I watched as white trucks with NGO logos swished by. I asked my friend, who was waiting with me, if they were doing projects in this community. The answer was no, but they had some time ago put in an irrigation project with treadle pumps that were no longer in use. The pumps allow people to manually pump water and irrigate fields, and while they helped significantly to expand crops and overcome droughts, according to my friend, it is hard work, and the pumpers were often the local body builders, star athletes of the town. They had been tough to budge. My friend demonstrated his attempt at using one and we laughed because he is not only rather slight but also a riot. But the treadle pumps worked as a good low tech solution, and they are better now than they use to be. Someone has to try out ideas, and finding something that works is better than having nothing at all. Today, there are newer treadle pump designs, and they will continue to be changed and improved, and as long as that translates into meals in bellies and greater overall food security it is certainly worth it. On the ground, it, however, remains frustrating not to be able to get the tools necessary for fixing minor breakdowns, or to find strong legs when a drought is coming.
Anyone who is from East Africa or who has spent significant time in its cities or its rural areas is probably aware that there are many big organizations operating locally, implementing large development projects, and projects in between. Most solutions offered are done through short-term projects– which can sometimes mean 2-9 years, with development work in progress evident in branded trucks. Big organizations do a lot of good in these settings – by helping to build civil servant capacities, implementing larger scale projects with both government and communities coming together, supporting infrastructure, teacher training or building up crucial services such as hospitals. At the same time there are groups who are often left out or overlooked. Ironically, these are often the local groups, dedicated to responding to what is going on in their communities – and generally searching for a handful of resources, like basic items needed for fixing treadle pumps or some special technical knowledge to share and build on. Usually the resources these communities require to do something impactful on the ground are too small for larger groups and funders to get involved with. Keeping track of projects worth $2,000 or less, for example, can produce the same amount of administrative work as a much costlier project.
But a shift has already begun to take place in development work that is recognizing the important work of community organizers and their potential for building local capacity and responsiveness. This change, echoed in the new Sustainable Development Goals, identifies communities as important contributors to development. It is necessary to note the obvious: that the community based organizations (CBOs) are the ones who are there for the long term. And community work itself is not a product of development outcomes, but of processes of responding to community needs and desires over time – whether they be good times or bad times. This is different than projects coming in and projects pulling back out, and not defined around occasional field visits.
For community based groups, their work and local contributions matter all the time and every day, for years to come. Their work connects to a willingness to engage in continual learning process and to be responsive to changes happening in and around their communities. And community based organizations are typically doing their work with very limited resources. That is how we started out as CAP/AIDS in 2003 – recognizing the big efforts and big impacts of small grassroots community groups responding to the devastation HIV/AIDS had brought to their communities in terms of ailing health, increasing poverty, and a lot of other vulnerabilities and community decay. Community groups were desperate to do more, but with little resources at their disposal and zero recognition. With some start-up funding, these same community groups were able to reach out to tens of thousands of people in the most affected areas with HIV prevention information, put hundreds of children in school, and alleviated the suffering of countless families from long-term poverty. Recently, some of the same community groups have now started to respond to new challenges such as recent droughts and urban dislocation, with cities raising squatted settlements to make room for larger urban developments. The work of a community group is never done.
Community based organizations are sharing food resources, have helped families find new homes, trained people in drought resistant crops, and continue to create means of leveraging resources to meet those most marginalized in their communities. These groups are made up of the knowledge people have accumulated, trust they have earned, and they are based on everyday experiences and continuous learning as local situations continue to change. Supporting community based organizations is an obvious choice. At the end of the day, it is the people who live there that will still be there – and it is these people and their communities who we partner with and whom we support.
Over the last years, CAP/AIDS has worked with more than 20 community based organizations in 7 African countries that have gone through capacity building programs with us. Programs that are aimed at providing them with the necessary tool to build firm foundations, access and develop their own funding, and respond to community needs for the long term.