Local organizations are overlooked in aid effectiveness debate

Development Policy05 Oct 2011Jennifer Lentfer

Are we overlooking the capacity of local NGOs? Jennifer Lentfer of argues that rather than being the lowest common denominator of international assistance, local indigenous organizations should be regarded as the fundamental unit of effective development aid.

The Arab awakening is shaking up what has been a slow-moving effort to reform the effectiveness of development aid. As the people of the Middle East “speak truth to power” and their actions reverberate across the world, many are asking: Can we do more to enable grassroots movements to emerge and gain strength and in the process increase the demand for human rights and development?

Despite the imperatives of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and the Accra Agenda for Action (2008), there is a huge gap for direct funding of local groups in the aid industry. Assistance to a small proportion of mostly urban-based organizations remains too-often focused on building the monetary absorptive capacity and the degree of formal structure needed to implement large-scale programs.

Luckily I’ve had the unique chance to experience the impact and potential of alternative funding mechanisms that directly support “under-the-radar” local groups, which, for me, highlight a way forward.

Think of the group of grandmothers gathered under the tree to plan to get orphaned children back into school. A cohort of small villages banded together to protect a local forest they depend on for hunting. A women’s self-help group that forms a cooperative to get better prices for their crafts.

I believe that the creation of more easily accessible and wider-reaching funding opportunities for these small, often “informal” local initiatives may be the revolution our sector needs.

Why should we re-orient international assistance to place grassroots groups at its center?

1) Local indigenous organizations are well placed to provide “scale-up.”

The web of local organizations and grassroots movements is still largely undocumented and unrecognized around the world. has already registered over 113,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They conservatively estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe. According to a University of Kwazulu-Natal survey, there are at least 50,000 community-based organizations in the South African non-profit sector alone (Manji & Naidoo, 2005).

2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger aid agencies just don’t have—primarily, rootedness.

While local groups may lack the formal structure and accountability mechanisms that would make them more esteemed among other development actors, they have a range of competencies, including astute resourcefulness in mobilizing local resources, downward accountability, legitimacy within the community, authentically holistic services, adaptability, and responsiveness. Chet Tchozewski, Founder of GlobalGreengrants, describes within local movements a “culture of peer accountability and structural trust, which further enhances the pre-existing social capital” to unleash change.

3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.

Outsiders can often be blind to how poor people and marginalized communities systemically mobilize and share resources through a quite resilient, but often informal system of self-help and mutual assistance, which Wilkinson-Maposa and Fowler (2009) have coined as “horizontal philanthropy” or “philanthropy of community.”1 Local groups’ day-to-day interactions and connection with their constituency results in a deep, inherent knowledge about the social context, which may never be fully understood even through the most comprehensive needs assessment or baseline study.

4) Local indigenous organizations already fill gaps in government and international aid.

I’ve worked in children and HIV programming in east and southern Africa for over a decade. What has been undeniable to me in this time is that most children are getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major internationally-funded programs. Rather, those who survive and thrive do so because of the local efforts of people who organize their communities to extend support and services to vulnerable children in areas not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. The 300 grassroots organizations with which I’ve worked, often linked to local churches, schools, or clinics, are organized around one purpose—to fill the gap for children and families not being helped otherwise. Despite all of the challenges in working in a low-resource setting, this is what sustains local leaders’ commitment and groups’ persistence.

Donors Are Putting Local Organizations at the Heart of Development

World Bank President Robert Zoellick is signaling that the institution is looking towards more direct support for civil society, at least in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the World Bank and many other multi-lateral and bilateral donors have a robust history of civil society engagement. The World Bank has run a small grants program that directly funds CSOs since 1983. Rajiv Shah’s reform agenda at USAID, as set forth in “Delivering Assistance Differently,” calls for USAID Missions to “increase the number of partners and the amount of direct grants with local nonprofit organizations.”

I often hear that “CBOs will just abscond with the money”, “it takes too much effort and resources to find good groups,” and “other policy efforts and economic reforms are still necessary.” All are valid issues for consideration. Certainly not all local organizations are created equal. However I encourage people to consider the relative risk of “losing” small amounts of money by funding local organizations as compared to the waste within the aid system. Donors can learn from the growing numbers of experienced small foundations and NGOs that specialize in offering direct funding to local initiatives, grassroots leadership, and small, often “informal” movements.2

Important questions remain for those attending the upcoming Busan conference: How will new approaches to aid include accountability to beneficiaries and implementing partners? Can funding and reporting mechanisms be altered to be more inclusive of nascent groups and emerging movements? How do we do justice to the vast and vital efforts of local groups in the developing world that are grown from the inside and fueled by the dedication, vision, and priorities of the very people they serve?


  1. Wilkinson-Maposa, S. & Fowler, A. (2009). The poor philanthropist I-IV: How and why the poor help each other. Cape Town: Southern Africa-United States Center for Leadership and Public Values.
  2. To learn more about international small grantmakers, see: Lentfer, J. (2011, August). Small is Beautiful … Grants, That Is: The enduring and unique value of small-scale development funding. InterAction’s Monday Developments, 29(8), 25-26, 38.