Bill Walker

In the spirit of reinventing Paulo Freire, this blog explores one strand which strengthens Freire’s conscientisation capability set: community sensitisation 1 .

Pro-social development engenders the flourishing of persons and communities when it harnesses existing cultural institutions to foster a more peaceful and just rule of law. Too often, development programs assume a practiced rule of law for the good already exists.

Community-level interventions need to engage constructively with local cultural institutions and their norms, harnessing these to promote pro-social learning and development, while challenging those cultural norms which violate human rights. Engagement begins with community sensitisation as a part of conscientisation, an inquiry-based set of processes focused on shared flourishing. The explicit purpose is to reinforce local group identity and norms as the basis for active citizenship, through group decision-making and action informed by, and directed at the common good.

The absence of the rule of law and the presence of dehumanising violence repeatedly reinforce each other, fostering community illbeing. While ‘do no harm’ is a key ethical principle in development, this can encourage minimalist approaches to harm.

As Freire states:

Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects.

The design and implementation of community interventions often assume the peaceful relationships needed for their success. Because no overt violence seems evident, these interventions underestimate the everyday reality of limited rule of law as of little consequence for peaceful and democratic decision-making.

I find Martin Luther King Jr’s insight helpful—that nonviolence requires deliberate public work:

Nonviolence isn’t just the absence of violence; it’s a stand against injustice and a commitment to repair harm.

What enables shared commitment to repair harm are inclusive processes of participatory dialogue. Yet the necessity for such work can be obscure, especially to external actors. In many communities, historical violence has enduring but hidden effects on shared group identity, moral formation, curiosity, and confidence. These are all core capacities in seeking the common good 2. Freedom to bring their whole selves to political decision-making is an essential prerequisite for ‘the people’ to understand public policy and engage in democratic action. As I’ll argue, central to ‘their whole selves’ is their shared culture.

Additionally, I’ve noticed a tendency in development work to underestimate the power of cultural actors, cultural capabilities, and cultural institutions to humanise and legitimise development. ‘Culture’ is too often seen as an obstacle to (rather than a source of) pro-social and peaceful development. Yet using local culture is how local communities humanise imposed development.

Consistent with Freire, we need an approach where people harness the pro-social elements of their own ‘culture’ to humanise development, under localised rule of law.

But how can we foster local ‘rule of law’ relationships and norms? My last DSAA blog listed nine strategies, 3 including community sensitisation. Sensitisation matters because, in oral cultures, most written laws are all-but-inaccessible. Even literate minorities motivated to read them will likely find them abstract, long, and mystifying. Community expectations that ‘no one is above the law’ are consequently low and become self-fulfilling.

Community sensitisation is the process of (1) extracting the entitlements and duties of human rights actors from relevant law and public policy, (2) simplifying, reorganising and translating them into local languages, and then (3) using oral culture throughout local communities to ‘make rights real’ for ordinary citizens.

Such sensitisation enables public policy to become ‘specific, local, and embedded within the consciousness of ordinary people’ 4. Sensitised communities can understand concretely how public policies should work, according to national and local laws, for a specific human right. Importantly, since community-wide sensitisation alters what the public expects of duty-bearers, it helps build ‘rule of law cultures’, where no one is above the law.

Foundational to such sensitisation is changed community awareness regarding legitimate rights, felt obligations and associated roles relevant to a ‘larger we’, governed by the rule of law 5 . Necessary for democracy, such shared awareness can then be applied to the democratic governance of health, education, child protection, water and sanitation, public justice, and reforesting of degraded land.

One common example of public policy arising from a human right is Universal Primary Education (UPE). UPE sensitisation on this human right in Uganda, for instance, includes UPE policy objectives and the roles of each group of institutional players, both nationally and locally. Such broad-based sensitisation helps reduce mystification about education duty-bearers and what they are answerable for. This clears the way for marginalised groups to set agendas and make decisions needed to claim the human rights they value.

Regardless of the sector, a key step is recognising that sensitisation belongs to a set of socially learnt strategies. These enable people to engage in fruitful community inquiry and collective action which make rights real and claimable. Synergies arising from such

sensitised awareness enable the emergence of more united, informed and engaged citizenry. According to Elinor Ostrom, the first female Nobel Prize-winner in economics, this is necessary for democracy 6.

Evidence on community sensitisation from diverse settings suggest it reduces the awareness gap between day-to-day reality, on the one hand, and expected roles, rights, and mutual responsibilities, on the other. As citizenries discover what duty-bearers are accountable for, the civic space needed for productive dialogue is enlarged.

Because duty-bearers anticipate being held more accountable by communities, they tend to become more responsive 7. Some evidence suggests that, as basic services become more available, accessible, and of better quality, communities trust government more and become more willing to pay local taxes for services 8.

A Ugandan expert on community sensitisation, Betty Wamala, highlights how experimenting with diverse cultural media has helped politically sensitise Ugandan adults, youth and children. When communicated through dialogue in customary community meetings, and in television and radio talk shows, adult awareness of specific public policy grows. Sports, music, dance, drama and strategically placed public messages have proved valuable for sensitising youth, who may be more literate. Children grow in awareness about public policy when sensitisation uses music, dance and drama. For each age group, sensitised awareness tends to grow especially through oral cultural communication, which enables communities to grasp what public policy means for politics.

For duty-bearers and rights-holders, sensitisation is especially valuable in forming the kinds of civic identities and engaged citizen awareness needed to heal community hostilities, bridge status differences, and recover shared civic space. When community sensitisation is combined with problem-posing from lived experiences, these experiential learning processes help supercharge the civic identity formation needed for prosocial collective action and decision making.

Community-wide awareness learnt through culturally mediated sensitisation, it seems, increases felt political obligations according to the rule of law, thus bridging local culture with local politics.

I welcome your contribution of any documented community sensitisation case studies. Please send them to me at

Thanks to Betty Wamala, Neville Carr, Jamie Edgerton, Iain Payne, Edwina Faithful-Farmer Dave Fagg and Andrew Newmarch for helpful feedback on drafts of this blog. Responsibility for this blog remains mine.

1  I touched on this in my earlier blog trilogy. See ;; and

2  Agostini, Maximilian and Martijn van Zomeren. “Toward a comprehensive and potentially cross-cultural model of why people engage in collective action: A quantitative research synthesis of four motivations and structural constraints.” Psychological Bulletin 147, no. 7 (2021): 667-700; and Dehaene, S, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain. Penguin Books Limited, 2020.

3 See

4  Cohen, A. J. “Thinking with Culture in Law and Development.” Buffalo Law Review 57 (2009): 511-586.

5  To increase its local legitimacy, sensitisation tends to blend local law with national law, including constitutional law.

6 Ostrom, E. “The future of democracy.” Scandinavian Political Studies 23, no. 3 (2000): 280–283.

7  For recent evidence on the nexus between felt obligations and accountability, see Anderson, Colin. “Understanding accountability in practice: obligations, scrutiny, and consequences.” Development Policy Review forthcoming.

8 Isbell, Thomas. “Are Africans willing to pay higher taxes or user fees for better health care?” Cape town: Afrobarometer, 2016.