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On becoming an adviser and the burden of community leadership

In the low-income neighbourhoods of urban Sri Lanka, access to advice and support for new businesses and would-be-entrepreneurs is mediated to a large extent through individuals identified as community leaders. In the Colombo neighbourhoods where we worked, community leaders played a significant role connecting people to local government to access various kinds of advisory services. It would be through identified and appointed community leaders that local government and donor agencies alike would coordinate development programmes.

Community leaders got what training they had through both local and international NGOs. One impressive advisor-cum-community leader we encountered was called Priyani.[1] As a young woman in the 1980s, Priyani worked as a training officer with numerous NGOs, until she was later taken on by the Colombo Municipal Council as a community leader. Priyani’s experiences with various development organisations led to formative experiences overseas as a United Nations Volunteer – in Canada and Bangladesh. Priyani is the ‘mobiliser’ for her area as a part of the Community Development scheme initiated in the early 1980’s, where participatory planning was at the heart of in situ upgrading for low-income communities. While the scheme is not as active today, people like Priyani continued in this voluntary role as a community mobiliser, taking the leadership for anything community related – from accessing infrastructure to housing advocacy, business support and acquiring loans, to coordinating food drives during COVID-19 lockdown.

While she was being trained as a ‘training officer’ to encourage entrepreneurship in her area, particularly among women, she developed her own acumen in business by working with her father, who ran a small roadside stall at a bustling city junction. We sat in her home, carefully turning the pages of an old photo album as she recounted her time in Canada with the host family smiling up at us from the album pages. As a recognised community leader for the area, Priyani is an important node connecting actors in the business ‘advice-scape’, but she is also a selective user of these support systems and simultaneously a source of information and an end point of advice for many in the area.

Priyani’s formative experience with the development industry makes her a bit of an anomaly in her neighbourhood. Such experiences with international development organisations may have led to new aspirational horizons, social networks, and skills. However, advisors like Priyani become important linkages for local, national, and international business development support mechanisms, their proximity to small business support projects does not necessarily help them transcend their environment, at least not permanently, but rather, ensures they remain embedded as advisors. Entrepreneurs who become involved the development industry maintain their value to the sector by remaining within the communities they know so well.

Just a kilometre north in the high-rise housing schemes on the outskirts of the city, we meet another (impressive) community leader - Peter. Though not formally appointed as a liaison between the State-led entrepreneurship programmes and the communities they are aimed at, Peter became well positioned to advise on accessing support for businesses and other resources almost as a vocation. Peter came up through the housing unions (his father was the housing society president for the area) and he advocates for his community on a number of fronts. Peter, like Priyani, is also an anomaly in his community due to his higher level of education – trilingual, fluent in English, educated in one of the best national schools in the country (their home prior to relocation was located within the catchment area of the school which meant he could gain admission for free). He now works as a manager in an online shopping platform whereas most of his peers in the community did not finish school, are unemployed, or working in the informal sector, and many are drug users. Despite his young age, Peter would advocate for residents and attempted to broaden the networks of employment and support for the high-rises. However, he largely toiled in isolation. Few of Peter’s peers are actively pursuing a business of their own, if they have work they do day jobs or labour to make ends meet. Peter believed that working toward a change of ‘mindset’ was ideally the role of advice and the sort of influence the advice of the community leader could have.

Peter’s frustration echoed some of the sentiments of advisors at the top of the ecosystem – international advisors and successful financiers, that is: the biggest obstacle, and the key focus of advice, is to changing peoples’ mindsets. Whilst such people needed to innovate to avoid ‘herd mentality’, and to not be afraid to try new things, residents in the high-rises were thought to be too inward looking - their experiences, networks and associations do not extend beyond the building itself.

If you want to develop as a person’, he said, ‘then you can’t keep hanging around with the same sort of people. But the buildings close you in’.

[1] All names have been changed for anonymity.


About the author

Dr Luke Heslop is a Lecturer in Anthropology and Global Challenges at Brunel University London.

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