Jo Hann Tan

This article describes South-South Cooperation in the “South East Asia Popular Communications Programme” (SEAPCP). The objective of this programme is to strengthen grassroots organizations from a range of South East Asian countries in their community organizing skills. When sharing their experiences and debating the various approaches in their work, the communities from various neighbouring countries learn from each other and refine the tools and approaches of their work. In addition to various other offices, Tan Jo Hann exercises the coordination of the SEAPCP network. He specialises in community and campaigns organising, grassroots advocacy, creative printed media, grassroots journalism, creative visual graphics and photojournalism.

Building Relationships Among Communities Across the Region

The story of the “South East Asia Popular Communications Programme” (SEAPCP)

Looking Back

Almost 2 decades ago, a group of people came together from different SEA countries and they shared a vision. They wanted to combine their experiences, talent, and skills as community organiser trainers and facilitators and share it with the grassroots communities. Today the dream is no longer a plan but already a reality. This is a brief account of the South East Asia Popular Communications Programme (SEAPCP).

The primary objective of SEAPCP is to strengthen and support grassroots organisations to develop their community organising (CO) perspective and skills including learning creative media, strategising and tactics and setting up systems. Another focus is to help SEAPCP partners develop their capacity to generate financial support for local programme activities.

The partners of the SEAPCP consist of selectively identified key leaders and organisers within the indigenous people’s sector, the urban poor sector, grassroots women leaders, youth sector and support service NGOs working with grassroots in the SEA region.

Networking Across the Region

Developing a network across the SEA region is not an easy task because you are trying to bring together peoples from different cultures, religions and background. So there must be a very strong unifying force and in the case of SEAPCP, we all share the same dream and vision of what we want to see in our respective countries – that is to organize the grassroots people to achieve a better society and life.

That is why SEAPCP’s unique characteristics are very much based on working closely with grassroots movements in terms of sharing, exchanges, training, documentation and other aspects of our work. But building a strong regional movement starts with strengthening the components meaning its members. This is because we believe that the movement is nothing without its members, and for the past 13 years SEAPCP has continued to check with its members to make sure the network is serving the needs of its members. If not, SEAPCP would no longer have a reason to exist.

The key to being an effective network is to have a core group of active people who are committed to continue the work of the network to serve the needs of its members, regardless of the country. And this group of people should be skilled in different areas of work and of course should be gender balanced.

In SEAPCP we have a committee of 7 people, which serves as the core team consisting of representatives from different SEA countries, each having their own expertise, including skills and experiences in gender issues, urban poverty, human rights and indigenous peoples, management and community based economic activities.

But in our experience in SEAPCP, the most crucial foundation, besides sharing the same vision, is friendship and comradeship. In the SEAPCP network, we extend help to each other across the region in terms of skills exchanges, information sharing, training. But there have been times when we have helped each other in terms of family issues, personal problems, and have also shared in the non-work related events such as birth of a new baby, birthdays, weddings, celebrations and even funerals.

I supposed throughout the years, this interesting balance between work and personal relationships has helped develop a strong and deep networking among the members of the SEAPCP “family”.

Community Organising

The SEAPCP network is focused using popular communications for community organizing. The word “community” has an expanded meaning because it refers to a group of people who share the same situation, lifestyle of cultural context. In the traditional sense the word of course refers to a physical geographical community such as a village, a certain area or location in the urban or rural area.

SEAPCP network’s members work closely with different communities such as the indigenous peoples, farmers, fisherfolks, urban poor, workers, women, youth, HIV/ AIDS communuity, student community and others.

We feel that it is important for social movements to directly work with the grassroots communities because they are the ones who are the direct victims of the different issues and problems in their society. They are also the ones who have fewer options and opportunities in life because of their social marginalized position.

As such we wanted SEAPCP to facilitate these opportunities and resources to the marginalized grassroots communities so that they could rise above their situation and become empowered to do something about their own lives.

Popular Communications (PC) – Language of the Grassroots

This is not a new science or learning methodology. It is based on community organising experiences in Latin America, Africa and Asia. The process was most effective especially with poor communities where the literacy rate is usually very low. Through years of experimentation, adaptation and reflection, these creative and participatory processes have become the language of grassroots community organiser (CO)-facilitators.

PC methods are not just for adding color to sessions, but they actually contribute effectively to the learning process of grassroots communities. The learning process of community people is usually very action-oriented, based on trial and error and first-hand experiences.

Everyone is considered an expert at least in his/her own field of work and life experiences. PC processes are used to draw out this wisdom of the people and help facilitate it together with the people towards forming an understanding of their own situation. Only then can the people proceed to find ways to overcome or resolve the situations confronting them. This creative and participatory methodology takes into consideration the local culture, and available resources and materials of each situation.

The conventional school system, which uses theories and concepts as their starting point, tends to confuse the issues instead of clarifying them for the grassroots people. It always involves a teacher and the others as students. The teachers teach and the students listen and absorb all that is churned out. There is little room for feedback and participation in the receivers in the process and content of the interaction.

In almost all organising situations, when the people start to participate holistically in their struggle, they can really “move mountains”. But this will not happen if only the “leader” or “teacher” does all the leading and planning, and the people are just following. This is not community organising, but merely a game of “following the leader”.

To groom and cultivate this community spirit of democratic teamwork and participatory action, the methodology used in the organising process is very important. The community must participate meaningfully in their community issues.

As such, a CO-facilitator has to be well equipped with these PC “tools of the trade” or language of the grassroots to be able to motivate the community people to participate meaningfully in organising their community. His/her role is to use appropriate tools to facilitate this process to draw out responses of the people to start a free-flow participatory discussion. Then, together with the people, to reach a collective understanding of the issue leading to collective action plans to organise and advocate for the situation.

SEAPCP Strategies

1. Strengthening community-based organizations and local organisers

The main weaknesses of current development programs, both undertaken by government agencies as well as NGOs, is their treatment of the target group as an object and not as the subject who can play the most important roles. The community is often at the sidelines of the planning, implementing, and monitoring of the programs and its related activities. The community organizing approach is effective to help facilitate the community’s active participation in development programs.

It is often assumed that grassroots people with limited educational background and lack of skills do not have the capacity and potential to solve their problems and mange their own community programmes or activities. Outsiders (NGOs and foreign experts, consultants and other bodies) are often invited to play this role for the local people.

We have helped partners to develop perspective, skills and approach in community organizing and at the same time to strengthen their organizational base, strategies and capacities so that they can carry out community organizing processes in their respective bases.

2. Helping partners to develop community based resource management

The South East Asia region is actually rich with traditional ways of natural resources management and conservation. However, in the era of modernization and globalization, these ways of life have slowly been forgotten.

Current development trends often focus on economic growth of one country or area while exploiting the natural resources of another. This situation often robs the local people of their rights to the local resources and they end up being the victims of such development trends rather than the local guardians to explore and manage their own resources. As a result, local people suffer from the ecological damage and changes in their areas due to over-exploitation of their natural resources.

Therefore, it is urgently required to facilitate the development of community based natural resources management for the communities to avoid further environmental destruction. This is done by training and preparing local community leaders, organisers and members to conduct their own land and sea mapping, using simple participatory skills. (Establishing boundaries of their land to protect their ancestral land, conduct resources inventory).

We have also focused on the revival and exploration of local traditional knowledge, wisdom and conservation practices to protect the local resources.

3. Developing community sustainable livelihood

Development programs have to certain degrees marginalized and created dependency of grassroots people to the outside institutions and resources As a result, the sustainability of these efforts is being questioned. But at the same time the dire needs of the poor people have to be addressed. Therefore as a long term measure, in order to help the poor communities tackle their basic needs and make it sustainable, it is important to equip them with feasible and sustainable livelihood skills.

We have facilitated partners from different countries to explore, make inventory, conserving and promoting traditional and herbal medicine treatment to treat local illness and sustain health. Furthermore, we have helped them establish community based financial institutions such as credit unions and cooperatives as sources of micro lending and developing community housing programs.

Community organisers from 10 Asian countries in a regional skills exchange workshop

Community organisers from 10 Asian countries in a regional skills exchange workshop, Source: Jo Hann Tan

4. Empowerment of community women leaders, organisers and members

The status and roles of woman are defined and constructed based on gender differentiation imposed upon men and women in society. They are often neglected in the decision making process at almost all levels. Their concerns are not facilitated appropriately due to the gender biased development patterns.

Women play an important role both in reproductive and productive fields but this has been underestimated and almost forgotten when it comes to making important decisions in the family, the community and society at large. Their rich experiences as educators, managers and leaders in their family and community are not explored and used as potential resources to build a better society. Therefore, a women empowerment process must be prioritized in all efforts of development.

To this end we focused on developing confidence and leadership skills among women leaders, organisers and members, including equipping them with economic and livelihood activities to help them gain economic independence. We also focused on training and preparing women to become better community organizers and to participate in the leadership and decision-making roles in their communities.

5. Advocacy and networking

Grassroots people are often left out of the advocacy and networking process because of stereotyping: that they have limited education, knowledge and skills. But in fact advocacy efforts should be based of the people’s needs and voices so that the issues advocated for would actually reflect the people’s sentiments. As such, the most effective way is for them to develop the capacity of the grassroots leaders, organisers and members to be equipped to advocate their own issues, at different levels, namely local, national, regional and even international.

When communities from neighboring countries can share experiences or even debate with each other on issues and approaches of their work, it is both affirmative and educational for the involved parties. This opportunity provides a kind of platform for them to showcase their achievements and receive affirmation of their work. On the other hand this is also a chance for them to pick up lessons in social development work from each other.

SEAPCP network has focused on strategic actions for their network members, which includes training them to conduct campaigns, advocacy and negotiation with authorities, government offices, and the business sector. Grassroots organizers learn skills in collecting, organizing and disseminating data and information and also to promote and project local issues to the national and international levels. Of course one important component of this effort is to learn skills on how to organize and mobilize their people for collective mass actions such as demonstrations, dialogue, publicity events, press conferences, etc.


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