What does “grassroots” really mean?

One of our guiding principles is that our projects are “grassroots” based but I’ve noticed over the past few years that this term has become so overused in the development NGO world that it has become a cliche. I was in a meeting last week where an NGO mentioned that they were a “pull” organization (pulled in by communities) rather than a “push” one (pushing material down on beneficiaries). Time to reflect on “grassroots”.

Economists and theorists can fall into two camps: those who believe in an authoritarian, technocratic approach to development out of poverty and those who believe in free development fostered by beneficiaries themselves. William Easterly championed this paradigm in The Tyranny of Experts and finds its roots in the works of Nobel Prize winners Gunnar Mydal, who believed that “a largely illiterate and apathetic citizenry” would not be capable of pulling themselves out of poverty without outside help from the state, and Frederich Hayek, who felt that free individuals in a free society are capable of solving their own problems.

By extension, today this debate is waged, to some degree, between fans of Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, who advocates for large investment by international, national, and NGO bodies into development and the approach of Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, who demonstrates the failure of the aid community and suggests a more organic, individualistic approach. Over the past five or ten years, it is her message that has resonated and a fundamental tenet of it is that development projects need to come from the communities themselves. Not only must they align with local culture and values, but they must have local “buy-in” and ownership. To be successful over the long term, development projects must be “grassroots”.

Before I founded Alma I personally supported a Peruvian charity that was implementing education projects. They engaged foreign volunteers (a whole other blog!) and brought in an “educational expert” from the U.S. to run a program for teachers in the Sacred Valley region of Peru. I went there to witness the last two days of what turned out to be, in my mind, a complete failure. Attendance was poor, and I think the messages being taught were not instilled in the teachers’ minds. I doubt any of them remember the program today. So I asked one of the teachers why attendance had been so poor and she said that it was because a foreigner was leading the program. She said attendance would have been better with a local expert. I decided shortly thereafter to start my own charity and never to make the mistake of excluding local voices in the creation of any program.

As it turns out, it’s easier said than done. At Alma I hired a Program Director who spoke perfect Spanish and Quechua and was willing to spend long periods of time in the communities living among the people who we hoped to help. He loved the indigenous people in this part of the world and they loved him. Only once he had come to know every man, woman, and child in a community, and navigated the formal and informal power structures in place, did he initiate a dialogue around education and how the people of the community felt their children could best be educated. Every community was different so pretty much every Alma project was different.

Today we run 29 projects that are as distinct as the communities they serve. But I have also witnessed a culture of dependence manifest itself in communities asking us in – “pulling” us in – and asking for that which they assume we provide. A number of our projects are called “bibliotecas” (libraries) but are actually after-school project-based education programs (the false nomenclature is a long story), so we have often had communities come to us asking to “build a library”. When we ask “why”, they say “our children can’t read, they have no books; we need a library”. We use this as an excuse to visit the community and get to know the people there but inevitably, we learn that they do not need a “library”. It’s obvious that the children can read; what they can’t do is understand and apply what they are reading so they need a reading comprehension program. The community asked for a library because it was what they thought we had on offer.

As a result, NGOs, corporations, and government entities can claim they are applying grassroots principles when in fact communities are only reflecting back to them whatever it is that they believe works or is in their interest or fits their predetermined theory of social change. NGOs that believe in building sports fields get “asked” to build sports fields and corporations that, for a variety of reasons, may want to teach entrepreneurship or, say, micro-finance get “asked” to do so. They are in fact “pushing” down to the grassroots without realizing it.

In Cusco Peru, there are 240 NGOs. Few have employees who speak Quechua and even fewer actually live in the communities. Few can truly say they understand what communities really want and need, but most would say if asked that they are a grassroots organization. The further away geographically, culturally, and philosophically an organization is from the actual grassroots, the less likely they are to be successful in creating real, intelligent, and sustainable change. Worse, they risk creating a culture of dependency and/or subjugating indigenous communities to North American values and norms and allowing the indigenous cultures and languages to die.

The challenge I believe is walking that fine line between truly listening to communities and applying our knowledge based on our experiences with similar communities. Honesty, humility, and authenticity go a long way towards applying the principle of grassroots.

-Alan Harman