Grassroots = No Brains?

A tweet caught my attention last weekend on a search that I follow:

“I am so tired w/ dealing w/ ‘Grassroots’ organizations here in #haiti Unfortunately grassroots=no brains +no money”

My unanswered response to this frustrated aid worker went something like this:

“Generalities of “no capacity” perpetuated about grassroots organizations does not do justice to local orgs that are well-run…”

“…nor does it own up to our role in ‘partners’ losing ties to their constitutencies in order to align with our funding guidelines.”

The language we use either closes down or opens up dialogue, as well as our own thinking, about relief and development work. Statements like “grassroots=no brains” perpetuate the myth of “low capacity” about small and local organizations and they are derogatory and patronizing at best. I care and write about this because I believe a deeper understanding of organizational development in context of grassroots organizations and how they relate to the larger aid system is necessary among aid workers.

This innocent tweet was presumably meant to let off some steam (something everyone has to do from time to time). Perhaps this person has to urgently disburse funds before the end of the month. Maybe they were exhausted with all the bureaucratic and technical rigidities put in place to ensure “accountability.” Or were tired of dealing with a manager breathing down their neck to “deliver outcomes” while their owndecision-making power is caught up within a particularly hierarchical organization. All the while, the coordinator of the partner organization just won’t send them the revised budget!

Aid workers all have times when we might be inclined to say, “Well, sh*%, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the funding. If you can’t make it to your workshop on time, then maybe you don’t really care about X.” But those are our standards and our assessments, making us eager to convict. We don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart or on their plates. We don’t know their worries and demands. We don’t know what barriers another person (or another organization) faces.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues in working with local groups. There are. The Community Development Resource Association in South Africa writes, “Corporate agencies hold that traditional NGOs or emergent grassroots organizations are disorganized, ineffective and sloppy in the delivery of infrastructural and technical resources. While there may be some truth to this, corporate agencies, on the other end of the scale, are inclined to plan projects in advance and then use token ‘community participation’ to implement them.” Ramesh Singh’s latest post on the Harvard Center’s Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain, Living Unhappily Ever After: Southern NGOs and Northern NGOs, on the Keystone NGO partner survey demonstrates just how tenuous these relationships can be.

Still, the inter-dependence between local organizations and larger aid agencies is not going away. If aid workers accept that their work is to create a friendly, open, affirming climate where real listening and dialogue can occur among partners, how do we help people to enhance their relational capacities in order to engage with each other fruitfully? How do we build the capacity of donors, as well as local partners? How can we alter the frameworks we use to identify and celebrate incremental, yet not insignificant small changes? How do we more fully develop the necessary compassion and empathic skills?

How do we exemplify excellence in working with grassroots partners?

The presumption of intelligence and morality must come first.


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Small is Beautiful…Grants, That Is (Part 1)

The Carpenters and the Rude Man

Listening to People on the Receiving End of Aid

Changing the aid system: 5 more ideas from the inside


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  3. Thanks for this post Jennifer and for your caring and sensitive understanding not just of grassroots NGO’s but also of human nature. The BARKA Foundation is a grasroots NGO, admittedly with far less capacity than we’d have if we were fully funded. The ‘nno money’ part of the tweet we can understand, but ‘no brains’? Frankly we see the hope for international development and a sustainable future coming from the innovation and creativity of local, grassroots change agents such as NGOs which are the target of this twitterer’s frustration. Egypt’s revolution was spurred by local youth groups and women’s labor unions- they might not have had money, but they had brains and a whole lot more…

  4. Hi! Thank you SO much for this! MAN this has been one of my pet issues for many years! The point of development is not to get a bunch of ‘checks’ next to the planned LFA (that was mainly done for donor purposes), but it’s a process in building relationships! The grassroots that I have worked with have been excellent in seeing development as a process rather than a large checkbox… but many aid workers (sorry sorry sorry for the generalisation) seem to misunderstand this, and project their own ambitions and understanding of what development ‘should’ look like unto grassroots… the cool thing is: most of the grassroots I have worked with in Kenya seem to find a way to maneuver in all this frenzy and still continue their good work… in my experience!

  5. I recently experienced this phenomenon eventhough ours is a very small organization and working with local partners is not easy. We tried last year and continued into 2012 the strategy of working along with our implementing partners i.e. our program officer will visit their office several times helping them create themselves necessary documentation from conception of the project to submitting the final reports, brainstorming, sitting in their shoes, to come out of their predicaments etc.
    This helped us counter the delays and misunderstandings which we were facing during the previous decade.

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