5 Principles for Maintaining Downward Accountability When Supporting Community-Based Development

Maintaining accountability to the grassroots in community development projects

Community dialogue session facilitated by Village Earth with communities along the Amazon River, Peru

The success and ongoing relevancy of community-based development initiatives is largely dependent on the ability of community workers and NGO’s to maintain their accountability to stakeholders at the grassroots. However, downward accountability can become compromised by various top-down pressures from donors (the so-called alien hand syndrome) but other structural issues faced by NGOs can also compromise accountability including professionalization and turn-over of staff, trends in development assistance, defined project timelines, etc. Below are 5 ways to help ensure you remain accountable to the grassroots.

  1. Make a long-term personal commitment to communities.
    We believe the only way to build sufficient trust and a genuine sense of solidarity and mutual accountability with communities is when they can count you being there for the long-term. Genuine empowerment requires diligence in several areas in order to be successful. It demands a commitment to creating an enabling environment where the tools for self reliance are fostered (Korten 1984; Mansuri and Rao 2003). A people based development agency must be prepared for longer time commitments on projects in order to facilitate the bottom up, organic growth of community driven projects (Mansuri and Rao 2003). The importance of commitment to the project outside of timelines is echoed by Korten (1991) due to the need for place and context specific responses to individual communities. Furthermore, transforming deeply entrenched structures of power is a slow and gradual process (Trawick 2001). According to Mosse (1997b), “[i]f external agencies try to change the political and social dynamic without fully understanding it, the social equilibrium can be severely disrupted, with nothing to take its place.”
  2. Be an ally not a project manager
    This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. Take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability and try to suspend any preconceived notions you may have about what is needed. Instead create a space for the community to develop and/or share their vision for the future and the strategies that might move them towards it. In the spirit of  Paulo Freire, we believe that by working together as allies in praxis (an intentional cycle of planning, action, and reflection) communities can identify and eliminate the objective sources of their oppression. But also, as outsiders can learn how our own relative privilege is intertwined in that oppression. In this way, empowerment is a mutual process. The genuineness and reciprocal nature of this relationship is the basis for developing genuine trust and solidarity at the grassroots. 
  3. Focus on the community’s long-term vision not band-aid approaches that just address symptoms.
    Instead of focusing on “problems”, try to facilitate communities in developing a long-term holistic vision for their region. Unlike focusing on problems, a holistic vision allows communities to imagine the world they would like to live in. You can deal with problems forever, yet never deal with the underlying contradictions behind poverty and powerlessness. Identifying a vision first makes it possible to identify and prioritize exactly what it is that is preventing you and your community from creating a better situation. The visioning process becomes the starting point for the ongoing praxis process described in the previous point and also forms the baseline for future assessment, monitoring and evaluation where individuals and communities come together to reflect on the progress of their various strategies and whether they are moving them towards their vision. But we have also found that through praxis, the vision becomes clearer and more broadly shared. Starting with a community’s vision also empowers communities to define progress on their own terms rather than having to adopt Western models and practices. 
  4. Work with community towards the mobilization and empowerment of entire regions or social groups.
    In the spirit of Ghandi’s concept of Swaraj, the recognition that true power comes from self-reliance and self-governance. And this being possible only with the mobilization of sufficient human and natural resources. In other words it takes more than just one or two communities to mobilize the critical mass and resources necessary to break the cycle of dependence behind much of the world’s poverty. We do not argue that all communities and regions should become self-sufficient, but rather self-reliant in that they have the ability and freedom to choose their own strategies. By gradually linking communities, community leaders, grassroots organizations, foundations, government agencies, and businesses together you can break the cycle of dependence that compromises their self-determination. 
  5. Create organizational structures built on trust, solidarity, & mutual accountability.
    We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached, and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization (Davies 2000). The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people based organizations are empowerment of members of the community (Davies 2000), decentralized decision making (Rothschild- Whitt 1979), context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making (Mansuri and Rao 2003) which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities (Chambers 1983). Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community, and a unique process grows out of that input (Korten 1991).

This article discusses topics that are also discussed in the following Village Earth online courses: Approaches to Community DevelopmentCommunity-Based OrganizingCommunity MobilizationCommunity Participation and Dispute ResolutionDevelopment and the Politics of EmpowermentParticipatory Monitoring and Evaluation

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