Mary A. Kabati
Ronah K. Lubinda
Jones Mwalwanda
Moses Zulu

Traditional approaches to aid and development are failing us. It’s time to invest in community-driven change.

By Mary A. Kabati, Ronah K. Lubinda, Adela Materu, Kingsley Makuwila, Jones Mwalwanda, Prosper Ndaiga and Moses Zulu

If COVID-19 and the recent uprisings for racial justice around the world have made one thing clear, it is this: the global development sector needs to radically rebuild itself from the ground up. As leaders of community-based organizations in Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi, we have already been sounding the alarm on the challenges of the traditional structures of aid and development. Now, we are coming together to say that enough is enough – the fragility of the global aid and development system, and systems of oppression and colonialism that have underpinned it, can no longer be ignored.

International, Global North-led development is failing to effect real, sustainable, systemic change in Africa and across the Global South, and that failure is rooted in donors’ relationships with communities. Funders from the Global North must radically review how and who they fund and their relationships with the communities they seek to serve, or they will find that they are creating more problems than they are solving. It is no longer sufficient that donors have good intentions and deep pockets. It’s time for community-driven systems change.

We have seen firsthand the shortcomings of the current system of global aid and development, watching the repetitive cycle of short term, unsustainable, top-down programming come through our communities and seeing it fail to achieve long term change. Our deep relationships and contextual understanding of power structures and local priorities have been dismissed by international donors, who rely on unrealistic and unchallenged metrics of success that have little grounding in reality. We’ve been dictated to by donors and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), with ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategies that set us up for failure. But we’ve also seen the path forward.

Too many funders still assume that having resources is somehow correlated with being best placed to decide how to allocate, to whom, and how to spend those resources. This underlying, often unspoken, assumption is poisoning sincere efforts to do good, and frustrating the ability of the actual local experts to do their work. Committing to community-driven systems change must start with a mindset shift that recognizes that this assumption is false. From there, donors can take on the practical work of building new, high impact strategies and funding practices rooted in local relationships. Funders must invest in an approach grounded in justice and solidarity, not charity and aid. This includes local community ownership of projects from the beginning and abandoning rigid one-size-fits-all programs in favor of nuance and flexibility. It means investing sustainably, with exit strategies articulated early so communities can plan and avoid dependency. It means providing reliable funding and allowing CBOs and staff to invest their time in meeting the needs of the community, not catering to the whims of donors. And it means transparency and trust at every level.

This can feel daunting to donors who have previously centered Global North leadership above that of communities themselves. But guidance is available. Before the pandemic began, the Firelight Foundation, who we each partner with, commissioned a report to explore exactly this question – how can Global North-based funders work to best support the communities they cared about and best leverage the expertise of community based partners? Answering that question took over three years, with extensive surveys, in-depth interviews and conversations, and in-person visits to programs and communities in a process of co-creation with stakeholders. A common theme emerged across this extensive research: Community leaders feel held-back by current global development practices. The overwhelming impression is that the billions of dollars spent by the Global North development sector have yielded minimal results, largely because community ownership and consultation is lacking. Questions were even raised about whether some investments had done more harm than good. External agendas and imposed priorities force local leaders to disregard their own knowledge, which is the medicine of local conditions, and instead adopt strategies that are guided more by the desires of donors than by the needs of communities.

So how can you make change? Here are some of the key recommendations we endorse from the report:

  1. Recognize the colonial structures that you and your organization might be perpetuating
  2. Reconceptualize the role of community-based organizations (CBOs) in global development efforts
  3. Redefine success, impact, sustainability, and effectiveness
  4. Reimagine funder-CBO relationships in ways that reflect mutual respect

There’s no denying that foreign aid plays a critical role in addressing the needs of low-income communities. The answer here is not for traditional actors or donors to totally withdraw – instead, it is about reimagining relationships and structures to better address the issues. This work is complex, and rarely linear. It might feel frustrating or counter-intuitive. Exposing and acknowledging failure is a vulnerable but essential process for progress. The COVID-19 pandemic and the global demand for racial justice has made it clear that this kind of change cannot wait. Global development and aid must catch up or it will be held accountable for the harms it is perpetuating.

We have abundant evidence that community-driven systems change is feasible, effective and achievable. We have the models and resources ready for anyone who is prepared to take the leap and join this movement for a stronger, more effective, more just version of global development. A better future is calling to us all – now it’s up to you to seize the opportunity.

About the authors: Mary A. Kabati is the Executive Director of Tanzania Home Economics Association – Mwanza, based in Tanzania. Ronah K. Lubinda is the Programme Coordinator of the Mulumbo Early Childhood Care and Development Foundation, based in Zambia. Adela Materu is the Executive Coordinator of KIWAKKUKI, based in Tanzania. Kingsley Makuwila is the Program Officer of  Nancholi Community-Based Organization, based in Malawi. Jones Mwalwanda is the Executive Director of the Foundation for Community Livelihood and Development, based in Malawi. Prosper Ndaiga is the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Manager for Agape AIDS Control Program, based in Tanzania. Moses Zulu is the Executive Director of the Luapula Foundation, based in Zambia.

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9 Responses to “Traditional approaches to aid and development are failing us. It’s time to invest in community-driven change.”
  1. Don McPhee

    Community-driven approaches were very common in the 90s and up to about 2005 or so. These were replaced by top-down approaches from donors and INGO Head Offices. These top-down approaches do not work so it is time to go back to community driven approaches. The Barefoot Guides, CDRA and IDS have lots of valuable resources for those interested in community-driven approaches.

  2. Safa

    One of the ways to overcome and fix the failure of the traditional aid system is to invest in grassroots organizations. It’s time for the global North to understand in order to create the right change in Africa it must come from a bottom-up approach. I think if the global north provided enough funding and the right technology and tools to local communities in any given country they could build programs that are best suited to benefit their local communities. The time has passed to continue operating with the same old mentality of non-governmental organizations, with one size fits all. Programs that may work in one country most likely will not work in another.

  3. G.A.A

    The note in this article on “community-driven change not starting with the premise of replicating/scaling a program or rolling out a pre-packaged model or tool” reminds me of one of my largest grievances with the development sector which I call the tyranny of scale. Despite the widespread acknowledgment that different geographic regions have specific, unique contexts, the solutions that get espoused are being held to an arbitrary rule of whether it is replicable or scalable for “impact”. This rule is used to shut down community driven innovative solutions under the assumption it offer little value since it is not “scalable”. We must question the desire to create blunt, one-size-fits all in an increasingly complex, entangled and re-constitutive world.

  4. Valeria Chupina

    The top-down approach was due to the development practice origin, from Marshal Plan to modernisation theory etc. Since then, metrics and impact evaluation methods were always convenient for imposing on communities – and subsequent reporting. However, community-driven approach is more natural, with evolutionary logic to grow bottom-up, sustainably and resiliently. But if each project is individual, usual evaluation patterns won’t fit. Possibly what delays donors to embrace community-driven, is the fear that they will have to develop impact metrics separately for each project. Your Firelight guidelines is a huge help to make a difference for them.

  5. Laura G.

    A very interesting read–and one that resonates with me. As someone who is newer to development space, I am interested in hearing more about any current trends re: community-driven development. Is there any renewed interest in more of a bottom-up approach from larger aid organizations? As previous comments have mentioned, it sounds like there was a recent shift towards a top-down approach in the mid-2000s. I am curious to see if there has been any update–especially considering, as the authors have pointed out, increased public conversation that has been more critical of global aid and its ties to colonialism and broader systems of oppression.

  6. JBG

    the impact of colonialist practices in aid, and how many of these organizations might be contributing to perpetuating such structures. While I believe it is important to adopt a community-based structure instead of a top-down approach to development, I also think international aid is more of a palliative than it is a solution. I believe that if we keep framing international aid as the “good will” of the Global North towards the Global South we would never get out of this “repetitive cycle of short term, unsustainable, top-down programming”. It is important to recognize the historic debt of the Global North as a result of not only colonization but today’s active under-development of the Global South through different structures and organizations like the WTO, IMF or World Bank that force developing countries to put in place policies such as mono-cropping, subsidies elimination, privatization of national industries, reduction of barriers to foreign competition, etc., which end up perpetuating their state of vulnerability and dependence on the Global North.

  7. Madison A

    I agree completely that for too long aid and development have been focused on “one size fits all” solutions; just because a program may have worked in one nation, even in a similar geographic region, does not mean that the program will be applicable in other situations. I think one of the most important tasks right now is the third recommendation: Redefine success, impact, and sustainability. Simply giving a grant isn’t enough; we need to examine the impact of aid and make sure that we are allowing communities to grow in a sustainable way where the benefits will continue even after the aid has dissipated, not just a band-aid solution to quench the desires of the acting donor.

  8. Peter Matyoko

    Very good article to read. I think it has come a time where the communities themselves should be treated as agents of change of their communities instead of relying on induced projects placed on them without being prior planned or initiated by themselves for having valuable sustainable projects

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