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Bottom-up development: How can we turn aid on its head?

Bottom-up development: How can we turn aid on its head?

By Ingrid Nanne

One oft-lauded strategy in the aid and development sector is the grassroots approach: how can organisations involve the community and ensure that the program works from the bottom up? These words have become standard jargon.

But, how many organisations actually implement programs that are requested by the community, and not the other way around? How many of them are really waiting for communities to come and ask them to please supply X or Y program?

Of course, some argue that communities are not empowered or informed enough to request programs. That can happen. Even where there are laws that require communities to propose development projects, such as in Guatemala where the Law of Local Development Councils was passed in 2002, some community members still, in my experience when talking with them, expect external organisations or government officials to bring in projects top-down.

One finds, in many cases, that community members say they’ve elected a new mayor or president and that this person should bring development, but do not see themselves as the actors necessary to ensure this change. On some occasions, they do not even know what they want, just a general, non-specific improvement that is the responsibility of their government, other organisations in the area or even large companies near their community.

But what happens when a community does make a specific request, and then external agents determine that the petition is not in the community’s best interest? Case in point, a friend who volunteered with Engineers without Borders mentioned that they had asked a community in Honduras what they’d like built. Though the community asked for a football field, the volunteers opted to provide a water pump. The community was happy with the water pump, as far as the engineers knew while on location, but since this was a college-level project, the students graduated and haven’t returned to follow up.

The group made this choice because water pump was necessary, and the football field wasn’t; then again, who are we to judge? Maybe the football field would have improved children’s health status, and provided a healthy pastime in a community that very much needed it.

These decisions are hard to make, and we often want to take a parental stance and decide what is best for the community–although God forbid someone calls us paternalistic.

I’m currently working on a project that guides communities to create 15-year development plans, pushing the community to consider their needs and determine project and activities that will help them reach their ideal community vision. In other words, we help create a strategy that will enable community members to follow a series of steps leading them to build their dream community 15 years down the line. The plan is written with local leadership and approved in community-wide meetings, through which we try to take a participatory approach and ensure that the majority of community members’ needs are taken into account. When the plan is finished, we provide community leaders with a list of local organisations, embassies, and government institutions, which will be the doors they can knock on and ask for support.

Yet, as we move along in this initiative, I look around at the NGOs I know, and I worry about their modus operandi. Few are able or ready to provide services they had not previously planned to provide. Frankly, even in my organisation, we intervene in pre-selected communities based on a specific requirement using government statistics. We plan our budget based on our donor’s priorities for next year, rarely on what a community has requested.

Think about it: what would honestly happen in your organisation if a community member knocked on the door saying their community had a plan, and they would like you to provide them with technical training (for example)? You would probably have to say, “Sorry, technical training is not something we provide,” or, “We do provide technical training, but not in your community because it’s not in our budget.”

How can we open up our work to function the other way around? What would it take for organisations to first go into a community evaluate the needs, before elaborating their own strategy and project goals? Or even wait for communities to come to them, by creating a platform that is easily available to community members to reach the organisation through, say, a toll-free number where someone can take in their request? Making friendlier online platforms where community members can request projects to an NGO could be another way of opening these channels, or even creating a specific section within organisations for receiving community requests.

The question is, are we ready, in the world of development, to have such a paradigm shift? Can we see ourselves as enablers, and not as the thinkers and decision makers? Can we let go of our egos enough to admit that we don’t know what is best and instead ask communities to tell us what they need?

Ingrid Nanne is a local development worker in Guatemala. She previously worked in West Africa, mainly focusing on evaluation and health programs on Senegal, Mali and Ghana. Ingrid holds an MPA in Development Practice from Columbia University. You can also follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows women in Myanmar work on a community development project. Photo from UNDP.

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2 thoughts on “Bottom-up development: How can we turn aid on its head?

  1. Bottom-up development is what the Inter-American Foundation has been doing in Latin America since its creation in 1969. Check it out at

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