Change through Collective Action — A Model for Community-led Development from Uganda

By John Mwebe

It is a long winding path leading to Masiwe village, 20 kilometers outside of Mbale town. The route is hilly and rocky and can only be accessed by motorbikes. In two different sections, my motorbike could not go uphill because the slope was too steep and slippery. I walked instead. In Masiwe, homesteads are scattered but a few trading centers are close to the main road. I recalled the words of Esther Nambaafu, Program Manager from Spark Microgrants, who explained why they work in villages like Masiwe, “We look out for hard to reach areas whose communities have not had any contact with organizations and with limited government service provision. These are the communities that we work with.”

This was my introduction to Spark Microgrants, an organization that works with communities to drive their own change. Interventions by Spark Microgrants facilitate poor communities to build infrastructure for civic engagement and promote inclusive participation of all community members so they may take collective local actions that create change in their region.

At 10:00 am, community members gathered and developed an agenda for the day’s meeting. This is the routine for communities working with Spark Microgrants. Community members utilize two hours each week to meet and discuss their project. Discussions are moderated by Spark Microgrants staff who offer guidance, but do not participate in making decisions.

To understand why communities participate in this process, I talked to Fred Onyango, a Program Officer with Spark Microgrants “We follow a Facilitated Collective Action Process where we engage communities in determining their development agenda through providing six months of management support and two years of follow-up support. In this entire process, we emphasize community ownership of these projects. Communities do this is by offering their time to meet for two hours every week without any payment for meals or transport. Communities on the other hand agreed to use the same day to hold meetings for their Savings and Credit Groups”

John Mwebe interviewing Mr. Ginoni Amidu, the Chairman, Masiwe Namuzezembi Saving Group in Masiwe Village

Indeed, the communities that I had visited had already selected different projects for implementation and could clearly articulate why they chose one project over another. In Masiwe, communities agreed on a vegetable growing project whereas communities in Makuyu village chose growing food crops instead, like Irish potatoes, maize and beans.

In Kigunga village, I observed a meeting where the community had to choose one out of three proposed community-led projects involving horticulture, cattle rearing and a village savings fund. At the conclusion of this process, Spark Microgrants would offer of a start-up grant of up to US $10,000 to support the project. It was interesting for me to listen to communities articulate how the accrued benefits of one project could support the development of other projects.

Mr. Akabu Namagoye, a community member in support of cattle rearing shared his opinion; “The milk from the cow is sold which earns the family an income, while part of it is left for home consumption improving nutrition in the household. The income received enhances the individual’s ability to save with the village saving and credit scheme while the cow dung from the animals is used as manure when growing horticultural crops.

Aidah Namono, a resident of the same village argued, “Horticulture is the most viable option. It earns farmers an income to buy cows for rearing and to save as well. This is unlike cattle rearing which requires much land that community members don’t possess.”

Community meeting in Kigunga. Community members decide to rebuild the home of a fellow resident.

As I talked to communities going through this process, I noticed a great sense of community cohesion and ownership over the project; two elements which are vital for its sustainability. Women held leadership positions, particularly in Kigunga where they outnumbered men in the Community Savings and Credit group. Some group leaders used their organizing skills to be voted into leadership positions within their local governments, which in turn has improved the community’s access to lobby government for services.

My most treasured memory from the visit happened when the community came together to build a new house for an elderly woman whose home had broken down. Indeed when I asked about how they would react to a harmful project, community members responded that they would help affected persons rebuild their homes where they have been resettled and provide loans from their scheme to start businesses. Throughout, I sensed the community would make the most of their strengths and capacity to steer their own development.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.