Photo courtesy of Thousand Currents:
Jennifer Lentfer
Apr 26, 2018 · 9 min read

In the global development discourse, we continue to miss a key piece.

Too many well-intentioned do-gooders fail to recognize that in the majority world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” that bridge character advocate Nicholas Kristof describes, are already organized and doing something about the issues facing them in their communities — though their initiatives are often ignored and profoundly under-resourced.

“Big aid” and those new to global engagement continue to overlook, and even discount, the group of grandmothers gathered to plan for how they will get drop-outs back into school, or a cohort of small villages organized to protect a local forest they depend on, or a self-help group that forms a cooperative to get better prices for their goods. Again and again, professional and amateur do-gooders alike mistakenly assume they have to “create” or “build” efforts from scratch.

A deeper understanding of the organizational dynamics of local, indigenous, community-based, community-led, grassroots groups or organizations (take your pick of descriptor!) that are directly serving and advocating for families is key to unleashing their potential.

I believe that larger-scale support of local initiatives and grassroots leadership is the revolution needed in the social good sector.

First, let me define local indigenous organizations to frame this discussion:

“[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. They come into existence to mobilize locally available human, material, and financial resources — ensuring that vulnerable individuals and families are supported to receive the services they require. [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 development and rights-based work.” (Lentfer & Yachkaschi, 2009).

Photo courtesy of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa:

So why should we re-orient international assistance to place these groups at its center?

1) Local indigenous organizations are well placed to provide the ever-elusive “scale-up.”

The web of small, local indigenous organizations, still largely undocumented and unrecognized 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.

At a country level, consider that according to a 2004 survey by the University of Kwazulu-Natal (Manji & Naidoo, 2005), there were at least 50,000 community-based organizations (CBOs) in the South African non-profit sector alone. Swilling & Russell (2002) further pointed out that CBOs constitute 53% of the non-profit sector in South Africa, which contradicts the dominant image that development services are mainly provided formal and professionally run non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Years ago, I read conservative estimates that they may well be over 4,000,000 local groups operating across the globe. (Anyone have new data on that by the way?)

2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger aid agencies just don’t have.

While local groups may lack the accountability mechanisms that would make them more recognizable among other development actors, local groups have a range of capacities and competencies such as their astute resourcefulness in mobilizing available resources (often non-financial), mutual accountability, flexibility, and responsiveness to communities’ needs.

There is an operating assumption in the development sector that the capacity of community-based organizations should be measured by the degree of formal structure of the organization. Donors continue to refer to the absorptive capacity needed to implement large-scale programs. However, what is not well understood about local indigenous organizations is that they 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.

Local groups’ responsiveness is an important capacity in their context, where a lack of prescribed procedures actually helps people to remain more adaptive and flexible to meet arising needs and inherent complexities at the community level.

This flexibility also enables local indigenous organizations to gain the legitimacy needed to more easily create and maintain trust and stature within their community than other development actors.

3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.

Outsiders can often be blind to how poor people and marginalized communities systemically mobilize resources through a system of self-help and mutual assistance, which Wilkinson-Maposa and Fowler (2009) coined as “horizontal philanthropy” or “philanthropy of community.” In Africa and elsewhere, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up quite resilient, but often informal coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, grain loan schemes, burial associations, and rotating credit and loan clubs (Lwihula & Over, 1995; Mutangadura et al, 2000).

Local groups’ rootedness in the communities they serve 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. Their day-to-day interaction and connection with their “constituency” allows for more access to those in need and more expertise about their social context than any other development actor.

4) Local indigenous organizations are better positioned to make communities more resilient and adaptive.

Campbell, et al (2007) illustrated six key strategies for facilitating the development of “community competence” in the context of HIV, which I think is relevant for development as a whole. These are: building knowledge and basic skills; creating social spaces for dialogue and critical thinking; promoting a sense of local ownership of the problem and incentives for action; emphasizing community strengths and resources; mobilizing existing formal and informal local networks; and building partnerships between marginalized communities and more powerful outside actors and agencies, locally, nationally and internationally.

While aid agencies and development practitioners continue to struggle to make such concepts as “community participation” and “local empowerment” real, effective local groups naturally embody such ideas by virtue of their rootedness, existing relationships, and proximity to those they serve. Robert L. Woodson, in his book The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today’s Community Healers are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods, describes grassroots organizations as providing an environment where “the love that is necessary for an individual to undergo healing, growth, and development” can occur. Also importantly, because of the reciprocity often found at the foundation of their programs, 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’s programming in southern Africa for over a decade during the height of the HIV pandemic there. What is undeniable to me in this time is that most families are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support to children in areas not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

While many of the 300+ grassroots organizations I’ve worked with in my career 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, this is what sustains local leaders’ commitment and groups’ persistence. In my experience, they existed in order to be there for kids, whether outside funding is available or not.

Photo courtesy of Thousand Currents:

Yes, but…

I’m often in conversations with those who are quick to disparage small, grassroots organizations, espousing the ever-pejorative myth of “no capacity” perpetuated in the development discourse. One naysayer wrote,

“I think that this sounds like a great approach to self help, but hard to justify when spending large quantities of other countries’ citizen’s taxes on development. Community-based organisations may be inherently worthy according to their own individual terms and definitions, but this does not mean that they deserve to receive external support. Aid, like most (all?) public policy, involves a reasonable degree of standardisation, generalisation, and reduction.”

I also often hear that “CBOs will just abscond with the money” and “it takes too much effort and resources to find good groups.” But I encourage people to consider the relative risk of losing small amounts of money by funding community organizations as compared to the massive waste within the aid system.

Think about each layer taking its cut before funds ever reach the ground. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about this?

As laurenist writes, “both large organizations and small organizations get it wrong sometimes… We can’t excuse [small organizations] from following best practices or from talking to beneficiaries about what they want simply because they’re small.”

It’s true, not all local indigenous organization are created equal and I would be a fool to deny the existence of briefcase NGOs (an overblown phenomenon that highlights the development system’s weaknesses rather than any sweeping trend). Nor am I naïve enough to believe that supporting small organizations should replace policy efforts, economic reforms, or the larger programs targeted at other stakeholders still needed to bring about change at national and international levels.

Rather, let’s examine how we can best support local indigenous organizations that are grown from the inside and fueled by the dedication and vision of the very people they serve. Let’s analyze the proportion of funds allocated for community development that actually reaches communities.

How can we bring our focus to getting sovereign local organizations and effective community leaders the resources that they need to address their own priorities?

Photo courtesy of Thousand Currents:

Putting Local Indigenous Organizations at the Heart of Development

If we’re discussing the future of international assistance, let’s put small, locality-based groups at the center. There are great examples of private funders and international NGOs willing to offer and build alternatives to “business as usual,” making room for more sovereign local organizations that hold great promise as do-gooders seek them out and learn from them.

Regardless of outsiders’ level of expertise or length of service, or the amount of money or bureaucracy behind us, let’s actively discuss the need to genuinely support — not co-opt, overpower, or even quash — local initiatives.

That’s not to say that there aren’t issues in working with local groups that will challenge the sector and how we approach our work. In order to relate effectively to community-led groups, professional and amateur do-gooders must first focus on building their own skills to accompany and support them. I believe the ability and penchant to understand and work effectively with organizations of any size or type can and should become a core capacity of all people working to reduce poverty and inequality. As highlighted by the Community Development Resource Association in South Africa:

“The honest donor will admit how little this is practiced, how little responsiveness there is, how little real listening, and how many preconceived programs and methods are foisted on communities. Some of these are in response to superficial fashions of the time, some of them to political pressures which are of northern, rather than southern, origin…

“If donors cannot respond to what is needed with considered flexibility and openness, then they [cannot] avoid the straw allegiance to the concept of development itself.”

It’s also time to create more easily accessible and wider-reaching funding opportunities for local groups, thereby putting more local and national actors in the driver’s seat of development. Currently, smaller and less-developed organizations face a myriad of challenges in accessing external funding. The bulk of aid funding continues to go to a small proportion of organizations, mostly urban-based NGOs with prior program delivery experience and financial capacity. To change this, donors and international NGOs need to restructure and revise their accountability requirements to focus on the minimum structure and financial controls necessary, rather than asking local groups to change.

In effect, we must lower the “glass ceiling” for community-based organizations to participate and access funding.

Let’s acknowledge the vision, structure, inherent strengths, and impact that local indigenous organization can and do have. Rather than being the lowest common denominator of international development assistance, let’s recognize local indigenous organizations as vital to supporting genuine, demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries and unleash social change.

People, under the direst of circumstances, can and do pull together. Thus, our responsibility is to do justice to their vast and vital efforts.

A version of this article first appeared on

Jennifer Lentfer

Written by

(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. @1000Currents Director of Communications. #globaldev #grassroots #philanthropy + a little poetry

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade