When it comes to implementing development programs in rural communities, paraprofessionals have emerged as powerful conduits to help bridge the gap between an implementing agency and the community and to fast-track outcomes.
We define a paraprofessional as a trained aide, one who assists a professional and in the social development context, is usually a local community member who is trained and empowered to drive and support on-ground implementation.
For an ‘outside’ professional to gain an in-depth understanding of a community and to build local trust it takes time – namely, spending quality time in the field The success or failure of any social development program depends on many factors including, but not limited to, having a strong understanding of the on-ground realities and context, the dynamics between local people and the resources that can be mustered locally.
But local issues are best explained and understood by local people who have a few desired abilities. Paraprofessionals are always available within the community and if the right person is selected for the job, can be the key to your success or failure in your program.
The ACF Experience
With almost three decades of experience in the development sector, Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) harnesses the power of paraprofessionals widely across its programs and geographies and uses them effectively for project delivery and impact.
ACF, in its earlier days of field interventions, used the knowledge of local community members to understand the local context in relation to Water interventions – more specifically to understand water sources, their status, the drainage system of the villages, and so forth. ACF gradually started using these proactive community members for other thematic areas.
In the past, these services were provided on a voluntary basis, but with the passage of time, ACF felt that these relationships paid higher dividends when the relationship was ‘professional’ and today pays these individuals for their work delivery.
In order to enhance the efficacy and effectiveness of project deliverables, ACF’s team started honing its skills in identifying these crucial community members, and once identified, their capacities were built through a series of training, exposure visits, and interactions on the topics/projects they were part of. As programs and projects started growing, the requirement of these ‘local professionals’ also started growing.
And soon it was decided to strategically name these roles based on the services they offered. Within the community, this also gives the community workers an identity for the role they play. Currently, the following paraprofessional roles constitute ACF’s engagement with skilled community workers on the ground:
· SAKHI – to provide health services to community members
· CRP (Community Resource Person) - for general information and liaison with government projects
· PSS (Pashu Swasthya Sevika) – Animal Health Worker who provides health services for cattle within a community.
· AGRI VOLUNTEER – a paraprofessional who provides agriculture-related training and information to the farmers
Further, with specialization gained in specific areas that address the pain points of the local community, these paraprofessionals go on to become master trainers – skilling other community members in their roles.
How to Select the ‘Right’ Paraprofessional?
As a project leader, it requires skill and an impartial approach to identify the best people for the job of a paraprofessional and to groom them for their roles.
ACF looks for certain basic qualities, some of these characteristic traits include:
· A decent understanding of the context (village and regional understanding on the subject)
· Good reputation in the community
· Vocal, expressive and should be ready to move out of village and town if needed - for training and other purposes
· Ability to read and write (This over the years has changed to minimum 12th standard certification)
· Ability to maintain records (Logbooks, group meetings books, etc.,). This today also includes proficiency in the usage of smartphones.
With these traits, and with the right training and support, these local leaders have a vast potential to ensure the success of your project and intervention.
The Benefits of Hiring Paraprofessionals
In hiring paraprofessionals over the past few decades, ACF has come to understand some of the nuanced benefits to be gained in implementation.
· Last mile connectivity is enhanced – The ability to reach out to the last member of the village is significantly increased.
· Involvement of women is increased across programs.
· Efficiency of programs is increased as you are able to deliver more to the community despite limited budgets.
· With paraprofessionals playing critical roles in project delivery, the continuity of projects is enhanced despite changes in leadership.
· As the critical role played by paraprofessionals gets recognized, many of them go on to take leadership roles in projects, are absorbed in Government projects/initiatives and are even elected into roles such as Gram Panchayat members and Sarpanches.
· By involving the local youth, especially women, some remarkable changes are seen in the project deliverables. These community members are intrinsic to project implementation, which enables you to deliver more.
Paraprofessionals, as community members themselves, are germane to the development sector in the rural villages of India. For scalable and sustainable project implementation, Paraprofessionals play an all-essential role in being the conduit to building trust and enabling people in a community.
J.P. Tripathi works as the Deputy General Manager for implementing CSR projects related to Agriculture.