The Importance of Grassroots Development


There has been a fundamental problem in government organized development packages to third world countries. In many cases development agencies have been ineffective in reducing poverty in local communities. The development packages are structured by relations of power that are inherent to the very framework of these agencies. When aid is given to countries from these traditional development agencies development occurs in such a way that specific countries, institutions, and groups dominate. These development agencies try to supply aid in a top-down approach that tends to apply western high-technology solutions instead of listening to local knowledge. They also tend to try to develop areas by promoting cash cropping and rapid industrialization, which has been shown in many cases to leave many people in poverty.

An alternative grassroots approach to development has been adopted by some NGOs. The key points in this alternative development scheme are participation and empowerment. Participatory methodologies actively involve local people in the decision making process and allow for a more responsive and effective development program as well as empowering the community. Outside agencies simply support and stimulate people to question the system that they are in and resist the reasons for their poverty. Emphasis is placed on autonomy in the decision-making abilities of local communities, direct democracy within these communities, the self-sufficiency of their local economies.

Certain NGOs have been more effective than government development agencies in implementing this alternative approach to development because they are capable of being more responsive to the community. NGOs can be less hierarchical in their own internal structure, and this makes it easier for them to provide solutions to communities in a non-hierarchical manner. And NGOs will often be critical of government policies and even question the government in power. This allows them more freedom in trying to relieve the oppression of the people.

Some NGOs also have more of a tradition of interacting with locals to find solutions. Economists, engineers, and agriculturalists sent in by development agencies to find solutions receive little training in understanding the dynamics of the culture. Interaction with the community requires the outside individuals to spend time discussing the dynamics of the local interests with all sections of the community. Furthering the interactive ability of these alternative development NGOs, they will often draw some of their local field staff from the area that they are working in.

There are several aspects to the grassroots paradigm of development. It has been found to be very important to look at women and their relationships with the community. This is often omitted in traditional development schemes. Literacy is also very important. Without widespread literacy development can further the literate at the expense of the illiterate. The promotion of literacy is an important step in empowerment.

Participatory Rural Appraisal is where development groups train researchers to go into the villages and spend time talking to them on their own terms in order to encourage them to express local problems and proposed solutions. Farming Systems Research focuses on understanding small farms with research that includes the local farmers in an active role. Farmers are assumed to be able to contribute valuable local knowledge instead of being ignorant. Community Development focuses on strengthening local communities and encouraging them to take an active role in the planning and maintenance of their own facilities.

Participatory Action Research is a development method that tries to create creative human engagement, not poverty reduction. In this manner it hopes to avoid dependency on foreign aid. The outsiders merely act as facilitators. Educated, non-partisan outsiders come in and encourage groups of local people to get together and discuss the reasons for the poverty in their community and to engage in their own social investigation. Group building and discussion of proposed actions follows. External resources may be provided but they are not a precondition for the problem solving abilities of the grassroots groups. Individual groups can hook up with others in the area to form networks of empowered communities.

The grassroots approach to development eliminates the problems inherent in the top-down approach. Western society does not function in a desirable manner. Third world countries cannot be developed in a way that will reach the same endpoint as the western world. The western development strategy results in industrialization and mass consumption that is both environmentally unsustainable and promotes social inequality. The use of resources by the western world is completely unsustainable(1) and the level of income inequality in the US and in Canada has been steadily rising (Anialski et al, 2000). This is obviously not a model of progress that we should use to promote environmentally sustainable and socially just societies. It succeeds in doing exactly the opposite. We can see this in the results of western, top-down style development in India. Rapid industrialization has resulted in increased consumerism of a select few and has left many in poverty.

Appropriate developments cannot take place with a top-down approach. The development agency has to be non-hierarchical in both its internal organization and in its approach in instituting change or the inherent hierarchical framework of the organization will be imposed on the form that the development takes. If the development package imposes a western style hierarchical system upon the community appropriate development cannot take place. Because the western world has yet to figure out how to develop in an environmentally and socially sound manner the only way it will it be possible for third world communities to create intelligent development in their own community will be through grassroots initiatives.

Resources cited

Anialski, M., A. Taylor, M. Griffiths, B. Campbell, D. Pollock, S. Wilson, and J. Wilson. 2000. The Alberta Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) Accounts: A Blueprint for the way we really live. A publication of the Pembina Institute for Appropiate Development, Drayton Valley, AB.

1. In its 1998-99 report the World Resources Institute determined that the amount of energy that the world economy burns every day required the planet 10,000 days to produce.