Imagine your home town. Think of your neighbors, the local coffee shop, the movie theater, town hall. Now imagine a big developer strolls into town one day and makes a public announcement that he is going to build a brand new high school for the town. He’s passionate about education and sees that the current high school hasn’t been renovated in 30 years. He’s going to pay for everything. This is nice, you think to yourself, but does our town really need a new high school? The town has bigger challenges that should be addressed first, like replacing old water lines so everyone in town has access to clean water. It’s great that the students will be getting a great education in a state-of-the-art building, but all that money the developer is donating could surely be used to address the more pressing issue of clean water.
Can you spot what’s wrong with this picture? The developer in the story, while he had very good intentions for the town, wanted to build the school because he wanted to build a school, not because the town needed it. Now, imagine that happening to villages in Sierra Leone, year after year, generation after generation. This is called a ‘top-down’ approach, when an external actor decides what kind of projects are to be done in a community. Community-led development is a response to the growing awareness of inequity associated with the traditional ‘top-down’ aid model.
At first glance, it is exactly what it sounds like: the community leading its own development. But it is so much more than that. According to the Movement for Community-Led Development, it is “the process of working together to create and achieve locally owned visions and goals,” and it is based on a “vision and priorities by the people who live in that geographic community.” Emphasis is put on bolstering already-available strengths, rather than focusing on needs and problems. The goal of community-led development is not to produce short-term projects, but rather to improve the socio-economic well-being of a community in the long-term by leveraging local, collective power.
Community-led development involves a level of inclusive decision making that is often left out of traditional aid. Rather than an organization and a few select leaders deciding what is best for a community, all community members decide what kind of projects they want take on. The community gains deeper insight into the problem they are trying to address and what actions they can personally take to address it. The voices of women and youth matter and can exist alongside traditional leaders in the village. This is not a replacement of the community’s decision-making structure, but a way to make it more transparent on the community’s own terms.
Furthermore, community-led development programs aim to empower communities by building the capacity of local people to design, implement, manage, and monitor their own projects for development. Community members own the projects not just in name. For example, you will never see OneVillage Partners’ name or logo on the projects themselves. Alternatively, on display is a sign board with the names of the community volunteers who managed the project, a nod to the community’s ownership. By supporting the community to take the lead on projects, the likelihood of sustainability and improved accountability for leadership is enhanced.
At OneVillage Partners, our Community Action program is rooted in community-led development – we partner with communities and support them as they develop sustainable solutions to their own self-defined needs. By placing people at the center of our approach, we ensure that long-term community change is within people, not external to them. We know that when communities are provided with the right tools, they have what they need to become thriving, resilient villages of change.