At this week’s Global Grantmaking Institute, much of our discussion has focused on the role of communities in fostering lasting systemic change. Engaging community actors who work closely with vulnerable populations is a key factor. Focusing on community-based organizations (CBOs) challenges the typical development paradigm of imported solutions. Investing in their strengths, their existing resources, and their capacity to apply contextual solutions on a wider scale can influence major trends, key policies, and legal infrastructure, enabling relevant and powerful change.
Often occupying or connected to the lowest ranks of social strata, people working in grassroots CBOs are uniquely positioned because they are affected firsthand by social inequalities and therefore most vulnerable to their effects. The flip side is that these individuals understand the context, cycles, and intricacies of the issues that affect them better than anyone else, and are better positioned to mobilize and respond to structural or social inequalities.
Investing in grassroots organizations is in many ways investing in local experts who have the potential to initiate and effect lasting change from the ground up. An example of this is the Global Fund for Children grantee partner Zanzibar Association of Female Lawyers (ZAFELA). In addition to running comprehensive life-skills trainings through all-girls clubs at local schools, ZAFELA advocates for child and girl-friendly legal changes. The organization has succeeded in empowering girls to be peer-educators for female rights at their schools. It also has persuaded the government to adopt important acts that protect the rights of children in an area where child trafficking is common.
Another example is Bureau pour le Volontariat au Service de l’Enfance et de la Santé (BVES) based in Bukavu, South Kivu’s capital. This organization believes that “children’s rights [should be] taken into the hands of the community.” The group operates three transit centers that help children abducted by armed groups or orphaned by war rejoin their communities. It targets young girls, former child soldiers, and children living on the streets.
In light of the stigma associated with child soldiers, BVES also actively works with local law enforcement and the surrounding communities to (1) create awareness of children’s rights and protection and (2) prepare them for the reintegration of the children housed in its centers. BVES has succeeded in making children’s rights an issue that people across society feel empowered to take on, and its advocacy efforts have helped make child recruitment a crime under Congolese military and national law.
Local groups like BVES and ZAFELA are mobilizing with few resources to address urgent issues affecting their communities. Equipping these types of groups with additional tools and resources to engage their communities and organize effectively around change is one way to interrupt the cycle of poverty and give globally to local solutions.
Stephanie de Wolfe is program associate, Africa for the Global Fund for Children.