Dear do-gooders of all shapes, sizes, creeds, and levels of “experience” (that means you too, professional aid workers),
Whatever you are doing to make a difference in someone else’s life in the Global South, take a moment and:
Think of the group of grandmothers gathered under the tree to plan for how they will get vulnerable children back into school. Think of a cohort of small villages organized to lobby for protection of a local forest they depend on for hunting. Think of a self-help group that forms a cooperative to get better prices for their crops.
Local initiatives, grassroots organizations, and small, often “informal” movements are still considered the lowest common denominator of international assistance, often ignored and under-resourced within aid and philanthropy. We do-gooders still fail to realize that many people are already organized and doing something about [insert here whatever issue you are concerned about] in their communities. There is a third sector kicking, though struggling, in most places. Leaders at the local level exist…everywhere:
[Local indigenous organizations] are defined as voluntary associations of community members that reflect the interests of a broader constituency. They grow out of the concern of a few motivated individuals who work together in direct response to needs within the local community, rather than being externally catalyzed. They spring from a sense of obligation to care for those in need, in a context characterized by inadequate or non-existent public services in resource-poor settings. [In most cases, these groups “pre-date” any formal funding opportunities.] Most importantly, local indigenous organizations are embedded in the communities they serve and are therefore well suited to assess and respond to local needs on a long-term basis, contributing to sustainable community services, development, and rights-based work.” (Lentfer & Yachkaschi, 2009).
And here’s why that matters:
1) Local indigenous organizations are well placed to provide the elusive “scale-up.”
The web of small, local indigenous organizations, still largely undocumented around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses that even the most comprehensive donor-controlled, government-endorsed, project-based funding may not be able to accomplish. Yes, we can debate the number of community groups around the world (millions!) and their taxonomy (sure, all are not equal). But just imagine what could be possible…
2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger organizations just don’t have.
While grassroots groups may lack the formal accountability mechanisms that Western-educated folks would expect, they have a range of capacities and competencies – such as their responsiveness to communities’ needs, astute resourcefulness in mobilizing local resources, mutual accountability, and flexibility. Effective local organizations are able to respond to families’ and communities’ varied, immediate and long-term needs on a case-by-case, often 24-hour-a-day basis, making their work authentically holistic.
3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.
People in marginalized communities systemically mobilize resources through a system of self-help and mutual assistance. Local groups’ rootedness in the communities they serve, characterized by day-to-day interaction and connection with their constituency, results in a deep knowledge about these local relationships and coping mechanisms, which may never be fully understood even through the most comprehensive needs assessment or baseline study.
4) Local indigenous organizations are better positioned to make communities stronger.
While aid agencies, foundations, and development practitioners continue to struggle to make such concepts as “community engagement” and “local empowerment” real, grassroots groups can provide an environment where “the love that is necessary for an individual to undergo healing, growth, and development” can occur. Most importantly, because of the reciprocity often found in their programs, local groups’ staff and volunteers often have a higher personal stake in the success of their efforts.
5) Local indigenous organizations fill existing gaps in the government and international aid sectors.
I worked in children and HIV programming in southern Africa for over a decade. While many of the 300+ grassroots organizations I worked with were linked to local churches, schools, or clinics, they were, by and large, organized around one purpose—to fill the gap for children and families not being helped otherwise. Despite all of the challenges in working in a low-resource setting, local leaders’ commitment and groups’ persistence could be the basis of true sustainability. In my experience, they exist in order to be there for kids, whether outside funding is available or not.
So how does our work and our roles change if our first responsibility is to do justice to the vast and vital efforts of visionary leaders in the Global South, who are this very day working to change their neighborhoods and their nations? What if we can get more resources to the organizations that are grown from the inside and fueled by the dedication and vision of the very people they serve? What if those resources enabled them to address their own priorities, not ours?
I’m often in conversations with those who are quick to disparage grassroots organizations, espousing the ever-pejorative myth of “no capacity” perpetuated in the development discourse. In my response, I certainly don’t immediately question the racist, imperialist roots of this myth, nor do I deny the existence of briefcase NGOs (a phenomenon that highlights the aid sector’s weaknesses rather than any sweeping trend). Nor am I naïve enough to argue that supporting local organizations should replace policy efforts, economic reforms, or the programs targeted at other high-level stakeholders still needed to bring about change at national and international levels.
But what is the relative “risk” of small amounts of money not being perfectly accounted for compared to the waste within the aid system? Think about each layer taking its cut before funds ever reach the ground. Also, what about the local initiatives that are co-opted, overpowered, or even quashed by our do-gooder efforts? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about this?
There are great examples of donors and funders willing to offer and build alternatives to “business as usual,” making room for sovereign grassroots organizations to control their own resources and demonstrate self-defined success. In fact, I co-edited a book about it.
So what if our first assumption was this?
People, even under the direst of circumstances, can and do pull together.
And it’s our job to get behind them.