Grassroots Development: A Question of Empowerment


Working with the mothers' clubs I learned how important we women are, and how important it was for us to get organized. Then all of a sudden the church pulled the rug out from under us. They wanted us to give food out to malnourished mothers and children, but they didn't want us to question why we were malnourished to begin with. They wanted us to grow vegetables on the tiny plots around our houses, but they didn't want us to question why we didn't have enough land to feed ourselves. We started talking about the need for social change and then the very same church that organized us, the same church that opened our eyes, suddenly began to criticize us, calling us communists and Marxists. It was at this point that the church abandoned us.

This statement by a Honduran peasant woman might be transposed to a hundred different contexts in the Third World. When the poor begin to question the underlying reasons for their poverty they often encounter resistance at the local, national and international levels. A neighborhood committee in the slums of Lima, a farmers' cooperative in the Philippines or a union of domestic workers in South Africa - each has experienced a loss of support, and even violence, for stepping beyond the accepted realm of development activities.

This pattern of conflict raises a central question about the development process. How much is development process. How much is development a technical problem, to be resolved with better techniques and advisors, and how much is it a structural problem, rooted in economic and political realities?

The experiences of hundreds of grassroots organizers throughout the world have shown that solutions to underdevelopment necessarily focus on the later. Improved techniques, machines and infrastructure mean little without a corresponding improvement in the political status of the poor. In fact, without increased political power of the poor, technical solutions often aggravate existing inequalities.

Three decades of development dictated from above has proven that top-down strategies are unlikely to improve the lives of the poor. In the 1970s "popular participation" emerged as the answer to the inefficiency and inequities of development. Seeing the need for greater control by the poor over the processes that affect their lives, some development organizations begin to incorporate local input into the planning and implementation of projects.

While participation is now widely accepted as a necessary component of development, its interpretation and level of integration varies amongst development agencies. In its most restricted form, participation applies only to the implementation of a development project or program. As one development planner explained, "after the detailed programmes have been well planned, we tell the people exactly what to do so they will understand their responsibility to participate." Participation is often distorted in this way to take control away from those directly affected. But others stress that participation in development must involve full local control in the planning, implementation, management and evaluation of a project. Defined in this way, participation implies control.

Understanding participation in terms of economic and political empowerment makes the task of development seem immense. Where do we begin if the process demands a restructuring of power relationships to give greater control to the poor? Obviously, the process is multifaceted, with many levels of necessary action. The grassroots organization is one essential actor in this process.

Grassroots Organizations in Development

Grassroots organizations serve as primary vehicles for popular participation in social and economic development. In societies where citizens involvement in local or national policies is limited, such organizations may serve as the only means for participation. In the prolonged military state of emergency in Chile, where even the most benign organizing is seen as subversive, women in the slums of Santiago have formed public kitchens. Not only do these kitchens help to feed the people of the neighborhood, but they create the auspices under which the community can meet to discuss problems.

In other cases, grassroots organizations may serve to ensure democratic implementation of government policies. In the US, 30 years of grassroots organizing led to legal desegregation of public schools. In Nicaragua, mass organizations are playing an instrumental role in pressuring the government to fully implement land reform. And in Zimbabwe, women's organizations are working to make agrarian reform focus more on the needs of women farmers.

Grassroots organizations also provide services and goods where governments fail to do so. In Mexico City, for example, neighborhood committees formed health care clinics and reconstruction brigades to serve the neglected victims of the 1985 earthquake. In South Africa, communities in the black townships organized to provide education and services where the government has denied them these rights.

Either through building alternative structures or through pressuring for change in existing structures, grassroots organizations present a challenge to the status quo. In typologies of grassroots organizations, theorists point to two general forms of grassroots action: self-help and confrontation. Some groups take on both these forms of action, as they see confrontation as the only way to bring government attention to their demands. The Coalition of Collective Ejidos in northern Mexico, for example, occupied the offices of the government marketing agency to demand fair prices for their crops. Brazilian peasants have staged repeated land occupations to pressure the government for land reform. In many cases the line between self-help and confrontation cannot be fixed, and may depend in shifts in external pressure or support.

Limitations on Grassroots Organizations

When grassroots organizations begin to address issues of control, their supporters, whether private, government or religious, often withdraw and harassment begins. These "anti-participatory forces" aim at crushing, co-opting or corrupting organizations that go too far in their attempts to challenge the roots of their poverty. Attacks may be blatant and officially sanctioned, like the apartheid system of South Africa. Yet, equally repressive is government violence toward indigenous groups in Guatemala, military harassment of rural organizations in the Philippines and government bombing of schools in El Salvador.

While many grassroots organizations may strive for full participation by the poor - not just within organizations, but in society as a whole - their efforts are inevitably limited. But these limitations can also serve to reinforce grassroots action. In northern Mexico, for example, hundreds of peasant families who had consistently been denied their rights to land under the agrarian reform law began a series of land take-overs. Despite violent reprisals by government and private forces, the peasants persisted, building a regional alliance of peasant farmers. Today these groups work in a coalition of collective farms, pooling the resources that they eventually won through their persistence. In Honduras, a government attempt to stop land takeovers by peasant unions led to the co-optation and corruption of several peasant leaders. But those who maintained their integrity have found an even greater commitment to the goals of land reform.

Can Grassroots Organizations Make a Difference?

What can be the contribution of grassroots organizations to the development process? In areas where anticipatory forces are most repressive, grassroots organizations may be limited to providing basic services to the poor. Yet even these activities may be seen as confrontational. In Guatemala, for example, a health committee was forced to operate underground because its work was seen as subversive. In El Salvador, a women's association had to work clandestinely to provide basic services to refugees in the war zones.

Those organizations that do take a confrontational role are likely to be met by fierce repression. The Kalinga tribe of the Philippines, for example, has met with violent military repression for its resistance to relocation and the flooding of its ancestral lands to make way for a hydroelectric dam.

Despite these obstacles, grassroots organizations play an important social and political role. They serve as a burr in the side of political elites. Grassroots organizations will use whatever leeway they perceive to bring their problems into the public forum and to mobilize others to work for change. Even though their immediate impact may be small, they are essential actor in shaping the national political climate.

An important impact of grassroots organizing is on the individuals who participate. Individuals are in an uneven match with government and private powerholders. But their power is multiplied through group action. "My life has changed in many ways," explained a member of the Working Women's Forum in India. "I was one person alone. Now I have 10 others to make me strong." The experience of working with others gives individual confidence and power that lives beyond their immediate action. This too may be a step in setting the groundwork for greater participation.

Popular participation and authentic development will not occur without attention to the structural inequalities that create poverty. After 10 years of case analyses, the United Nation's Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) Popular Participation Project echoes this assertion in its conclusion that national processes and policies set the basic framework within which participation, even at the local level, takes place, acquires meaning and can succeed or fail." It further emphasizes that national policies of redistribution are not enough to assure participatory development. Grassroots organizations are necessary to assure just implementation of these policies and the effective delivery of services.

In this sense, grassroots organizations play a critical role in laying the groundwork for the future. Not only do they provide a context for individual empowerment and group action, they serve to hold governments accountable. Even where they are politically restricted, they work to maintain popular pressure on governments.

Empowerment, participation, development - these may seem like a tall order for the modest means of grassroots organizations. But hundreds of organizations have succeeded in posing this challenge despite all obstacles. They find strength in their commitment, in their solidarity with other organizations and in the promise of a future based on a more participatory society.

Case Study: "A Mossi Must Always Use Two Hands of His Own

An interview with Bernard Ouedraogo, founder of the 6S Movement, Burkina Faso. By Medea Benjamin April 1986.

Over the last decade, Western countries have poured $7.5 billion in aid to the drought-stricken countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. But very little of this money has gone to support grassroots development efforts. Groups like the 6S movement in Burkina Faso assert that foreign aid has a negative effect without local grassroots management of funds.

The 6S movement is one organization which has attempted to make aid work for the poor. Based in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), 6S is made up of 2,000 peasant groups in some 1,000 villages throughout Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. The name 6S comes from the French phrase, "se servir de la saison seche en Savanne et en Sahel"). Since many peasants in the Sahel can only grow crops during the four-month rainy season, 6S seeks to help village groups generate income during the rest of the year.

How is 6S different from other non-governmental organizations working with the poor?

6S is based on the traditional cooperative structures of the villagers. Among the Mossi in Burkina Faso, cooperative work is called Naam. Naam, created centuries back, groups together the village youth - from age eight to 35 - to work cooperatively and to learn from the elders how to carry on the Mossi traditions. Everyone within Naam is considered equal: the rich have no more say than the poor, women are equal to men. No one dominates anyone else.

This type of cooperative structure exists under different names throughout western Africa. In Mali it is called Ton, in Senegal, N'Bataye. It is one these foundations, not on the hollow shells of imported ideas, that the future of Africa must be built.

What is the primary purpose of 6S?

6S was conceived as a way to harness these cooperative efforts - not just among the youth but among all the villagers - and to channel outside resources to make them more effective.

Our priority is to conserve the soil, retain water, avoid further erosion, reconstitute the ecosystem - in short, to make the land feed the people. We make loans to village projects, and organize training sessions on everything from raising rabbits to maintaining village mills and pumps.

Our organizations revolves around reviving the will of the African people. For people die twice in their lives; they die when their enthusiasm dies, and when their body dies. The danger for many Africans is that the erosion of our own ways by foreign ways, our own values by foreign values, will destroy our sense of responsibility for solving our community's problems.

That is why the villages we work with have to organize and work for two, three, sometimes up to 10 years before they receive any outside aid at all. Because the aid is only useful if the will is there.

What are some of the problems associated with outside aid?

A group has to be well formed to be able to use outside money efficiently. When aid arrives before the organization is consolidated, it can do more harm than good. We have seen poorly managed groups which are unable to absorb the aid and collapse.

Our philosophy is to start with the peasants, what they know, how they live, what they know how to do, what they want. It implies going slowly, with great patience.

But foreign groups often do not understand this. They give some money, and tow or three months later want a report on how it was spent, where it was spent and what it went for. But our work takes time. It is not magic formula where you just add a bit of money and voila!

Let me give you a scenario: A village group approaches us and says they want to build a retention dam. We try to get a donor to help fund the project. The donors naturally want a project proposal, so we make a proposal and the donor says it is poorly designed. We rework it and come back again. "No," the donor says, "we'll send you an expert to design it for you." The expert comes, designs the project and goes home. Only then will the donor agree to finance the project.

Once the project begins, the donor wants to send another expert to work on it. But this poses a problem for us: if we don't need outside help, we don't want it pushed on us.

There have been cases when donors would only give us money if we agreed to work with their exerts, and we have refused and lost the money. We don't want help that comes with strings attached.

Our philosophy is very simple: If an outsider is willing to come and help us by grabbing the bull's tail, that's great. But we're the ones who have to grab the bull by the horns. Or, as the Mossi says, "If the load you have to carry is too heavy to lift onto your head, then it is right to be glad of the hand that helps you. But a Mossi must always use two hands of his own."

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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