Sorry but it’s not YOUR project

(Whispering.) “Psst, excuse me, but actually it’s not ‘your’ program. And if you think that it is, we may have a problem on our hands.”

Many would argue that who owns what in development is a key aspect, if not the aspect, to a project’s or program’s success.

And so a person’s choice word choice when describing their work or do-gooder endeavor can actually reveal quite a lot.

Some may think I’m just being fussy about semantics. They’ll argue that that well done is more important than well said. They’ll point to the fact that international assistance is constantly riddled with phrases and jargon that are eventually forgotten or rendered meaningless. But it’s deeper than that and I’m not talking nouns and acronyms.

I’m talking about possessive adjectives. MINE – YOURS – ITS – HERS – HIS – OURS – THEIRS – WHOSE.

Let’s be honest. How many of you, when talking to a friend, another NGO colleague, or donor refers to “our program” in [insert Country X or District Y or Village Z]?

But let me ask you something – Do you live in Country X or District Y or Village Z?

If you don’t, that should be your first clue that “my project” or “our program” is not the phrase for you to use. Here’s some others.

When people from your community are knocking on your door for help and you are working day and night to help fulfill their self-identified needs, then yes, by all means, lay your claim.

When you are coming up with the ideas and steps forward, based on a collective process to generate solutions to shared problems with your neighbors’ and fellow community members, then yes, “our project” is appropriate.

When you are implementing a project and it’s not just a job or a hobby, it is a matter of life and personal responsibility to people you face every day, go ahead, “our project” can be yours.

When you can identify with the people you’re serving to such an extent that you feel an obligation to be directly accountable to them in a tangible rather than an abstract way, the program is truly “yours.”

Essentially, unless you’re on the ground, doing the work with and on behalf of your own community on a daily basis, I believe a program cannot and should not ever be considered “yours,” grammatically or otherwise. Without this awareness, “our project” can be dismissive and disrespectful to local activists and grassroots leaders.

Every aid worker probably has their own bugaboos. (See posts by Alanna Shaikh and Daniela Papi on theirs.) These come and go as the aid lexicon shifts and changes with the latest development trend. There was a time near the turn of this century when I felt as if I had to discuss the definition of CABA (children affected by AIDS) then later OVC (orphans and vulnerable children) in one more stakeholder meeting, I would literally pitch a fit like a three-year-old.

But this “our project” issue for me has never left. When I was with [insert US-based, corporate aid agency here], though we claimed to work in partnership with local implementing organizations, all the programs were conceived of and spoken of as “ours.” This always struck me as extremely hypocritical, and frankly counter-productive to sound and proven principles of assets-based, community-driven development.

What made them our programs? The fact that we wrote the proposals? (Eh hum, in consultation with our partners of course.) Or were they our programs because, through our funding of local partners, we ultimately controlled how each cent was spent? Or because we were supposedly the ones who had to be accountable to USAID?

How is community ownership even possible under such circumstances? Local partners and communities didn’t have a chance to make the projects theirs. If a project is considered to be someone else’s, and your sense of agency and autonomy are clearly not on their radar, why would you even bother?

Similarly, I hear “our project” used just as egregiously by the DIY aid and social enterprise folks. How many times have I had to endure hearing all about “our project” from the do-gooder newly returned from Kenya at a cocktail party? As I nod and listen, I’m silently thinking to myself that the fact that this project is “yours,” will more than likely contribute to its downfall.

In the Keystone INGO Partner Survey 2010, an initiative to measure the performance of northern NGOs, local organizations sent a clear message. They do not want to be treated as sub-contractors, carrying out international agencies’ projects and priorities. Rather they want help from aid agencies to become independent and influential organizations in their own right, enabling them to respond flexibly to local people’s needs.

When are we going to realize that participation is not just a nice-to-have in this work? Nor is it even enough.

To bring about real change, we need to be talking ownership.

And not our own.


See below a participation typology I’ve adapted and used and am sharing for further discussion on this issue. Reflections and comments are most welcome.


(Adapted from Hart, 1992 and Pretty, 1995.)

Self-mobilization: People participate by taking initiatives independent of any external institutions. Such self-initiated mobilization and collective action based on mutual obligations may challenge existing inequitable distributions of power.

Community-initiated, shared decisions: Community members have the initial ideas, set up the program/project, only coming to the NGO/CBO for advice, discussion and support.  The NGO/CBO does not direct, but offers their expertise to consider and may bring financial resources to bear.

NGO/CBO-initiated, shared decision with community: NGO/CBO has the initial idea for the program/project but the community is involved in every step of the planning and implementation through the formation of new local groups or the strengthening of existing ones.

Consulted and informed: The program/project is designed and run by NGO/CBO but community has understanding of the predetermined objectives related to the project. External agents define both problems and solutions, and may modify these in the light of people’s responses.

Informed and assigned: Community members are asked to contribute their time and say what they think about a program/project but have little or no influence about how the program/project is run. Such a consultative process does not concede any share in decision-making and outsiders are under no obligation to incorporate people’s views.

Extraction/Tokenism/Decoration: People participate by giving information to outsiders using questionnaire surveys or similar approaches. The information shared belongs only to external professionals and the findings of the research or project design are neither shared nor checked for accuracy. Community members may take part in an event, e.g. by singing, dancing or wearing T-shirts with logos, but they do not really understand the program/project. People have no stake in prolonging activities when the incentives end.

Manipulation: Community members do or say what NGO/CBO suggests they do but they have no real understanding of the program/project. People participate by being told what is going to happen or what has already happened.


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  1. Thanks for another well observed article – living and breathing the project and physically being near it and the community served are all key to success. Now consider ‘local organisation’. Big donors ask for local, indigenous but seem to accept an NGO of that country, in the capital and yet hundreds of miles and several levels of socio-economic scale away from the community to be served. Surely ‘local indigenous’ has similar criteria to ‘My Project’. thanks

  2. I agree!

    Another phrasing that springs to mind, popular among development consultants is, “so what we did is, is we WENT IN and HELPED THEM figure out how to….” etc etc.

    I believe most people in this field are well meaning, yet these conversations can sound so arrogant.

  3. “When are we going to realize that participation is not just a nice-to-have in this work?”
    Great analysis!

    Completely agree. The level of participation is directly linked to ownership & empowerment. I represented the ladder through a figure in my MSc research:
    (Ladder of participation based on Veneklasen and Miller classification, 2002)

  4. I really appreciated both this article and the participation ladder. Stemming from this, I was hoping to hear your insight on what language is appropriate when someone is indeed on the ground and part of the project design/implementation “in the field” (another interesting term in itself). Do you think it is then acceptable to refer to “our project”? “A project to which I contributed?” “A project of which I was a part?” Thanks again!

  5. @Roxanne – Though a bit unweildy, those phrases do make more sense to me because I actually don’t think shared ownership is even the goal in development. And frankly, those aid workers or do-gooders “in the field” can always go home. Instead we as outsiders need to get behind local initiatives, and express our solidarity with those we are serving through our awareness of the real factors that control project/program decision making, and who ultimately gets the recognition for successes and failures.

    Check out this post from the Community Life Competence online community: “So today I was imagining a non-branded development sector in Mali. No stickers on cars, still signs in the field, but with only the community logo, not the NGO logo. No more notebooks, pens, calendars, clocks with donor marketing. Only community-generated and community-owned branding. Communities can even develop their logo for this response! And gradually, we as NGOs become catalysers that gently, but firmly ignite local responses through facilitation of programs. Near the end of the program, we smoothly diminish the intensity of the support. We still accompany them, but they are now running the complete show. The communities wouldn’t even remember which NGO catalysed their great response or what the project timeline was. Wouldn’t that be real development? And with the millions of savings, we can support community branding!” See:

  6. Arif Khalil

    In ‘our’ work design with vulnerable children in remote areas ‘we’ have built the capacity of potential locals as community leaders of tomorrow ‘enabling’ them to modify ‘our’ program… the only supervision we do is to make them think globally while acting locally and that’s continuous awareness on development trends. They are taught how to bring beneficiaries’ voices into project design and implementation; how to remain focussed; and, how to think out of box? Although its not a short term solution, am I right to call it my project!?

  7. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jennifer. I notice I often say “our projects”, so I appreciated the self-check. However, I do believe that most of the projects I call “our projects” are community-initiated and mostly all we do is fund them.

    I am interested in how we think about a funding org’s relationship to the project. How can we talk about our connection with their work rather than ownership of the work? Can I call a project a, “community led, SIA-funded” project? There is some connection, so it’s just about finding the right words and tone.

  8. Dear Sir /Madam

    I will first of all, want to thank you for the good work you doing for humanity.
    I have founded an NGO called (DSDO) Duroon Social Development Organization.
    The organization mission is to bring lasting improvements to the quality of life of marginalized communities, specially women, children, youth and vulnerable groups through policy and practice interventions.
    Our Objective are following
    DSDO works the improvement of lives of marginalized communities both urban and in the remote areas. DSDO interventions are based on creating rebut linkages between man and nature to underscore this critical interdependency to ensure sustainable results. DSDO aims and objectives include the protection of the human resources through the following interventions:
    •Education both formal and informal
    •Health especially reproductive health, infectious diseases and HIV and AIDS etc.
    •Social mobilizations, Socio Economic Surveys & research
    •Poverty Alleviation
    •Human Development ( Vocational and Skill development)
    •Food distribution, Agriculture and livestock raising.
    •Environmental Protection, Water conservation & Sanitation
    •Strengthening of democracy, Human Rights, specially women and children with free legal aid service for poor and needy women.
    •Community Physical Infrastructure
    Our ongoing projects
    1= Public School Hub Balochistan
    2 =English Language Centre Hub Balochistan
    3 = Computer Centre Hub Balochistan
    4=Health Centre Jhaaoo Awaran Balochistan
    I hope you will also Co operate with me and reply me as soon as possible.
    Best Regards
    Mohammad Yousuf
    CEO (DSDO) Hub Distract Lasbela
    Balochistan. Ph# 0853-363082

  9. Anna

    Thanks for this post, and (in particular) for your response to #5 regarding branding – this is one discussion that I haven’t seen a lot of yet in the development bloggosphere. The prevalence of NGO logos (on signs, plaques, t-shirts, walls, pens, road-side stalls, etc etc) has always made me uncomfortable, though I realize that visibility and marketing are 1) important for funding, and 2) increasingly prioritized in the fuzzy grey area where development meets social entrepreneurship.

    Do you know where I might find more debate or information on this, in addition to the linked post?

  10. Thanks for an excellent post.

    I’d be interested in hearing your views on technical assistance and where it fits in on the “our/their” project scale. While the ownership of outcomes should surely belong to the country, the inputs belong to someone else and there must be responsibility and accountability for the stewardship of those inputs.

    Technical assistance projects can suffer from a double whammy of project design which discounts ownership (in the past even barely reflecting country ownership, let alone citizen and community ownership; I see that oil tanker gradually turning now that the principles of the Paris Declaration and Accra Accord are taking root) and the cross-cultural effectiveness, or lack thereof, of many deliverers of technical expertise.

  11. marcus catsam

    Thought provoking post, Jennifer, although I am a bit surprised by the conflation of local organizations/movements with local communities. There are plenty of examples of local, grassroots organizations that are no more or less connected to local communities than larger INGOs and that commit the same acts of “hubris” to which you refer (e.g., designing programs without community participation). Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but local organizations and local communities are not the same thing, and I think it is just as dangerous/irresponsible to assume they are and to assume that simply being from a place makes an organization’s program better or more effective, as your post implies. This is sometimes true; however nothing is quite this black and white. I also do think that there is something to be said for applying learning from one geographic location to the problems in another. We have learned, for example, that HIV can be prevented or that infant mortality can be reduced based on proven means. Should those be given up in favor of local means if those means are not backed by evidence? Local simply is NOT always better.

  12. @Marcus You are absolutely right in pointing out that not all local organizations are created alike and that we should not conflate local organizations with local communities. However, I maintain that local indigenous organizations that are embedded in the communities they serve are better suited to assess and respond to person-to-person needs on a long-term basis than larger agencies. See related post at:

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  14. I love your blog Jennifer, it’s thought-provoking but kind which is a rare combination. More awareness around power issues and dynamics could be cultivated at both personal and organisational level, this may help in the process of seeing whose project this is, and do without tokenistic gestures which tend to disempower people.

  15. I really appricate your discussion and the typology and ladder ,the trees are typicall expressing and the ladder shows that the objective is still far away .Thanks for drawing the attention of aid workers and NGOs to this issue of participation and ownership .We always use terms such as community “driven ” community participation/ownership as shallow words without thinking of the deep meaning from the prespective of the targeted people and it becomes the dillema of aid and development we are unable to apply terms to reallity and the targeted people still away from the scene a lot of funds and resources are wasted and nothing changed in reality,we can’t say 1+1 = 2 in development but ….

  16. kate roche

    This is really interesting – at the moment I am writing a paper for my human rights course on this very issue of ownership and participation. My research was based on interviews with INGOs and Irish Aid, the official government agency. At one of the interviews, the interviewee accused me phrasing questions that were a contradiction of terms. For example, when he was speaking about community based development, in my innocence I asked him how going into countries and making them aware of what they need for development works in practice. Of course, he responded by saying you don;t make people aware of what they need! often I think, due to the semanitics involved, speaking about development when you haven’t actually worked in a developing country is daunting. But I don’t think those starting out should be shut out of the debate beause of a lack of experience. What seems like arrogance is actually just a struggle to understand how 60 years later, Africa is still starving. rant over!

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