Larger-scale support of local initiatives, grassroots leadership and small, often “informal” movements is a key reform needed in the international development aid sector. I shared this view in a post entitled, “What’s missing from the DIY aid debate? Overlooking the Capacity of Local Organizations” and in a virtual discussion on aid effectiveness from a gender perspective sponsored by UN-WOMEN at the end of last year. This is the first of two posts (see part 2 here) to attempt to answer the important questions posed by fellow blogger, Dave Algoso, “So what’s that look like? And who, if anyone, has done this well?”
Indeed, there is a growing number of development donors willing to offer and build alternatives to business as usual in the sector (list forthcoming) by directly supporting local organizations and movements by creating broad guidelines, focus areas, and selection criteria to respond to what local stakeholders view as important. When grassroots groups are the setters of priorities, the controllers of resources, and thus the drivers of development, donors can help build local sovereignty through small grants programs. This could offer a vast improvement upon what Fahamu Executive Director, Hakima Abbas, refers to as, “…the ever-expanding NGO industrial complex [that] separates and depoliticises service and advocacy while failing to question its own role in weakening African institutions, power and self-determination.”
Though now discontinued, the former corporate aid agency I used to work for had a small grants fund as a part of each of its country programs. This fund was not tied to any specific project or sectoral activities, e.g. health or agriculture, but would rather be a pot of money to address priorities as they were identified by community leaders. Grants were US$500 or less, had an open application process, needed two positive independent references, and required only one-page proposals and reports. Many colleagues still talk about these small bits of money as some of the most memorable, impactful and fun(!) projects they ever supported.
I believe my colleagues still recall these small grants so positively because:
- Small grants allow for international staff to better identify, leverage, and scale the efforts of respected local leaders who have the sustained commitment, effort and insights (just not the resources) to make changes at the community level. In other words, they saw that money can go directly into the hands of those able to use it immediately and effectively.
- Small, responsive grants can encourage more innovative and less risk-averse and bureaucratic procedures. As Bill Easterly argued recently, “When you reach the end of the road, you CAN identify SOME local problems to which money IS the answer.”
- Appropriate amounts of funding for relatively small or “informal” efforts help nascent organizations to build confidence and resilience to establish themselves as effective civil society institutions in their locality.
- Small, responsive grants can allow for greater embeddedness of programs in the community, thereby providing greater opportunities for demands of accountability by constituents from all service-providers, including local government and the groups themselves.
- The butterfly effect, discussed in an Alliance Magazine article by Global Greengrants’ CEO Chet Tchozewski, Getting to maybe: why small grants matter, is the idea that seemingly trivial events can have a great impact on complex adaptive systems. See the video link below for further explanation.
Yet international donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. Instead, we need to create more easily accessible and wider-reaching funding opportunities for local groups. I would advocate that all donor organizations and/or aid programs return to or start devoting a small percentage of their budget to creating and administering small, responsive grantmaking mechanisms. The first step will be to learn from organizations already engaged in this type of support to local organizations.
A Boston-based organization, GHETS, disseminates micro-grants in the range of US$3,000-$5,000 annually to doctors, nurses, and professors of health sciences to enhance local infrastructure and initiatives all over the developing world. An example of GHETS’ microgrants in Egypt initially funded a workshop requested by a faculty member at Suez Canal University. Dr. Amany Refaat noted a gap in the care offered to women coming into community clinics with complications related to FGM. She observed a lack of education at the medical school that prepared students to treat and be sensitive to patients’ issues regarding FGM. What started out as a single workshop funded by GHETS is now part of the national curriculum.
Caroline Mailloux, GHETS’ Executive Director, shares that “In our experience, promoting the micro-grants model promotes scalability, local ownership, and a training/service component. Smaller sums are wired easily directly from GHETS to [grantees’] academic institutions and don’t get lost in the budget lines of huge corporate or foundational grants. The funds are accessible and partners are able to re-apply to continue to grow the small, community-based initiatives.”
The usual objections to small grants, namely that they’re not strategic or impactful enough, that they are too costly to administer, or that local leaders are all corrupt and self-serving, need to be more closely examined. To truly bring about people’s improved well-being, efforts are needed (and worthy of financial support) at all levels. Grants of all sizes are needed, but small grants for local groups continue to be largely overlooked. While transactional costs for small grants can be the same as large grants in some cases (which has been researched in the case of foundations, but not yet compared in the NGO sector that I know of), those administering small grant funds argue that smaller grants are worth it because they provide more readily apparent social changes that are vital to lasting structural change.
Clearly, we can and should continue to gather more empirical evidence to back up these claims. Yet from my personal experience and perspective, the relative risk of “losing” US$500 or even US$5,000 on the rare someone who had less than purely altruistic motivations (is there even such a thing?) was nothing when compared to the waste I saw within the system. The moral argument for small grants becomes stronger if we truly represent the proportion of funding lost as each layer taking its cut before development aid funding ever reaches the ground.
Few would disagree that local leaders with the all-important expertise and resolve to create change their communities should be excluded from the development process. But donor staff and development practitioners should no longer tolerate a system that makes such leaders wait for the average-sized international grants to trickle down to them, marred by donor restrictions and burdensome requirements.
As Chet Tchozewski writes, “We all want to support the kind of people whose good work would not stop if you paid them to quit. That’s what small grants can do best.”
Part 2 of this post further concretizes small grantmaking mechanisms and provides a list of other international funders who offer small, responsive grants to grassroots organizations.