by Emily Tan (Summer 2023 Intern)
Published December 19, 2023
Poverty Action Lab triumphs Community-based Development, a broad umbrella term for community development practices, as advocating “community participation in decision-making and management, with a goal of using local knowledge and resources to run more effective projects.” While this definition rightfully emphasizes community participation, it tends to neglect the technical and organizational capacities required for such project implementation and longer-term development. A 2012 meta-study of the World Bank’s Community-driven Development (CDD) efforts found that projects which incorporated an element of capacity strengthening were the most successful in achieving poverty reduction targets.
According to the Movement of Community-Led Development (MCLD), a commitment to longer-term partnerships and learning over a project-based approach is a critical component to Community-Led Development (CLD). Capacity strengthening is crucial to project success and sustainability. When the overarching objective is to champion community voice and initiative in decision-making, project execution, and sustainable processes, ensuring that local community leaders and members are equipped with the requisite technical skill set and the opportunities to practice those skills is key.
With its more recent dedication to locally-led development, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) laid out guiding principles for its Local Capacity Strengthening (LCS) policy in October 2022. In essence, it calls on development practitioners to recognize existing local skills and systems, building on these capacities in a manner that is aligned with locally-determined priorities. Various criticisms of USAID’s LCS strategy exist, largely lying with USAID’s own lack of ability to work directly with communities. However, the spirit of LCS in itself remains strong–it places emphasis on capacity strengthening policies which both appreciate existing strengths and are aligned with local goals, formulating aid relationships on the basis of mutuality rather than prescription to achieve developmental goals. We can look at the case of USAID’s Civil Society Activity (CSA) project in Mexico to improve institutional capacities of civil society organizations (CSOs) to more effectively promote legal justice and human rights. CSA practitioners began by first studying Mexico’s legal system through extensive research and learning from its CSO partners before opening up a Learning Community, for each CSO to demonstrate and share their areas of understanding to the benefit of the broader community. This was supplemented with personalized support from CSA project designers on topics such as legal assistance and institutional building. Here, both CSA staff and local CSOs were able to learn from one another and strengthen their ability to more effectively carry out future projects.
Roots of Development, an organization which supports CLD projects on the Haitian island of La Gonave, places equal weight on capacity strengthening and project implementation, having overseen more than 230 hours of training for community members to execute over 50 community projects. Rather than work directly with local communities as a “Global North ” organization, it supported the founding of a Haitian-led organization Rasin Devlopman which directly oversees all operations from community outreach to project implementation. Rasin works closely with local community partners as well as identified Volontè Pou Chanjman, or Agents of Change, who represent 8 of the island’s 11 communal sections. Returning to the World Bank meta-study, it found that the role of village facilitators–like the Volontè Pou Chanjman–was critical in building trust with, raising awareness amongst, and ultimately mobilizing local communities. In 2022, Rasin worked to provide over 77 hours of training to these Volontè Pou Chanjman who were then able to transmit knowledge gained, with local contextualisation, to an additional 415 community volunteers. The Volontè Pou Chanjman were then able to utilize their knowledge through 13 community impact projects throughout the island, including the installation of solar street lamps, distribution of seeds for community farming, and construction of toilet facilities at a school.
Capacity strengthening as a term recognizes that capacity is not non-existent in local communities. Intelligence and ingenuity do not discriminate geographically. A keen understanding of the surrounding environment and local context can only be acquired with years of lived experience. The role of an external organization lies not in imposing a supposedly objective ‘best practice’ in project implementation or teaching local community leaders how best to do their jobs. Instead, it is about recognizing the sheer magnitude of local talents and ideas and imparting the technical skills necessary to achieve these objectives. For example, specific skills of project management, conflict resolution, and partnership development are things that can and should be learned for successful project implementation. This emphasis on imparting technical skills and organizational knowledge has ensured that the Volontè Pou Chanjman can facilitate important community projects with support from Rasin and Roots–projects such as Ankadre, a program aimed at teaching youth social entrepreneurship skills and chiefly operated by two Volontè Pou Chanjman. Here we see the twin pillars of CLD, capacity strengthening and community project implementation, work hand in hand. While the latter could be done without the former, the results are not nearly as efficient or successful.
Longer-term sustainability and stronger local governance take hold when projects are as committed to capacity strengthening as they are to project implementation. Again, the ultimate goal is not to preserve unequal relations of dependency on aid and externally-driven development but instead empower local community members with the resources and skills needed to forge their own path of development.