Community-Led Development & Roots
by Emily Tan (Summer 2023 Intern)
Published December 19, 2023
Community-Led Development (CLD) refers to the “process in which local community members work together to identify goals that are important to them, develop and implement plans to achieve those goals, and create collaborative relationships internally and with external actors.” The field of CLD shifts attention away from short-term, external intervention towards leveraging local resources and knowledge to develop long-term, sustainable projects that improve community wellbeing. Emphasis is also placed on inclusive leadership that involves typically marginalized members of the community. This does not aim to subvert traditional leadership hierarchies but rather encourage progressive, transparent transformation on the community’s own terms. While concepts of Community Development have existed for centuries, CLD was only established as a formal academic concept in 2012. Since then, the Movement for Community-Led Development (MCLD) was founded in 2015 to work with NGOs, governments, and other partners to invest in the localization of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since then, the MCLD has expanded to include 75 global members and over 1500 community-based organizations. How did the field of practice of CLD come about and how is it effective?
With the rapid emergence of decolonising nations across the globe post-World War II came questions of economic development and, perhaps more pertinent to existing powers, international influence. Amidst post-World War II trends towards decolonization, we saw the United States and USSR fighting for influence to retain such unequal power hierarchies in the so-called “Third World,” often via humanitarian aid and other development interventions. Economic crises in the 1980s saw the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). From decolonisation to the later collapse of the Soviet Union, complex and often violent socio-political conflicts of the late 19th century seemingly justified swift, external interference to ‘stabilize’ situations. However the bottom line remains—SAPs did not work. While there existed some personalization in specific country reforms, the SAPs generally emphasized massive public expenditure reductions and exchange rate adjustments in the short-term as well as trade and market liberalization in the longer-term. Countless studies have demonstrated how these prescriptions, which conditioned loans on their fulfillment, exacerbated poverty, slowed growth and failed to structurally reform economies.
In an attempt to reform these top-down approaches, the World Bank piloted a Community-Driven Development (CDD) program in Indonesia under Scott Guggenheim called the Kecamatan Development Program (KDP). In his recollection of the program’s origins, Guggenheim discusses both the efficiency and morality of a community-led approach. A large number of countries’ central/national governments do not have the capacity to also run effectively at local levels, especially in rural areas. However ,their local communities often have both the institutional and organizational capacity to address their basic needs, often outside of formal structures. Harnessing the willingness, local knowledge, and personal stake community members have in their own development is not only practical but also simply logical. The KDP programme in Indonesia demonstrated to the World Bank, and the rest of the world, that programmes executed by communities worked better and lasted longer. With people on the ground actively involved in a project, a self-sustaining cycle of commitment and benefit results. Moreover, Guggenheim draws on Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation of Development as Freedom. Sen believes development refers not only to material gain but also the political autonomy to voice concerns, the economic capacity to participate fairly and well-informed in the free market, and having social needs such as healthcare and education adequately met with comprehensive safety nets to protect vulnerable groups from unending cycles of poverty. The argument here is that the capacity to select from a range of opportunities and paths is not simply an effective means of achieving development – in a more traditional sense of socioeconomic progression – but also an aim of development in and of itself.
The late 20th century saw multiple successful attempts at CDD projects such as in South Korea’s Saemaul Undong programme in the 1970s or Indonesia’s Kecamatan Development Program (KDP). Roots of Development was founded in the same spirit of championing community voices and agency. Since its inception, the central mission of the organization has been to support efforts by the community for the community. Early in the organization’s history, Roots worked directly with community groups to fund and support community-led projects. In 2011, a women-led community group GFDAG (Women’s Group for the Development and Advancement of Gran Sous) proposed a scholarship and mentorship program for vulnerable children in their community. Understanding the need, but also determined to avoid establishing a structure of dependency, Roots of Development suggested the creation of a local business that could bring greater resources to the community and a source of reliable funding to the women’s group to support their initiative. The guidance Roots provided was limited to shifting the community group away from their initial idea of establishing an externally-funded programme towards ideas that were instead self-financing and more sustainable. The wholesale food business GFDAG established was self-sustaining, mitigating the need for continuous external investment. Profits from this business were reinvested in the community. This idea itself, conceptualized entirely by the community, ultimately targeted two specific but pressing problems of inconvenient and/or unstable access to certain food items and the needs of vulnerable children in the community. This case serves as a demonstration of the process of partnering to nurture strong, sustainable community-led development – Roots of Development provided a conceptual framework of self-sustaining development while the community, most aware of its own needs, manifested this concept by harnessing local knowledge, resources and ingenuity.
However, the process was far from smooth-sailing. Tensions within and between multiple community groups grew overtime with elite capture, politics and gendered power dynamics. As an external organization which sought to preserve local autonomy, instances of community tensions and mismanagement sometimes went unnoticed. GFDAG’s wholesale market began declining when members awarded food on credit, often to close friends and family members whom they felt obligated towards. Meanwhile, APDAG (The Peasant Association for the Development and Advancement of Gran Sous), which felt it existed to oversee all other community groups, was becoming jealous in ways and increasingly less democratic. These problems represented the delicate balance any organization practicing CLD has to maintain between providing space for local autonomy and providing support for new managment practices and dynamics that arise during the the implementation of a project.
After this experience and others, Roots ultimately devised a strategy to ameliorate these struggles and make its work even more local by founding a Haitian-run organization, called Rasin Devlopman, and slowly handing the program over to that entity. Rasin works with 45 ‘Volunteers for Change’ (Volonte Pou Chanjman, or VPC) who represent 8 of the 11 communal sections on La Gonave island as well as local authorities and other independent community groups. VPCs, as members of their community, understand first-hand the needs of their community and how best to address them. Rasin both directly supports VPCs on projects as well as facilitates a relationship between VPCs and local authorities, resulting in 4 collaborative community projects in 2022 alone. Emphasis is placed on capacity strengthening and practical implementation of skills, with VPCs having undergone 77 hours of training last year. Here, members are trained not only in technical skills (e.g. project design, bookkeeping, etc.) but also in leadership and organizational management. VPCs study and practice effective ways of bridging the gap between eager external funding and local needs. Where Roots may have previously struggled with imparting the meaning of this role with APDAG and GFDAG, the consistent and localized presence of Rasin, and its emphasis on capacity strengthening, has demonstrated promising results in developing sustainable and meaningful community partnerships.
Despite its merits, Community-Led Development has often been sidelined by more mainstream, top-down developmental approaches. The current CEO of Oxfam, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, estimated in 2015 that only 1% of funding goes directly to Global South NGOs and movements, with most moving in a ‘trickle-down’ fashion via Global North (or ‘International’) development agencies. The reasons given are ones of trust and transparency, economies of scale, and administrative or technical inadequacies. As shown above, capacity can be built as long as funding partners are committed to investing in the training and development of community leaders and doers. Moreover, while concerns over corruption and inefficiency may have been valid in immediate post-colonial years where local post-secondary education was still nascent, studies find that recent decades have, if anything, seen a surplus in highly qualified locals, fit to facilitate development programs. These fears, while perhaps valid in some cases, only serve to reinforce imbalance power dynamics and obstruct sustainable development without dependence.
While Sriskandarajah makes an impassioned call for “transformative change” in this regard, he also concedes its difficulty in a field which prioritizes risk management. Although a Global North entity, Roots’ sharp self-awareness and strong transparency could set it apart from others in the field and offer’ a potential path forward. By entrusting funds raised and operational decision-making to its Global South partner Rasin Devlopman (staffed entirely by a Haitian team), it has sought to circumvent the top-down approach and instead champion grassroots initiatives and local connections. Other international development agencies such as USAID have also recently embarked on a similar mission, offering guidelines to investing directly in and working with local partners under its Local Capacity Strengthening Policy. Perhaps, this is the middle ground the field has been in search of, the way forward for large agencies who wish to effect sustainable change at the local level. Community-Led Development may seem like a monumental task, requiring high levels of trust and investments into capacity strengthening. The process is complex and often long-drawn. It involves difficult conversations of navigation and negotiation, of striking a balance between technical expertise and local specificities, of believing in the power and potential of people. In spite of these challenges, if we truly want to do development in a way that is sustainable and constructive for the people involved this must be the way forward.
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