The Marginalization of CBOs by Development Actors: A Perspective from Zimbabwe

Samuel Maruta of the Southern Institute of Peace-building and Development (SIPD) from Ruwa, Zimbabwe has conducted research about the role of community-based organizations (CBOs) in community development and the nature of their operating environment. He points to the need for a paradigm shift among development actors in favor of CBOs, and for CBOs to build their capacities in critical areas of leadership and management.

For the purposes of his study, Maruta describes CBOs as such,

“At their point of formation, CBOs are usually a spontaneous reaction by a group of residents to a particular adverse situation or opportunity in the community and its environment. The core group of its founders are usually an affinity group of relatively long association. As such, it is largely informal, with decisions made on the go. Responsibilities are shared on an ad hoc basis without any formal system of appointment to positions. What binds the group is the spirit of togetherness and what drives its work is the shared interest in its success. As a result [most of] the work is carried out on a voluntary basis.”

The selection below is taken from the SIPD’s occasional paper, which was published last year. To receive a full copy of the paper, please contact SIPD at:


Within the last twelve months to two years, talk about the importance of community-based organisations (CBOs) has assumed some currency in development circles in Zimbabwe. In the last ten years, partly due to the prevailing socio-economic challenges and increasing donor fatigue, some donor organisations began experimenting working with CBOs. This was due to the perception that they provide a more direct route to their target beneficiaries at the grassroots. At the same time local NGOs began emphasising working with and through CBOs as part of their core strategy. These developments seemed to indicate an enhanced place for CBOs in development in general, but especially in community development.

CBOs as “foot soldiers”

Central and local government, private sector companies, and civil society formations each play a necessary and very important role in community development, both in its own right but also in association with the others. And that in this interaction, CBOs feature prominently. They are the foot soldiers, the wheels on which all community development work rolls. This is perhaps why Ninnette Eliasov (in Magadla 2008), speaking of South Africa, said that they are “the core of community development.” Unfortunately, they are to community development what fresh air is to life – taken for granted under normal circumstances, only to be noticed when they are not there.

Illustration from “The Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change” See:

Statements from the field research underscore the centrality of CBOs in community development in Zimbabwe. One of the respondents to this research who works for a large regional development organisation with extensive operations in Zimbabwe said: “CBOs are critical for grassroots mobilisation and coordination of beneficiaries…They save you time when you are on the ground.” Another said: “They are the interface of the network, its membership and the general public and communities they operate in.” And yet another said CBOs “undertake relevant research and utilize research findings to improve the quality of services; they are the backbone of the organisation’s strategic plan.”

NGOs and CBOs: Subconscious collusion?

Magadla (2008) laments that “in some instances it’s the CBOs that do the work [that] the NGOs receive funding for, yet are generally undervalued and unrecognised for their contribution to development by other role-players.” There is a possibility of some sub-conscious collusion to this effect between the CBOs and these other players. On one hand, the NGO might overlook the need to treat the CBO separate from the rest of the community and therefore fail to compensate it for its services. On the other hand the CBO, being only vaguely aware of its rights in this relationship, does nothing about it. In some instances, however, one would be hard pressed to rule out the possibility of deliberate exploitation of the one by the other. The net effect therefore is that the CBO does not take ownership of the project, regarding it as the work of the NGO. The NGO in turn assumes that the CBO owns the project and is therefore expected to ensure its sustainability.

NGOs are sometimes not very comfortable with how CBOs relate to them. For many people in the communities, NGOs are organisations with a lot of money to spend on whoever lays the best claim to it. For them the NGO is not the legal entity that the organisation is, but the people they see criss-crossing their communities and villages in their immaculate high rider vehicles. This picture explains, at least to some extent, how some members of the communities respond to NGOs—they want to take advantage of their position in the community to claim their share of the money. In relation to this scenario, one of the respondents said:

“…CBOs are prone to domination by a few individuals who remain beneficiaries on all programmes that come to the community; even on exposure visits you find the same individual attending all trips. CBOs usually want to attend each and every training that comes to the community.”

Perhaps it is because of the image that the NGOs portray to the communities [a deficit model in which a community is a collection of people with endless problems whose solution depends only on intervention by outsiders] that members of CBOs exhibit these tendencies. Or perhaps it is because the ownership of the project belongs to the NGO, while the CBO’s role in it is instrumental, yet “unrecognised and unrespected.” In the latter case, the leaders of the CBOs see direct participation in all activities as the only form of return for the time and effort they invest in the project.

CBOs: “Where’s the money?”

While the mainstay of CBO funding is the volunteerism of its members, membership fees and occasional ad hoc levies, many of them have in recent years taken to looking for external funding for some of their projects. Among their potential sources of funding are local private sector companies, local authorities, central government departments, parent NGOs and donor organisations. However the chances of success with local authorities, central government, and private sector companies are next to nothing in Zimbabwe today, not least because of the general economic challenges currently facing the country. Giving to charity is not yet part of the culture in Zimbabwe. And parent NGOs are not a good bet either.

For their part, donor organisations are generally unwilling to give money directly to CBOs. One of the reasons often cited is the institutional incapacity of the CBOs to handle the money and the complex transactions that go with the funding requirements of the donors. As Magadla (2008) says, donor “funding [is] usually accessible only to organisations able to produce fancy proposals, that [are] registered, long-established, and experienced in dealing with large sums of money.” While these requirements are relative and should not be barriers per se, in practice they automatically exclude most CBOs. Magadla (2008) goes on to say, “It is harder for donors to fund a large number of small organisations than a small number of large organisations. So, to reduce their own workload, they tend to fund larger organizations, which sometimes then pass on funding to smaller organisations.” Thus not having enough capacity to handle CBOs, donor organisations “wholesale” their funding to NGOs hoping that they in turn would “retail” it to the communities and CBOs.

Going directly to communities: we need to know more

Some donor organisations have now realised the ineffectiveness of this wholesaling approach. That while they fund NGOs on the basis of proposals professing intentions to carry out interventions at the community level, the amount of trickle down is usually far smaller than they had hoped for. As a result they have begun to explore the possibility of by-passing the intermediary NGOs and going directly to the communities themselves. How widespread this practice is and what difference it is making in terms of project implementation and impact would make an important subject of further research.

It is important, if not imperative, for the equitable and sustainable development of Zimbabwe that CBOs be given the space and be strengthened to play a central role in community development.  For only strong CBOs make for strong communities, which are the building blocks for a strong Zimbabwe.


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  1. Very interesting and, sadly, accords with my experience. I worked for CBOs and wondered how any of them ever managed to get money, especially when they had to compete with NGOs.

    Now I work for an NGO, where it’s hard enough to get money. But I see CBOs have almost no chance. And NGOs haven’t really found a good way of sharing; they have their own costs to deal with and they don’t really trust CBOs.

    But many CBOs have already carried out work for which they should be compensated, or at least, given the means to continue and scale up. Whether they have the capacity or not to work like NGOs, many should already be entitled to funding.

    After all, NGOs write proposals with the promise that they will administrate the money well, but often with no precedent showing that they will, unlike many CBOs.

    Much though I’d like to go back to working with CBOs, I can’t afford to work for free and pay all my own costs any longer. So only NGOs will be able to offer me and people like me the conditions we need, whether that includes a salary/stipend or not.

    I look forward to reading your proposed solutions to this difficult problem!

  2. Its a fact that CBOs despite being the link between the donor entities and the local communities have often than not been either used only by the donors for public relation, a quick source perceived community participation and a tool for fundraising. It is also a common factor that while the reason for establishing CBOs is to address issues affecting communities, they end up becoming cash cows for the founders and further alienating the communities the people they purport to represent. It is a common phenomenon to see the same NGOs funding certain CBOs over long periods of time and where opportunities for workshops, trainings and conferences, certain individuals become perpetual participants at the expense of the general community. Marginalization by NGOs is evident at all levels but CBOs have also become perpetrators of marginalization within the communities the serve.

  3. @Simon – I advocate for far-reaching and responsive small grant mechanisms that will support wider numbers of effective local indigenous organizations to assist communities to become more adaptive and resilient, and building civil society in the process. (See related post here:
    People, under the direst of circumstances, can and do pull together. My hope is that the relief and development aid sector can recognize this.
    @Ben The problem persists because local civil society organizations are currently the lowest common denominator of international development assistance. I hope the post will inspire some self-reflection among donors and NGOs about the need to identify and work with (rather than “create”) strong, if not “capacitated”, CBOs that are genuinely embedded in and responsive to the communities they serve. There are many out there. My hope is that the relief and development aid sector can also recognize this.

  4. Thanks Jennifer, advocating for small grants is a good idea. However, working with a CBO is hard, time-consuming work and I don’t think it’s something NGOs and grant giving institutions wish to do to any great extent. Besides, it could increase their administrative costs, which would do little for their street-cred in the development industry!

    I agree with Ben’s point but I think CBOs have been created in the image of NGOs, money making ventures. That may not be the intention of NGOs (to be money making ventures) but that’s how they are seen, sometimes rightly so.

    Anyhow, there are good CBOs doing good work, but expecting this to happen spontaneously as and when required is a pipe dream, they need funding, support, encouragement. If they are going to be the future they need to be made the future, wishing for it won’t make it so.

    Time for grant givers and NGOs to do some rethinking (assuming they have already done some thinking).

  5. For small NGOs, working with CBOs can be rewarding and effective. CBOs are the link to the community (and actually IS the community) that can implement the aid projects with our support. I have not found working with CBOs any more time-consuming than other grant recipient. In fact, they are usually organized and prepared to implement projects, reducing our travel overhead. Since we don’t send people from the USA to Africa to start programs, we rely on CBOs to be organized and connected in the community. Also, CBOs can take a small grant and use the money more efficiently than an outsider coming in to do the same work.

  6. In the Philippines,the existence of NGO, foundations and CBOs, more commonly known as people’s organization and cooperatives, are often distiguished by their accrediting agencies that are mandated under Philippine Laws. NGOs and foundations are normally registered with the Securities of Exchange Commission; cooperatives are registered with the Cooperative Develeopment Authority and POs usually are accredited with either the SEC or with the Department of Labor and Employment. For CBOs and NGOs to be able to operate in the communities they need to have business permits with the Local Government Units and get their business name (of organization)from the Department of Trade and Industry. For them to participate in the government sponsored programs on health, education and so on, they need be accredited by the LGUs (municipal/provincial)in whose program they intend to participate. With their registration and accreditation, they become member of the Special Bodies of local government – the Provincial or Municipal or Barangay Development Commitee which under the Local Government Code is supposed to deliberate and approve development projects of the local government.

    This system of NGO and CBOs participation in rural development program are also being subscribed to by funding agencies, either multilateral or bilateral aid programs. Funding agencies, especially the church or faith-based outfits which used to fund community projects regardless of these registration and accreditation system, have also required their NGO/CBO to undergo these process.

    This system has been very difficult for CBO to fulfill. And this is the are where NGOs are helpful to CBOs.

    Once this hurdle is crossed, the capability building and institutional development that are often required for CBOs to handle projects on their own are also the field of expertise among NGOs. In this phase NGOs either serve as guide, or coach or mentor.
    In these phases of relationship there should not a room for marginalization of CBOs – especially if the project implementation has milestones and deliverables and outcomes demanded by donor agencies.

    What our organiztion does is partnership building based on specific program and projects as a norm of mutual reciprocity among NGO,CBO, LGU and donor agencies.

    My apprehension is foreign NGOs are setting up directly their field operations in localities with their big budgets that incresing skewed local NGOs. What I hear is that in effect, these NGOs are “invicibly’ promoting dependency than empowerment. Between foreign NGOs administrative budgets and those of the local is a huge gap from which a number of CBO projects could still be funded.

  7. @Ed – Thanks for highlighting as well the large discrepancy between the resources that are mobilized or acquired by donors, governments and international organizations for global development, and what percentage of the money actually reaches communities and local leaders and activists. We can always talk about more money, but unfortunately, until the aid delivery system changes to meet their needs, local groups will be competing for often scarce and ineffective resources.

    Some of the larger international and country-level NGOs working out of a rights-based approach have begun to recognise the importance of supporting locally-based organizations. Despite this, however, we continue to witness Southern organisations or “partners” being assessed and rebuilt into more professional organisations that lose their character and connection to their constituency, eventually representing only the interests of the community that align with donor guidelines.

    This requires that NGOs pay more attention to the concept of organisation itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organisations and social movements. “The Barefoot Guide to working with organizations and social change” is a great resource to enhance development practitioners’ capacity building approaches. You can read more at:

  8. Samuel Maruta

    Interesting debate. Just to add that the term ‘CBO’ tends to conjure up negative connotations in the minds of many development practitioners and organisations. For example that the people involved are un/less/poorly educated. I assure you that most of the time this is not the case, at least in Zimbabwe. Most of these people are as well educated as those in NGOs. So the main challenge facing CBOs is more a lack of material resources than of intellectual capital.

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  12. Fidelis Chasukwa Mgowa

    It is a high time the role of CB0s has been recognised. NG0s should learn to embrace and strenthen the CB0s other than competing for resources in country. Why do lions want to graze where there is a rabbit?

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