By Gunjan Veda, The Hunger Project and The Movement for Community-led Development

Gunjan Veda is Senior Advisor of the Global Collaborative Research Project, MCLD

Featured Photo Credits to Outreach International

This morning a group of over 230 development practitioners, funders, academics, and government officials from all over the world got together in the new “it” venue of our times- zoom. The occasion: a learning event where the Movement for Community-led development shared results and tools from research that has been two years in the making. Only for some of us in the room, it was more than just another learning event- it was a celebration, not just of community-led development(CLD), but of the very essence of it- connection and collaboration.  

Throwback to February 2019. At my new job at the Movement for Community-led Development, I was tasked with collecting about 50 reports from various Movement members to systematically review the impact of community-led development. My life over the next six months was clear and the nerd in me rejoiced at the idea of quietly sitting in my office chair and poring over these reports. However, first I had to get the said reports. I started calling the custodians of these reports – the monitoring and evaluation officers at the over 50 organizations who were then a part of MCLD. (Now we have 72 INGO members + hundreds of local civil society organizations from all over the world). Each one of the ensuing conversations followed a similar trajectory: This is a great idea. We really do need the evidence. We are happy to share our reports (or we would be happy to share our evaluations, only we don’t have any!). They’ll tell you nothing about the impact of CLD.

The problem, I discovered, was systemic. Evaluation reports were often designed in response to donor requirements. They sought to measure more tangible outcomes. Measuring the impact of something as complex as community-led development, when there was not even a clear understanding of what it meant, was a Herculean task. One many professionals were struggling with in their own organizations. A new set of research questions emerged:

  • Where has community-led development worked? How and why?
  • What is the impact of CLD on development outcomes?
  • And how do we adapt existing evaluation methodologies to capture the complexity of CLD?

To answer these questions, however, we had to dig deeper. We had to unpack what we meant by community-led development, what it would look like in practice, and what are organizations currently doing as part of their CLD programming? Clearly this was not a task that I could accomplish by myself. No one person or organization can or should define CLD. Once again, I reached out to all the M&E professionals, and program and research and learning managers and asked them if they would be interested in exploring these questions together? We had no external donor. No grants to help us “fund” people’s time. Just our “local resources.”

Thirty-five people from 23 different organizations volunteered. We divided ourselves into three groups. We found a group of academic and practitioner experts who were as committed to the cause as us and they became our advisory group – people who would constantly guide and challenge us to ensure the rigor of our work.

The quiet life I had anticipated evaporated. Every week, the groups would meet to chip away at their assigned tasks and questions. Life became a series of meetings and skype calls. And this was before Covid had set in. Our volunteer research team not only came from different organizations, but they also lived across different time zones. From Indonesia and Australia to the US and every continent in between.

Skeptics shook their heads at us. How long will the momentum last? Is this sustainable? But we plowed on. We debated, we discussed, we heard one another. Most importantly, we learned from one another and with one another. In unpacking the current practice of CLD, we became better CLD practitioners ourselves. The task wasn’t easy. At the learning event this morning, Dr. Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi and winner of the 1997 Africa prize said, “Community-led Development is a formidable task because it requires not just having a deep respect for communities but the courage to step away, relinquish control and see the power of sustained transformation emerge.” The same is true of collaboration as well. It necessitates that we relinquish control. And that is not easy. Deadlines and timelines are important, and getting a group to adhere to them is not easy.

These last 10 days, we have shared stories on the different characteristics of CLD- accountability, participation, capacity development, local assets, transformative capacity to name a few. We decided to apply these very principles in our research. We held each other accountable, we all participated, we brought in different skills and expertise and most importantly, we adapted. When COVID created upheaval in our personal and professional lives, we decided to rethink our deadlines. Responding to the needs of our team members was more important.

We learned to meet people where they are. Some worked with us for a few months and then had to move on. Others have carried the torch since the very beginning. When they were tired, someone else stepped up to help ease the burden. I remember in the first few months of the research, I would panic if someone skipped more than one weekly meeting. I would worry every time a team member had to leave the group. Is this model really sustainable? Is it a fair ask? But for every member who had to leave the team, a new one arrived. Others joined in to help in different capacities. We were no longer a team of 35. The first year, I religiously kept track of how many people were part of this effort. Sometime in the last 12 months, I stopped counting. So many people have contributed to this work in so many capacities at so many different junctures! This collaborative research is much akin to a relay race. One group of people carries the baton and then passes it on to others at the next milestone – the race continues and we all contribute what we can to make it a success. Perhaps, sustainability in CLD does not need to be about community groups or volunteers working endlessly. Perhaps it can be a relay model, where we collaborate such that each carries the torch till they are able to and then someone else from the team takes over.

In many ways, what happened in our research group is what happens in community-led development. And it all depends on the very things that we tend to ignore- trust, relationships, and connections. In this growing community of researchers, we managed to create the first landscape of CLD practice looking at 173 programs across 65 countries. We created two tools to strengthen the practice and reporting of CLD. When we started this research, one of our advisors warned, “As you forge ahead there will be many times when you will be frustrated with the pace. When you will miss deadlines. But always remember the biggest product of this research will not be the results but the process. It will be how you together add momentum to this Movement.” Two years later, his words ring true.

The tools we shared today will, we hope, become the first steps towards building standards for CLD. As Susan Wong, the Global Lead for Community-Driven Development at the World Bank noted today: That is a remarkable achievement and much needed. But perhaps what is even bigger here is the collaboration and the relationships we have created, the growth and learning we have experienced. As with community-led development, the completed road or hospital building is wonderful, but the real change is in how the community views itself. And it is through collaboration that this change can be sustainably achieved.

THREE PRINCIPLES OF COLLABORATION

1. Shared Purpose: This is the glue that holds any collaboration together. Create manageable milestones towards this shared purpose.
2. Adaptability: We have to meet people where they are and adapt to changing circumstances. Sometimes, this may mean a small change, like a timeline. And sometimes, this could mean changing the way we work
3. Respect and Mutual Accountability: Not everyone will be able to do an equal amount of work or put in an equal amount of time. But as long as we do the best that we can, we are open about our limitations and deliver on our promises, the relationship will work.

Remember, collaboration is all about the process!