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The Story of SALT

A good conversation can build relationships, trust and understanding. "SALT" is a way of helping good community conversations take place, in order to bring about transformation of that community. It is popular in our network, and so we asked one of its pioneers, IAN CAMPBELL, to explain its history, meaning and impact. Jake: How did SALT come about? Ian: It started in the late 1980s. I was Chief Medical Officer of a rural hospital in Zambia during the global HIV/AIDS crisis. It was an awful situation. So many people were dying. Stigma and discrimination were rife. At the hospital we began to realise that if we wanted to meet this challenge head-on then we needed to go out of the hospital, and have conversations in the community. And that’s what we did: we met with local people living with HIV with their family groups, and then with nearby neighbours. We heard stories about their experiences of the crisis, and as we built relationships, things began to happen. For example, we learned how HIV was spreading through ‘ritual cleansing’ [when a surviving partner has sex with a family member of the deceased partner as part of the funeral process, to enable release from obligation and remarriage if desired]. And, to cut a long story short, conversations around this ultimately led tribal chiefs to ban the ritual through sexual activity right across the country. Other safe means were allowed. News of this rippled out around the world, and people came to learn from us. The United Nations Development Programme in the early 1990’s even put our approach at the centre of their HIV/AIDS policy. So too did Zambia’s Ministry of Health. But it was this initial idea – of community-based conversations – that led to what we now call SALT. And in the past 30 years I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate SALT all over the world. Jake: So how does SALT work? Ian: SALT is about getting local people connected, to share stories about their lives, to learn from one another, to build trust with one another, and to create momentum for change. It’s also about getting organisations that want to support these communities to adapt their own way of working, from a rigid system that does not change according to context, to a more fluid way of working that responds to the people and stories within a place. So those are the goals. But in practical terms, SALT consists of “SALT visits” where a team of people visit a community to meet local people, to stimulate conversations about local experiences, and then after that, to debrief: to discuss what stories emerged, what people learned, and to discuss what this might mean moving forward, to address whatever challenges need to be addressed in that community. So it’s much more than a way of working: it’s a way of thinking and a way of being that values the strengths hidden within a neighbourhood. And this has to become a permanent lifestyle: SALT visits need to happen regularly. In Zambia, we started by doing this as a team from a hospital, but any organisation or group of local people can get involved.

Ian on a visit to Sierra Leone

Jake: What does SALT stand for?

Well we actually first came across the term being used in northern Thailand, where some friends were doing something similar. Their acronym was ‘Support And Learning Team’. But as SALT developed, its meaning has expanded too. So, ‘S’ can stand for story and strength, because it’s in the stories of people and communities that we discern their strengths for caring, changing, belonging, hoping, leading. ‘A’ stands for appreciate because we want to emphasise that SALT facilitators don’t go to judge, teach or deliver a product, rather they go to listen and learn. And these are what ‘L’ stands for. And then ‘T’ stands for team and transfer because those involved in SALT need to be a team, and they might also look to transfer the SALT approach from one neighbourhood to another, and see transformation of confidence and action for care and change in many communities.

Jake: Why are you so passionate about it?

Ian: I believe one of the biggest inhibitors to development is the static approach often taken by NGOs and governments and UN groups. They come in with interventions and a fixed culture. But SALT nurtures relationships of trust between local people, as well as organisations, and even government. And trust is at the root of good health. And so SALT acts like oil or grease – it makes a community more flexible and able to generate momentum. And the spark is not money or programmes, it’s relationships and trust. When a bunch of people from different organisational environments and local settings get together, and when they do SALT in local neighbourhood settings well, then you see a big impact. A good example is the Chabbs Cluster in Zambia. They’ve been grounded in SALT since the start, and their SALT visits have helped discover new ways of building stronger latrines, and helped more mothers access healthcare [read more here]. And the nearby town of Chisekesi has looked at this and started its own Cluster too, rooted in SALT. The Chabbs guys show that a community doesn’t need funding – it needs igniting and nurturing. And this creates cultural changes in local and even distant organisations. Jake: You’ve done SALT all over the world. Do some cultures grasp it more than others? Ian: In the global south – Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe – there’s been a strong and fairly quick connect with SALT. These countries have a more relational way of going about their everyday life: in their family and neighbourhood, they help each other out more. And so they tend to recognise that this type of approach works, because it resonates with the way local folks make connections and get things done. When it comes to SALT, this means that they can make connections quite quickly and easily. But in modern western economic contexts like the United States, Europe and Australasia, it tends to be a longer and more drawn-out process. Here, neighbourhoods need to first develop comfort and basic trust. They need to build relationships and mutual respect. They used to do this: decades ago, even a hundred years ago. They’ve just got to re-learn and rediscover that foundation. But it does happen! So to answer your question in broad terms, the “relational south” will say “let’s do it!”, and in the more well-off north, it takes a bit more time. Jake: If people read this and want to do SALT where they live, where should they start? Ian: Firstly, find some people around you who also have an appetite for change, and then just start to go out and listen to people’s stories. Once you’ve done this, gather with your team for a debrief: What did you learn about the community? And about yourselves? What motivates you? And what motivates the people you meet? What strengths do you see in people? If you are people of faith, think about what you saw of God in the experience? And start to chart all this. Start to notice patterns of connection and response, and start to form a neighbourhood map. From there, it’s good to then find a connection to other people who have done SALT elsewhere, and who have practical tips, and get along side you. So keep it simple. The simpler it is the more effective it is and the more sustainable it is. Read more from Ian (and find out why SALT has prompted him to do a 630-mile walk later this year!) by clicking here. And you can visit Ian's website here.


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