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What is development and why are grassroots organisations important?

George Kennedy

Put simply, development represents positive change. It is the process by which livelihoods are improved as communities and individuals are empowered to lead happy, healthy and prosperous lives.

But who gets to decide what this looks like?


Historically, international development has been characterised by top down processes, where contemporary business models have been applied to the art of development. International agencies enter foreign communities aiming to improve the lives of vulnerable and impoverished people. This is based upon the premise that objectively beneficial technical processes exist that may assist any community.


This is absolutely true. These processes have been outlined by the United Nations in both the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goal frameworks. Indeed, agricultural infrastructure, maternal health clinics, sanitation systems and access to fresh water can all be viewed as objectively beneficial to any community. These are the broad, universal goals that international NGOs have set themselves, and in many ways, they are very good at achieving them.

At the local level however, ongoing community development requires a very different approach. Rather than merely providing infrastructure, healthcare clinics or emergency relief, truly sustainable programs at the local level must be a reflection of the community’s real needs and values. If not, it cannot succeed. However objectively beneficial a resource may be, if nobody uses it, it is worthless. This is the cornerstone of neoliberal development philosophy. In rejecting the notion of indisputable ‘best practice’, neoliberal development embraces community needs, values and knowledge in solving local problems.

This is grassroots development. Community members working together to improve their collective livelihoods. It is bottom-up and locally accountable, acknowledging that the process of development is just as important as the results. By focusing primarily upon capacity building, grassroots development promotes inclusivness and resilience. It provides a space for communities to address local issues, find common ground and balance competing interests. Instead of technically skilled foreign agencies bringing a service to a community and then leaving, grassroots development aims to build their own capacity so that they may go on to solve problems into the future.


When community members come together and take collective action on a local problem, a grassroots organisation is formed. These groups are the little guys taking on the mammoth task of sustainable development in their communities. Thankfully, they have some tricks up their sleeves that their international counter parts do not. They are adept at navigating complex local socio-cultural environments, have very little financial overheads and have insights into local development challenges that only those who have lived them might enjoy. They know what will work in their community because they make up the community. These are the barriers that plague foreign organisations and this is why supporting grassroots development is so important. In this way, solutions may be identified that are accountable to local environments, ensuring development programs are socio-culturally appropriate and widely adopted.


It must be recognised that grassroots development is an organic process that often requires nurturing and guidance from outside sources. They cannot do it alone. Here, foreign donors and international agencies may offer financial and technical support, allowing them to purchase infrastructure and equipment, as well as being a source of consultation regarding program development. In this way, foreign agencies and donors can support the work of grassroots organisations whilst preserving the autonomy that is the root of their efficacy. In doing so, local ownership may prevail and sustainable practices and partnerships can emerge.


Grassroots development thus combines participatory approaches and local capacity building to empower vulnerable communities to develop as a reflection of their own needs and values. In this way, grassroots development can help community’s lead happy, healthy and prosperous lives that they value and have reason to value.

Grassroots initiatives empower communities to decide what development looks like.

About the Author

George is the founder of Grassroots Collective and has worked with local development organisations all over the world, from Cambodia to Patagonia. He is currently working in Latin America, helping local community nonprofits achieve their missions and share their incredible stories.

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