from Nairobi

Africa’s growing middle class is believed to be one of the key determinants of the continent’s future. While it is generally accepted that citizen participation is a prerequisite for improving communities, the factors that hinder or support one’s involvement in their communities remain deeply under-appreciated. Davis Chavis and Abraham Wandersmann (1990) show that having a sense of community depends on three main components, namely, (1) the individual’s perception of the environment, (2) one’s social relations, and (3), one’s perceived control and empowerment within the community. Breaking this down further leads to the one prevailing and pertinent question: what are the impulses or motivations that lead people to act or not act within their communities?

Constant Cap, Director at Naipolitans

Recent studies suggest that the middle class have yet to exert their influence in the public interest. Instead, the middle class in Africa has tended to focus on providing private solutions for public problems. One hypothesis of this research is that the community foundation model provides an avenue for the middle class to engage, shape and determine the pace and direction of Africa’s rapid urbanization. Four hypotheses were developed to explain the phenomenon of middle class apathy as it relates to the Kilimani community of Nairobi. The hypotheses are based on five categories of existing middle class behaviour. These are as follows: (1) apathetic, (2) individualistic (self-interested), (3), activist, (4), philanthropist, (5), public leaders.

The objective of the research outlined in this blog was to understand how individuals find themselves in each of the listed categories, secondly, whether fluidity exists in the categories and finally, what stimulates this behaviour and finally, how the categories affect the community in general.

The research was carried out through the office of the Kilimani Project Foundation in order to better understand the community that they serve. Nairobi County has a population of roughly 4 million people who live in 85 wards. Kilimani is one of the 85 wards and has a population of 43,000 residents. Its remarkable history as one of the oldest desegregated neighbourhoods in Nairobi, as well as its current heterogeneity offers sufficient complexity from which to draw lessons for other African cities.

The research revealed that a large majority of residents are happy to be part of a wider community. Many are already making some form of effort in terms of contributing towards this community in various ways within their means and ability. The outcomes indicated that people show a preference to work that will produce visible results. Middle class residents also demonstrate a preference for organized structure in taking action.

Although time constraints are viewed as a major drawback for people who wish to take a more active role in community work and public engagements, the establishment of organized community groups like community foundations and residents’ associations has encouraged more participation by many middle class persons. The place for these organizations cannot be doubted as they play a big role in creating a bridge between the community and community participation.

From the research, it was noted that those who have a philanthropic interest or inspiration have also participated in some form of activism but may be apathetic towards other events or actions in the community. Those who are more “individualistic” also possess some philanthropic interests while being apathetic towards activism and public leadership. Therefore, it can be seen that there does exist a lot of fluidity in these categories and identification with the different categories may depend on the degree to which residents are affected by events, personal experiences which influence their levels of action.

To conclude, one can reveal that among the various factors that influence human behaviour towards action within the society are: 1. Personal interest or challenges. 2. Presence of organized groups to guide and assist them. 3. Results from community initiatives. These also have a ripple effect on other communities.

By: Constant Cap, Director at Naipolitans (and former Coordinator of the Kilimani Project Foundation)

Download the paper ‘Philanthropy and citizen engagement among middle class communities

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