The Journey to Self-Reliance starts with Community-led Development

USAID is undergoing a major transformation under the theme “Journey to Self Reliance.” Extensive  field experience shows that this journey begins in communities, and that aid strategies should be designed from the community upwards.

In the past 50 years, countries as diverse as Korea, Philippines, Brazil and most recently Kenya have achieved broad-based economic growth, poverty reduction and improved social indicators through programs of what is now referred to as community-led development (CLD, Caledon 2012).  CLD is distinct from “community-based projects” in that it is a multi-sectoral, multi-year change process that strengthens both sub-district governance and grassroots civil society so that communities can set and achieve their own vision and goals.

Many of those success stories benefited greatly from USAID support, and learning the lessons of those successes can be applied to implementing USAID’s future country programs.

The Foundational Question

Mahatma Gandhi’s famous talisman asks us to think of the face of the poorest person we have met, and ask ourselves whether the action we contemplate will restore her to control over her own life and destiny?  

In practice this means starting with the institutions closest to the people and asking if they were working here, how would they be working? And then, how can we contribute to making them work?

CLD is how development intersects with governance – and, most notably, good community-level governance. If there are no responsive institutions within walking distance, then the young mother in the photo is systematically denied her basic right of voice in the decisions that affect her life.

Five Dimensions of the enabling environment

Based on our research across 70 countries (THP 2013, 2014 and Coonrod 2016), we assessed this question across 5 dimensions – both in terms of national policies and their implementation. Analysis along these dimensions can achieve human-centered systems analysis.


  • Active citizenry: Are citizens (particularly women and youth) organized at the community level? Can they enjoy their right to Information? Are there mandatory mechanisms for social accountability and public forums for priority setting?
  • Political Decentralization: Are officials at the district and sub-district level elected or appointed? Do they have the authority to make local decisions or are they more so a tokenistic bottom-rung of a vertical bureaucracy? Are there quotas for women in elective office? Is there an age minimum to run for office?
  • Administrative Decentralization: Are there comprehensive public services within walking distance? Are hours clearly posted and adhered to? Ideally – are services co-located for easy access to women disproportionately affected by time poverty, as well as enabling services to achieve synergies such as shared access to electricity, meeting space and clean water.
  • Fiscal devolution: Perhaps most importantly, do communities command their fair share of public resources, in a timely and transparently apportioned manner? There is an emerging norm of 20% – although most USAID program countries are an order of magnitude lower (often 2 – 5%).
  • Multi-stakeholder planning: Are there effective mechanisms for long-term planning, particularly for inclusive economic development, or is the power monopolized by political actors making short-term decisions – and discarding  plans and efforts of their predecessors? Who are the key constituencies that must be involved in local planning, such as traditional authorities, secondary schools and cooperatives?


Phase One – Community Mobilization

Mindset: The first step in implementing CLD programs is to transform the mindset of both grassroots people and local leadership – from dependency and clientelism – to just or democratic , rights-holding citizenship. This process of building confidence and community trust requires skilled facilitation and a phased curricula that builds social capital over time. There are excellent examples of these processes – from Citizen Voice and Action (World Vision), to The Hunger Project’s Vision, Commitment and Action, to the 5-stage Community Empowerment Activity Cycle (CEAC, 2014) of Kalahi CIDDS in the Philippines.  

“Exit as you Enter”: It’s critically important that – from the start – communities are creating their vision of self-reliance, including their ability to mobilize even more resources at the end of the program than during it. The community must own and celebrate their own “graduation”, and realize clear benefits, so as to avoid perverse incentives.

Animators: A key to ultimate self-reliance in these processes is the training of community volunteers who are the “spark plugs” for ongoing community mobilization. Animators are often drawn from and specialize in addressing key audiences (youth, women, ethnic and religious minorities) or develop expertise in a particular sector (health, agriculture, WASH, nutrition). Animators often work alongside and “leverage” the often-scarce front-line professionals, such as community health workers, nurse midwives, and agricultural extension agents.

Self-reliant action projects:  There are many development actions that do NOT require external funding, and it is critical in Phase One to “strengthen this muscle” within the community, as money can be a spoiler. Good examples include hand-dug wells, restoration of irrigation canals or pathways, improving classrooms, or taking loans to purchase food processing equipment that can be used collectively on a fee-for-service basis.

Strengths and Assets: Another key in building confidence and trust is to focus on mobilizing strengths and resources within the community itself. A hallmark in the evolution of CLD is that most practitioners discover it is far more effective to organize around vision and existing assets than around problems. Many tools exist, including PRA tools for asset mapping, simple participatory “SWOT” exercises, formation of VSLAs (village savings and loan associations) and community philanthropy/community foundations through which villages can often access their local “diaspora” working in cities with access to local funding and business contacts.

Phase 2: Integrated Programming

The urgent challenges of the SDG era require integrated programming at the community level. You cannot make progress in reducing stunting, building resilience or women’s economic empowerment without people having access to a comprehensive package of public services (Buvinic 2016).

As community trust and social accountability improve, the community can begin a process of collective planning and priority setting to ensure they have access to a comprehensive set of public services which meet the Four-As (THP 1994):

  • AWARENESS: People must have a clear understanding of the issue(s) and the possible solutions to take effective action.
  • ACCESS: Training, information or resources people need to succeed in their own action must be physically available in the community, and unencumbered by social barriers that could stop some people from accessing it.
  • AFFORDABILITY: People must be able to afford what they need. To a family living in poverty, issues of price gouging, bribery and exploitation all have the same effect of preventing the family unit from affording what it needs.
  • ACCOUNTABILITY: People must have ways to hold public functionaries accountable for the public services people depend upon.

This phase often includes the creation of social infrastructure (village development committees, health committees, education committees) as well as physical infrastructure (wells, grain mills, clinics, and schools and classrooms).

In rural Africa, it is often more politically feasible for government to employ people than to build the physical infrastructure they need. This has been key to the success of the epicenter strategy, in which district government agrees to employ functionaries if the community can construct both the physical service center as well as decent housing for nurses.

Phase 3: Achieving and Tracking Impact

Once a community has both the social and physical infrastructure to achieve progress across multiple sectors, there needs to be a regular cycle of data gathering / participatory planning / community action through which people can set priorities and track progress.

This cycle requires a data-for-the-people mindset, so that community members are not only the source of data but also the principal client. Nearly all CLD practitioners have such a system. CARE’s “participatory performance tracker” (CARE 2015) is a well-documented example.

Best practices in this are public information boards, with budgets, targets and achievements, as well as high-visibility Citizen Charters that inform people of service standards to which they are entitled, and phone numbers to call when something is not working.

Note: A well-paid, Western-trained “expert” is likely to achieve sectoral outcomes faster than CLD, but without the ownership, scale and sustainability that CLD achieves for the long-term.

Phase 4: Sustainable Self-Reliance

Many (but not all) CLD practitioners have a clear, measurable exit strategy. The Hunger Project, for example, empowers communities to set and achieve targets across 8 overarching goals measured by 58 indicators (THP 2016), thus “graduating” from the program.

Key prerequisites for graduation (and sustainable self-reliance) include:

  • Generating enough revenue from community enterprises to sustain their facilities,
  • Democratic operations that have changed leadership through multiple cycles,
  • Legal registration as a local development association (or whatever is the equivalent in the country context, such as a formal partnership with government or as a cooperative).


Buvinic M. and O’Donnell, M. 2016 “Revisiting What Works: Women, Economic Empowerment and Smart Design

Caledon Institute 2012, “Community-Led Development”,

CARE 2015: Participatory Performance Tracker

CEAC 2014.

Coonrod, J. 2016. “Participatory Local Democracy: Key to Community-Led Rural Development”, Development (2016). doi:10.1057/s41301-016-0008-2

The Hunger Project 1994, “What Constitutes and Enabling Environment for the Poor to Succeed in their own Development?”

The Hunger Project, “2013 State of Participatory Democracy Report,”

The Hunger Project, “2014 State of Participatory Democracy Report, ibid”

The Hunger Project 2016, “Measuring Self-Reliance”,

World Vision, CVA within DPA.