Putting communities in the driver's seat of development

Jake Harriman, founder of Nuru International with agriculture program managers in Kenya. Photo by: Nuru International

It’s a familiar trope that good development relies on working with local communities. In recent years, organizations such as the U.S. Agency for International Development have made rules around engaging locally, but it doesn’t always happen as well as it could.

Organizations that are working to better engage communities in order to drive development programs and priorities are learning how to do so more effectively and sustainably in part by harnessing existing networks, empowering local leaders and thinking about scale from the start.

Harness existing networks

Reaching distant communities, especially those that are spread out, requires a large group of staff, which isn’t always a possibility. So, what many organizations are figuring out how to do is work with existing community networks.

For Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization, working to reduce maternal-child mortality and increase hospital births led them to work with traditional birth attendants in Sierra Leone. Their Essential Newborn Care Corps project, identified about 200 attendants who were trained to help with health promotion.

While traditional birth attendants are not allowed to conduct home deliveries in Sierra Leone more than 44 percent of women depend on them during childbirth nonetheless. So Concern trained them to make home visits to counsel pregnant women and mothers on health issues and make referrals to health centers and schedule meetings with health facility nurses, said Jean Christophe Fotso, the research and evaluation executive at Concern Worldwide.

Using those attendants who were already trusted by community members helped to improve the health care systems in those communities and strengthen the link between the traditional attendants and area medical staff.

Empower local leaders

In order to ensure the long-term success of development programs, it is critical to not only engage the local community not only during a specific project, but to train and empower local leaders.

“The key is to [unlock] the potential in those individuals to be able to solve those problems,” said Jake Harriman, founder of Nuru International, a nonprofit working in developing countries to equip the poor living in remote, rural areas to end extreme poverty. That philosophy has shaped how Nuru works in local communities — creating locally led and locally driven solutions.

“We believe that a strong Ethiopian woman who has been empowered with the right skill set and the right experience through the right knowledge is far more capable of solving the challenges that her communities face than an outside coming in, no matter how educated or how well-resourced,” Harriman said.

So Nuru provides training opportunities and mentorship for local members of the leadership teams in the countries where they work. Expats who are recruited by Nuru don’t serve as managers but rather as trainers and advisers to the local management team.

“We go in with an exit strategy. We are not going to be in the communities forever,” Harriman said.

Keep scale in mind

While communities often are a great source of ideas, only thinking about solutions in a particular context can be limiting to broader scale.  

Finding ways to harness locally driven ideas across broader geographies is important to achieving widespread change and impact, said Kate Somers, a program officer on the maternal, newborn and child health team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The example Somers often holds up as a success story is about the Chipatala cha pa Foni initiative run by Concern Worldwide with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through the partnership Airtel, Africa’s largest mobile carrier is partnering with VillageReach, a nonprofit global health organization, to expand mobile health services in Malawi using tailored mobile messaging and a staffed health hotline.

“We became much more laser focused rather than saying we will let a thousand flowers bloom,” Somers told Devex. “We’re probably captured the low hanging fruit. Now we’ve got to do the harder stuff, so we have to be more precise.”

The Gates Foundation has grown more strategic with its investments to target the high impact interventions required to reduce maternal mortality and newborn mortality, she said. While her team remains interested in working to tap into community innovation, they are also committed to working with governments to take these interventions to scale, Somers said.

Reporter Catherine Cheney contributed to this article.

Editor's Note: Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar joined the board of directors of Nuru International, a nonprofit organization, in 2014.

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About the author

  • Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.