The Case of the Missing Tomato Cages

Updated 5/14/13 for the 2013 Grandmother Power Blogging Campaign.


When planting her garden last spring, my grandmother, posted this on her Facebook page. (Yep, I have a pretty hip grandma.) She still lives in my Nebraska hometown of less than 300 people.

I’ve often said that it was easier for me to move to rural Zimbabwe than to Detroit. When people ask me why this farm-girl-turned-aid-worker devoted myself to placing community-driven development initiatives at the forefront of international aid, this is why.

Word got out, spread, and the situation was quickly resolved (within 12 hours). Whether the culprit chose to return the tomato cages by their own accord, or someone else’s urging – does it matter? What matters is that we live in a world where this is possible.

What people involved in international assistance often miss is that effective community leaders and nimble grassroots organizations know best how to operate in environments that contain and cultivate strong incentives and mechanisms for person-to-person responsibility and mutual trust. When organizations are embedded in the communities they serve, their expertise lies in knowing just how the tomato cages get back to Lillian.

In the aid context, there is an increasing number of skilled intermediary funders adept at partnering with local groups that demonstrate solid evidence of strong community ownership within their organizational systems. These intermediaries’ experience shows that when downward accountability is present, theft and corruption are a rare occurrence at the community level.

So when I hear aid workers say, “there’s too much corruption at the local level” or “grassroots organizations will just abscond with the money”, I wish they knew more about what I learned from my grandma growing up, that is, how the tomato cages came back home.


To read more about how “daily, organic systems of ‘horizontal’ assistance actually function,” I highly recommend reading: Wilkinson-Maposa, S. & Fowler, A. (2009). The poor philanthropist I-IV: How and why the poor help each other. Cape Town: Southern Africa-United States Center for Leadership and Public Values.


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