Motherhood, participatory approaches and apple pie.

I’m on the board of an organization that is in the midst of some soul searching about its role in natural resource management, land rights, landscape approaches, and community-based conservation.  These are things that we believe in and fields of endeavor where we think we have something to offer.  However, we also believe firmly that our activities should be participatory and community driven.  And let me be clear here:  our understanding of what constitutes participation goes far beyond mere involvement or interaction; a participatory process is one that the participants control and own.  We believe that community-level processes should be led by those local communities.  For processes that extend beyond a single community, such as in landscape approaches that bring together multiple communities as well as other stakeholders, we believe that the process should be driven by the stakeholders involved, not by outside organizations.  Although the term is inadequate, for simplicity let me call this principle community-driven development.

Commitment to the principle of community-driven development has created a bit of a conundrum for us as an international organization.  In the international development and global conservation communities, participatory approaches and community-driven development are a bit like motherhood and apple pie—almost everyone professes to believe in them.  They are “motherhood” principles because they seem so obviously important.  And because they are so obvious, it becomes easy to profess agreement and then forget about them; something that we treat as an aspiration, but which we cannot always live up to when “reality” sets in.  The problem is that the forces which push organizations to set aside or even undermine genuinely community-driven processes from taking root are powerful, sometimes subtle, and generally relentless.  If your commitment to community-driven development is serious, and if you’re honest with yourself, then there is a serious question to be asked about what kind role an external organization should play.… the forces which push organizations to set aside or even undermine genuinely community-driven processes from taking root are powerful, sometimes subtle, and generally relentless. Click To Tweet

One factor that leads well-intentioned external change agents to undermine community-driven development is the temptation to move a process along.  When the change agent is an organization from outside of the community—whether an NGO, a government agency, or an international organization—and particularly in situations where local capacity is weak or local resources are few and the outside organization is reasonably well-funded and is staffed with well-educated people, the temptation to push processes along and to make things happen is great.  The timelines and reporting requirements of funding agencies often strengthen this incentive.  And so you find yourself doing things that your community partners could do but haven’t:  tasks such as calling meetings, recordkeeping, and reaching out and making connections with other stakeholders.  Sometimes, the local people involved are too busy juggling different demands on their time to do these tasks for themselves.  At times, they may lack the confidence.  Perhaps they don’t see the importance, or perhaps they feel no need to do it if they know that you’ll do it for them.  And many of the delays and small problems that arise can be remedied with the tactical application of a bit of your budget, so why not?

It seems to me that when you fall into this temptation, you’re not building capacity, you’re building dependency, and that there is not much of a middle ground between these two options.  Complex social processes do not stand still, nor do people’s feeling of ownership over them.  That sense of ownership is either growing or declining.  I believe this means that if, as an outside organization, your commitment to community-driven development is firm, then if you have any role to play at all, from the moment you begin your intervention you should be working to phase yourself out.


How to undermine bottom-up processes

I once worked in the secretariat of a network of local NGOs.  Staff and volunteers from a handful of NGOs in the region had expressed the need for better communication and coordination, for pooling of experiences and resources, and for the creation of a formal network.  An international organization active in the region thought this was an excellent idea and so stepped in with funding and helped to launch the network, including providing funding to establish a professional secretariat to serve the member organizations.  This was not an idea that was cooked up elsewhere and parachuted down to beneficiaries; there was homegrown interest from the beginning.  Then, however, with the presence of a professional secretariat staff with a bit of budget, activities went into high gear and sped far ahead of the membership.  Little by little—and to different degrees for different people—staff and volunteers from the network’s member organizations began to see the secretariat as equivalent to the network.  Many of them spoke of the network in the third person:  “You should do this”, rather than “We should do this.”  It had a reasonably good start, but then because we in the secretariat were able to push projects and processes along, we created dependency as much as we created capacity.  By the time we recognized what was happening, we faced an uphill battle to reverse the dynamic.

If this kind of danger is present even when the initial idea is homegrown, know that it is far worse when it comes from an outside agency.  And unfortunately, such circumstances in which a well-resourced organization from outside is the initiator and pushes a development process along, inadvertently undermining ownership by local communities and other stakeholders, is as common in projects for community-based and multi-stakeholder approaches for natural resource management as it is in other sectors.

Whatever system, process, organization or forum a project intends to create or strengthen, it is important that it be clear from the outset whose system, process, organization or forum it is meant to be.  If as an outside organization you see your role as that of facilitating, building capacity, instigating, or catalyzing—but not implementing or driving development—if, in other words, you are committed to community-driven development, then you need to guard against taking on tasks and responsibilities that should be left for your local partners.  Otherwise, you’ll face an uphill battle to build that sense of ownership.


The only real development is development that is community-driven

However, for the organization I mentioned whose board of directors I serve on, this commitment is deeper than simply believing that community-driven development is more effective in the long run.  For us, development is all about building capacity for people to take control of their own future.  Development is not a process of delivering livelihoods, health, shelter or sustainably managed ecosystems to people; it is a process of people building their capacity to set their own direction.  It is a process whose energy comes from stirrings at the grassroots.  For us, if it is not community-driven, it is not development.

In this perspective, it is not a given that external organizations should have a major role to play in local processes.  You can see why as an organization, as we came to the conclusion that community-driven development is central to what we believe, we were forced to re-examine our mission and our understanding of our role.  If development is all about these stirrings at the grassroots and people taking charge of their own futures, then it is not out of place to ask why outside organizations should get involved at all.  This perspective, by definition, implies that the role of external organizations, if they are to have any role at all, should decline over time, or at least shift to different kinds of task and objectives as local communities and organizations develop their capacity.


What it means in practice

This has implications.

Slow down.  Don’t push a community process to move at your pace.  If your funding agency insists on its timelines rather than the community’s, walk away.

Step back.  Never take on tasks that the local stakeholders can do for themselves.  And if turns out for some task or other that they don’t get it done, then perhaps that’s because the task isn’t as important for them as you think it should be.  That’s okay.  Since the process is to be community-driven, there’s no benefit of you taking over such things.

This does not mean development is only about grassroots processes happening from the bottom up.  The challenges we face in the world today are local, national, regional and global.  The embracing of interconnectedness that I’ve advocated before implies that we should be aiming for the creation of genuine community—yes at the local level, driven by local people themselves—but beyond that as well.  To sum up, if your commitment to community-driven development is firm, then as an organization from outside, your role in local development processes should be limited to three things:  building capacity, overcoming inequity, and most importantly, linking empowered local communities to landscape, national, and global allies, and helping to foster creative institutional ecosystems and a vibrant global community.


P.S.:  The organization that I refer to above which is asking itself questions about community-driven development is Equitable Earth Initiative.  We’re still wrestling with these issues, and will certainly continue to do so, but if you’re interested to hear what we’ve come up with some far, a brief statement of our philosophy can be found here.