Village Earth helps reconnect communities to the resources that promote human well-being by enhancing social and political empowerment, community self-reliance and self-determination. They do this by strengthening intermediate and grassroots organizations through fiscal sponsorship, networking, training, research and advocacy.
Village Earth (originally called the Consortium for Sustainable Village-Based Development or CSVBD) was born at The International Conference on Sustainable Village-Based Development hosted by Dr. Maurice Albertson and Dr. Edwin & Miriam Shinn and held from September 28 – October 2 , 1993 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Co. The conference was attended by over 250 delegates from 40 different countries who came together to discuss how to make aid more effective at reaching the grassroots. More than 200 papers were submitted forming five volumes of Proceedings. By the end of the week-long conference, the organizers were given the mandate by the participants to form the CSVBD to promote the strategies developed during the conference. The CSVBD was officially incorporated as a U.S. Federally recognized 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization in 1995 and later renamed Village Earth.
The conference, as well as the roots of the Village Earth approach, were heavily influenced by Agenda 21 which came out of the United Nations Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro on June 14, 1992. In particular, Village Earth drew from its recognition that poverty is not the problem, rather, lack of access to resources is the primary obstacle to building a better life for the majority of the world’s poor. As such, the the Village Earth Approach emphasizes the role of intermediary organizations who work to mobilize village leadership and planning and from that, develop linkages to resources institutions such as governments, single sector NGOs, universities and the private sector. This type of organization is commonly referred to as a Grassroots Support Organization or GSO.
Philosophy and Guiding Principles
Village Earth was founded on the belief that poverty is not the problem, but rather, merely a symptom of the larger problem of individuals and communities becoming disconnected from the resources that contribute to human well-being. They believe that the real challenge that they face as a global community is how everyone can have access to the resources needed to live well without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. Defining the problem in this way refocuses it away from the so-called “third-world” and recognizes the international connections between the consumption of resources, inequality and poverty. To overcome this challenge, they believe that as a global community they must place greater emphasis on sustainable development and the sharing of power and resources with marginalized populations. They believe these two strategies must be interconnected to be truly effective and that they cannot rely on those who benefit from the current system to lead the way forward. Rather, marginalized communities must be empowered to lead the way for us all.
Inspired by the concept that all humanity lives in a single global community or village, the Village Earth approach was designed as more holistic, just and equitable model of development that recognizes the right of ALL people to be active participants in that global community. The Approach works by “assisting disadvantaged individuals and groups gain greater control than they presently have over local and national decision-making and resources, and of their ability and right to define collective goals, make decisions and learn from experience” (Edwards & Hulme, 1992, p. 24). In the spirit of Ghandi’s philosophy of swaraj, Village Earth is focused on enhancing the control and management that marginalized communities have over their resources. Doing so not only contributes to their well-being but also increases their capacity for self-determination. This is especially relevant for indigenous communities whose culture is often intimately intertwined with their environment and who oftentimes define progress very differently from Western market-oriented societies.
Accountability to the Grassroots
They believe that the only way to empower grassroots organizations is to… well, empower grassroots organizations. That means creating structures and relationships that ensure that they and their allies are accountable downward and not disproportionately upward to funders. Some of the principles they follow to ensure this include:
Making a Long-term Personal Commitment to Communities
They believe the only way to build sufficient trust and a genuine sense of solidarity and mutual accountability with communities is when they can count on them and their partners 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. 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. 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.”
Working as Allies vs. Project Managers
This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. To take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability, they suspend any preconceived notions they may have about what is needed and 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 Freire, they 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, they can learn how their 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.
Focusing on the Community’s Long-term Vision vs. Band-aid Approaches that Just Address Symptoms
Instead of focusing on “problems” Village Earth’s and its allies 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 they 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. This is why the Village Earth approach has been particularly successful with indigenous communities who may define progress is ways that are very different from Western donors and NGOs. To help ensure long-term sustainability,their model calls for the creation of both a short term (5-10 years) as well as a long-term (seven generations) vision. In this way, communities can reflect upon the impact that their decisions today will have on future generations.
Working Towards the Mobilization and Empowerment of Entire Regions or Social Groups
In the spirit of Ghandi’s concept of Swaraj, Village Earth recognizes 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 villages to mobilize the critical mass and resources necessary to break the cycle of dependence behind much of the world’s poverty. They 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, businesses forming a Grassroots Support Network, communities can break the cycle of dependence that compromises their self-determination. Furthermore, sustainability of their decentralized financial model requires that GSO’s mobilize entire regions vs. one or two communities. As such, allied GSO’s have a built-in incentive to increase impact without diminishing the quality of their support to communities. In the traditional aid system, because of the backward incentive structure and built-in competition between NGO’s and communities, quality of services is often traded for impact and efficiency to please donors. Unfortunately, in this case, poor quality means disempowerment.
Creating Organizational Structures Built on Trust, Solidarity, & Mutual Accountability
They believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities they 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. 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, decentralized decision making, 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, which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities. 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.