What’s missing from the DIY aid debate? Overlooking the Capacity of Local NGOs

Professional or amateur? Skills and experience or passion and new ideas? These are riveting questions indeed, but I’m concerned that in the development discourse, we continue to miss a key piece.

Well-intentioned do-gooders of any sort must recognize that in the developing world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” that Nicholas Kristof describes, are often already organized and doing something about the issues facing them in their communities, though their initiatives are often ignored and under-resourced. Unfortunately, this is something big aid and those new to international engagement continue to discount and/or overlook.

A deeper understanding of the organizational dynamics of local, indigenous, community-based groups directly serving vulnerable families in the developing world is key to unleashing their potential. In fact I believe that larger-scale support of local initiatives, grassroots leadership and small, often “informal” movements, could be the true revolution in the international development sector. As Dave Algoso writes, “After all, the ultimate DIY efforts are grassroots initiatives by poor people in their own communities.”

First, let me define local indigenous organizations to frame this discussion:

“[Local indigenous organizations] are defined as voluntary associations of community members that reflect the interests of a broader constituency. They grow out of the concern of a few motivated individuals who work together in direct response to needs within the local community, rather than being externally catalyzed. They spring from a sense of obligation to care for those in need, in a context characterized by inadequate or non-existent public services in resource-poor settings. They come into existence to mobilize locally available human, material, and financial resources—ensuring that vulnerable individuals and families are supported to receive the services they require. [In most cases, these groups “pre-date” any formal funding opportunities.] Most importantly, local indigenous organizations are embedded in the communities they serve and are therefore well suited to assess and respond to local needs on a long-term basis, contributing to sustainable community services, development, and rights-based work” (Lentfer & Yachkaschi, 2009).

Think of the group of grandmothers gathered under the tree to plan for how they will get orphaned children back into school. Think of a cohort of small villages organized to lobby for protection of a local forest they depend on for hunting. Think of a self-help group that forms a cooperative to get better prices for their crafts.

So why should we re-orient international assistance to place these groups at its center?

1) Local indigenous organizations are best placed to provide the elusive “scale-up.”

The web of small, local indigenous organizations, still largely undocumented and unrecognized around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses that even the most comprehensive donor-controlled, government-endorsed, project-based funding may not be able to accomplish.

In the HIV sector, a Ugandan study for the Joint Learning Initiative on Children and AIDS at Harvard in 2007 revealed that the prevalence of community-level initiatives for children affected by HIV/AIDS was one per 1,300 people. A mapping exercise sponsored by UNICEF identified over 1,800 community-based organizations (CBOs) focused on orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005).

© Nick Amis

At a country level, consider that according to a 2004 survey by the University of Kwazulu-Natal (Manji & Naidoo, 2005), there are at least 50,000 CBOs in the South African non-profit sector alone. Swilling & Russell (2002) further point out that CBOs constitute 53% of the non-profit sector in South Africa, which contradicts the dominant image that development services are mainly provided formal and professionally run non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

While these figures may vary elsewhere around the world, as well as in other sectors, WiserEarth.org has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger aid agencies just don’t have.

While local groups may lack the accountability mechanisms and sophisticated processes that would make them more recognizable or esteemed among other development actors, they have a range of capacities and competencies such as their astute resourcefulness in mobilizing local resources, downward accountability, flexibility, and responsiveness to communities’ needs.

There is an operating assumption in the development sector that the capacity of local organizations should be measured by the degree of formal structure of the organization. Donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. However, what is not well understood about local indigenous organizations is how they are able to respond to families’ and communities’ varied, immediate and long-term needs on a case-by-case, often 24-hour-a-day basis, making their work authentically and inherently holistic.

Chet Tchozewski, CEO of GlobalGreengrants, describes a “culture of peer accountability and structural trust, which further enhances the pre-existing social capital” within local movements that can unleash social change. In this regard, local organizations’ responsiveness becomes an important capacity in their context, where their lack of prescribed or strict procedures for decision-making actually helps them to remain more adaptive and flexible to arising needs and inherent complexities at the community level. This flexibility also enables local indigenous organizations to gain the legitimacy needed to more easily create and maintain trust and stature within their community than other development actors.

3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.

Outsiders can often be blind to how poor people and marginalized communities systemically mobilize resources through a system of self-help and mutual assistance, which Wilkinson-Maposa and Fowler (2009) have coined as “horizontal philanthropy” or “philanthropy of community.” In Africa and elsewhere, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up quite resilient, but often informal coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, burial associations, grain loan schemes, and rotating credit and loan clubs (Lwihula & Over, 1995; Mutangadura et al, 2000). Local groups’ rootedness in the communities they serve results in a deep knowledge about these local relationships and coping mechanisms, which may never be fully understood even through the most comprehensive needs assessment or baseline study. Local organizations’ day-to-day interaction and connection with their constituency allows for more access to those in need and more expertise about their social context than any other development actor.

4) Local indigenous organizations are better positioned to make communities more resilient and adaptive.

Campbell, et al (2007) illustrated six key strategies for facilitating the development of “community competence” in the context of HIV, which I think is relevant for development as a whole. These are: building knowledge and basic skills; creating social spaces for dialogue and critical thinking; promoting a sense of local ownership of the problem and incentives for action; emphasizing community strengths and resources; mobilizing existing formal and informal local networks; and building partnerships between marginalized communities and more powerful outside actors and agencies, locally, nationally and internationally. While aid agencies and development practitioners continue to struggle to make such concepts as “community participation” and “local empowerment” real, effective local groups naturally embody such ideas by virtue of their rootedness, existing relationships, and proximity to those they serve. Robert L. Woodson, in his book The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods, describes grassroots organizations as providing an environment where “the love that is necessary for an individual to undergo healing, growth, and development” can occur. Most importantly, because of the reciprocity often found at the foundation of their programs, local organizations’ staff and volunteers often have a higher personal stake in the success of their efforts.

5) Local indigenous organizations fill existing gaps in the government and international aid sectors.

I’ve worked in children and HIV programming in southern Africa for over a decade. What is undeniable to me in this time is that most children are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support and services to children in areas not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. While many of the 300 grassroots organizations I’ve worked with in my career were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics, they were, by and large, organized around one purpose—to fill the gap for children and families not being helped otherwise. Despite all of the challenges in working in a low-resource setting, this is what sustains local leaders’ commitment and groups’ persistence. In my experience, they exist in order to be there for kids, whether outside funding is available or not.

Yes, but…

I’m often in conversations with those who are quick to disparage small and local organizations, espousing the ever-pejorative myth of “no capacity” perpetuated in the development discourse.  One recent naysayer wrote,

“I think that this sounds like a great approach to self help, but hard to justify when spending large quantities of other countries’ citizen’s taxes on development. Community-based organisations may be inherently worthy according to their own individual terms and definitions, but this does not mean that they deserve to receive external support. Aid, like most (all?) public policy, involves a reasonable degree of standardisation, generalisation, and reduction.”

I also often hear that “CBOs will just abscond with the money” and “it takes too much effort and resources to find good groups.” All are valid concerns worthy of refutation in their own right. (More to come later on this.) But I encourage people to consider the relative risk of losing small amounts of money by funding local organizations as compared to the waste within the aid system. Think about each layer taking its cut before funds ever reach the ground. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about this?

As laurenist writes, “both large organizations and small organizations get it wrong sometimes… We can’t excuse [small organizations] from following best practices or from talking to beneficiaries about what they want simply because they’re small.” It’s true, not all local indigenous organization are created equal and I would be a fool to deny the existence of suitcase NGOs (a phenomenon that highlights the development system’s weaknesses rather than any sweeping trend). Nor am I naïve enough to believe that supporting local organizations should replace policy efforts, economic reforms, or the programs targeted at other stakeholders still needed to bring about change at national and international levels.

Rather, professionals and amateurs alike must examine how we can best support local organizations that are grown from the inside and fueled by the dedication and vision of the very people they serve. We must focus on getting them the resources that they need to address their own priorities.

Putting Local Indigenous Organizations at the Heart of Development

If we’re discussing the future of international assistance, let’s put small, local movements in the developing world at the center. Regardless of our level of expertise or our length of service in the developing world or the amount of money or bureaucracy behind us, let’s actively discuss the need to genuinely support—not co-opt, overpower, or even quash—local initiatives.

There are great examples of developmental donors and international NGOs willing to offer and build alternatives to “business as usual,” making room for sovereign local organizations that hold great promise as do-gooders seek them out and learn from them. (More to come later on this as well.)

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues in working with local groups that would challenge the sector and how we approach our work. In order to relate effectively to local groups, professional and amateur do-gooders must first focus on building their own skills to accompany and support them. I believe the ability and penchant to understand and work effectively with organizations of any size or type can and should become a core capacity of all people working to reduce poverty. As highlighted by the Community Development Resource Association in South Africa:

“The honest donor will admit how little this is practiced, how little responsiveness there is, how little real listening, and how many preconceived programs and methods are foisted on communities.  Some of these are in response to superficial fashions of the time, some of them to political pressures which are of northern, rather than southern, origin…If donors cannot respond to what is needed with considered flexibility and openness, then they [cannot] avoid the straw allegiance to the concept of development itself.”

It’s also time to create more easily accessible and wider-reaching funding opportunities for local groups,thereby putting more local and national actors in the driver’s seat of development. Currently, smaller and less-developed organizations face a myriad of challenges in accessing external funding. In a study of 109 faith-based groups in Namibia, 80 percent reported they received no external HIV/AIDS funding whatsoever (Yates, 2003). Research by the Centre for AIDS Development and Research in South Africa in 2007 found that while the number of organizations responding and the funding for HIV had increased, the bulk of civil society funding went to a small proportion of organizations, mostly urban-based NGOs with prior program delivery experience and financial capacity. To change this, donors and international NGOs need to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking local groups to change. In effect, we must lower the “glass ceiling” for indigenous organizations to participate and access funding.

Let’s acknowledge the vision, structure, inherent strengths, and impact that local indigenous organization can and do have. Rather than being the lowest common denominator of international development assistance, let’s recognize local indigenous organizations as vital to supporting genuine, demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries and unleash social change.

People, under the direst of circumstances, can and do pull together. Thus, whether professional or amateur, our responsibility is to do justice to local indigenous organizations’ vast and vital efforts in the developing world.


My thanks to Zanele Sibanda and Schirin Yachkaschi for their contributions to this article.

For further reading:

Wilkinson-Maposa, S. & Fowler, A. (2009). The poor philanthropist I-IV. Cape Town: Southern Africa-United States Center for Leadership and Public Values.

Campbell, C., Nair, Y. and S. Maimane. (2007). Building contexts that support effective community responses to HIV/AIDS: a South African case study. American journal of community psychology, 39 (3-4). pp. 347-363.

Other citations available upon request.


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Seeing the future in sovereign local organizations – Part 2

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  3. tom

    Am in support of the new dimension of thinking especially considering the role of Aid aid Development.Why should the world’s developed nations continue to chanel Aid through so beaucratic and high cost initiaves,if at all their AID has intentions of transforming societies?

  4. Thank you for an informative article.

    The African Transitional Justice Research Network (ATJRN) has a contact database of Africa based human rights organizations, which can be accessed at http://www.transitionaljustice.org.za The database is updated on a regular basis; organizations which are not yet captured are welcome to forward their details.

    Kind Regards,

    Nokukhanya Mncwabe
    Regional Coordinator,ATJRN
    Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
    Tel: +27214483673
    Email: nmncwabe@csvr.org.za

  5. I couldn’t agree more. We at Kopernik (www.thekopernik.org) work with local organisations to disseminate life-changing technologies. They are the most key piece of the puzzle of our model, as they understand the people’s needs and can reach out to the last mile communities.

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  8. Jennifer, great contribution to the topic. You’re right that the recent discussion has focused on what Americans (and others) should or should not do, and has ignored local actors.

    My question for you: How can donors/international NGOs provide the right kind of support to local indigenous organizations? You hint at it a bit in the post, but I would love to read your full thoughts on this. If we want to re-orient international assistance to put these groups at the center, then international organizations will need to operationalize that. So what’s that look like? And who, if anyone, has done this well?

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  13. Sharing hereby similar concern over the case of Haiti…

    The facts and figures are breathtaking:

    * 230,000 Estimated Deaths
    * 2 Million Estimated Displaced Individuals in Haiti
    * 1.6 Million VERIFIED of Displaced Individuals in Settlements
    * 3 Million Estimated Affected Population

    Despite all the international community sudden compassionate outcry, and pouring dollars, a lot is being learnt as who really are the invisible hands making or breaking deals in Haiti reconstruction schemes.

    It’s not means which make development sustainable, but the ability for stakeholders to size up the challenge and envision indigenous exit strategies in accordance with local priorities. In the case of Haiti, stakeholders are shareholders meticulously weighing, simulating and gauging, day in and day out, several predatory assistance schemes making the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere a sudden object of attention, a safe heaven for an open and orchestrated scramble for Haiti, a “Berlin Conference-1884-1885” bis to divide and conquer Haiti.

    This, nothing else, is the reason why it takes time for the reconstruction effort to evolve as sought from a practical standpoint! From the point of view of those millions of families directly or indirectly affected, from the point of view of those children now spending this wintry season out under a shaky tent… This dilatory assistance scheme itself is sought to lead to more additional deaths and disabled that would count as a surplus of saved money towards the assistance plan in mind when those monies was sought to reach the century old horseshoe shaped country…

    This is the visible part of the iceberg: only 20% of the aid pledged had been received so far…Nearly one year on, more than one million yet fortunate Haitians still live in camps. Donors and the international community were not working with Haitians to find solutions when channeling aid to those who need it. I need to have control over what they do in my country, where they do it and with whom they are doing it, and at what cost. It’s very difficult for me to give explanation for the use of money that I never receive…This is the process of intent of Mr Bellerive, Haitian Prime Minister!

    May be for the newly elected government less bureaucracy would help make an impact for the benefits of the People of Haiti after centuries of acts of aggression more so now on the sovereignty on the pretext of humanitarian responsibilities.

    May be a good pretext for those interest groups behind the scenes, in the name of humanitarians concerns, which would not have that much leverage if there were no mechanisms to ensure heavy bureaucracy is in place. Indeed in lieu and place of the Government of Haiti, to screen, filter and follow up on who will sit on the oversight committee, it’s a so-called Haiti Reconstruction Fund, in defiance of intrinsic Government capability to run affairs, in charge of supervising and “distributing” all the relief money still pouring down in Haiti.

    From its statement of intent, the Haiti Reconstruction Fund is a partnership between the international community and the Government of Haiti to help finance post-earthquake reconstruction. Nonetheless it is stated that “the HRF mobilizes, coordinates and allocates contributions from bilateral and other donors to finance high-priority projects, programs and budget support”…Openly omitting the government at sight?

    What are the advocates of the fund doing with the notions of sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs embodied within the principles of the United Nations?

    How accountability will be dealt with and enforced given the non-state nature of the HRF?

    Who is the HRF Board made off? Maddoff?

    Is there any way the Government of Haiti can take ownership over the achievements or lack of thereof deriving from the Fund?

    Partial response of such critical questionings can be found in this New World Order taking shape pointing that the prevailing world order is unipolar and this is expected to continue in a foreseeable future if strong choir of opponents are not getting busy in countering such dynamics.

    Surprisingly the major institutions supposed to reinstate justice and social equity are watching and orchestrating such unipolarisation… Indeed the Haiti Reconstruction Fund activities are supervised by the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations and the World Bank to “vehemently” ensure that international standards of good practice for reconstruction are applied.

    Provided that nations with a powerful veto right was consequentially strong in social justice ideals, they’re the one to exercise their veto rights… But isn’t it true that a veto gives power, possibly unlimited, to stop changes, but not to adopt them?

    Haiti deserves more than such a colonialistic treatment!

    Demba NDIAYE

  14. Thanks for setting the record straight on why putting the local indigenous organization at the heart of development is important. I am a strong advocate for this. The local people are the key to any implementation of a successful project. I am usually disturbed by how ‘the expert’ tend to ignore the input of the local people. Generally the expert’s opinion counts more than that of the local people. When Professr Sachs and Bono speak about poverty, they don’t put lot of emphasis on people’s power to liberate themselves rather they ‘imagine’ the government will apply good policy to address inequalities especially in Africa.

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  16. I applaud the systematic promotion of CBOs. What is interesting to me is that we make it sound like CBOs are a new phenomenon when, in fact, they have existed in some form as far back as people lived in communities. Different people have different interests and concerns that relate to better survival through whatever means espoused by the CBO. They are the first step beyond the family group in assisting individuals to deal with whatever there is to deal with in the particular environment in which they live. I could not agree more on the great value of their perspective of the needs and issues and approaches to responding to different challenges in their socio-enviro-economic-cultural-health-etc. circumstances. Again, my hat is off to you for promoting the obvious – “work with what is there” Cheers. James

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