"CBOs have the unique ability to find children that other types of organizations cannot see... CBOs, wherever they take root, seek out the dark places where these children struggle, and they come to where they are, whether a train platform, a garbage dump, an impoverished slum, a mine or a mill, to change the trajectories of these young lives." - Invisible Children
Top-down approaches authored by those outside the recipient community can only go so far. It is community-based programs, reflective of the distinctive characteristics of the demographics they seek to serve, that tend to be more creative. Such programs have helped author some of the most innovative and impactful interventions to alleviate the conditions affecting marginalized young people. Not all of them work, and a fair number of these initiatives flame out in a short time. Still, the successes outweigh the failures, especially in their ability to develop sustainable programs embedded in the community and embraced by the targeted demographic.
Yet in the eyes of major funders, most of these programs are as invisible as the children they attempt to reach. With no track record and modest financial means, they have great difficulty in appealing to funders who are most comfortable with predictable outputs. Owing to several factors, including the remote location of their work and a more comprehensive programmatic approach that might entail multiple activities, these groups do not fit the more traditional criteria for funding. When funders focus on pure numbers – cost per beneficiary, indirect costs, and so on – it becomes easy to lose sight of these small efforts working in the most challenging conditions. These organizations are not “safe” investments, but they may provide the best opportunity to overturn social patterns that have resisted the best efforts of billions of dollars of traditional risk-averse aid.
Community-based programs which have been devised and implemented by local leaders, familiar with the local nuances of their issue, and most significantly, the people impacted by that issue, are emanations of the community itself. Beyond the immediate impact of such programs, these efforts more readily gain acceptance because the players are recognizable, their methods are reflective of the communities in which they are embedded, and their efforts are organic, derived from their own culture and society. Most community-based programs tend to be small, especially at their inception. But where top-down interventions might carry with them greater resources, organizations engrained in their communities may well exert greater influence over time due to their acceptance, their focus reflective of an innate understanding of their communities, and their sustainability, which can allow these initially small efforts to last long after larger efforts are gone.
Further compounding the issue of sustainability is the cultural nuance in which these programs are implemented. Each country, each region, each community, and sometimes each clan can have a distinctive interpretation of their culture and the values that fuel it. What works in one country – what works in one village – may not be applicable once a border is crossed. Even within borders, people from the city can be considered outsiders in rural areas, and vice-versa.
Large scale programs, often driven by formal and inflexible protocols developed by professionals an ocean away, may be accepted over the short-term but, if not ingrained in a cultural ethos, can vanish. For example, polio immunization programs face stiff resistance in some parts of South Asia because of religious and political objections, even though the disease remains endemic. In Tanzania, tetanus injections were halted when religious figures, relying on local beliefs, objected.[i] We have seen in parts of Africa a cultural resistance to efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM), so that even the most logical programs are met with hostility by local leaders who see FGM as part of their cultural identity.
Sustainability is best achieved when local actors have a sense of ownership of their efforts. In many cases, local people may be hired by major agencies or governmental programs to provide immunizations, distribute supplies, run water and sanitation plants, or, in general, fuel the processes of the initiatives at work. But if those initiatives come from sources outside their communities, their countries and their social or cultural comfort zones, then the chances for ownership of these projects and programs becomes remote. They are participants, not partners. The locus of power remains external.
In a world driven by a reliance on top-down solutions, and assuming more often than not that bigger is better, community-based organizations (CBOs) can be viewed as small, sometimes quirky responses that can do some good at the local level but offer little to the larger issues that confound global development experts and thought leaders. If billions of dollars cannot ensure universal educational access, then what can local groups on shoestring budgets truly accomplish?
A close examination, though, of the precepts that compel locally-based interventions will yield lessons that would be well absorbed by global thinkers. CBOs function under different guidelines than traditional international development systems. Their work most often stems from direct observation, and sometimes direct experience, and the responses they derive emanate from a knowledge usually outside the grasp of most outside development experts.
We do well, then, to look at the unique characteristics of CBOs – their stories that show how they work, their motivations, their understanding of the social issues they seek to address, and where they fit in the broader development framework. Born from the forceful need to change the lives of children others cannot reach, and knowing that each of their stories carries with it something of distinctive value, CBOs can instruct the very architecture of international children’s development.