The Journey of MCLD

How can an advocacy initiative created with some of the largest international NGOs transform itself into a global network led by thousands of Majority World (“Global South”) local organizations? And how do I, as the old white American former physicist who started it, feel about that?

The answer to the second part is easy – grateful and excited that what I’ve long stood for is finally coming to pass. Community organizers and feminist activists from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burkina Faso and Kenya shaped the programs of The Hunger Project where I worked with the principles and practices now known as Community-led Development (CLD). These pioneers learned CLD from centuries of ancient wisdom and long experience in the anticolonial struggle. Many of us have advocated for these principles for nearly 50 years, but without much success until recently.

The first part is harder to explain. Why did this take so long? Why, in the face of so many brilliant bottom-up development successes and so many top-down development abject failures, was it so difficult for the development community to devote its resources to strengthening communities to solve their own problems?

As I was preparing to launch MCLD, I hosted a series of regional meetings across the global development community. In India, one person said – “we must get decentralization into party manifestos.” Another said – “It’s already there – all parties agree decentralization must never happen.”

That perverse mindset was everywhere, and only recently has receded a bit.

Transforming the way the world does development has proven to be a dance in a rapidly changing global political landscape. At the start of the Millennium Development Goals, all countries seemed content with letting Minority World funders run development. The 2003 Maputo Declaration and 2005 Paris Principles began a shift towards at least country ownership. The 2008 Food Price Crisis began to make the shift to country ownership real. Big increases in bilateral aid rapidly growing economies in Africa resulted in rapid MDG progress. And perhaps the most dramatic success was the dramatic reduction in hunger and poverty during the Zero Hunger campaign in Brazil, which depended in large measure on community-led initiatives. 

One thing I learned about my own INGO community was that there were strong champions for bottom-up development inside many big INGOs but they kept quiet about it because it did not suit their fundraising appeals that often perpetuated a White Savior mindset. And because there was no funding for these approaches, there was not a shared language, no community of practice, no significant research or body of evidence to support advocacy for it. 

In both Majority and Minority world countries, practitioners felt alone, not understood, and frankly a bit unique. Their methodologies were all internally branded and not widely shared. South Korea’s very successful rural development program was Saemaul Udong – not exactly an international branding. 

I had never come across the term “community-led development” until 2013. Yet suddenly we had an umbrella term that could be shared. It took many conversations to overcome the pride of being unique and misunderstood, but bottom-up champions saw the advantage of the term.

Successful World Bank-funded community-driven development programs also led to optimism. We launched MCLD with 18 INGO members during the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit at an event hosted by the Philippines highlighting their successful KALAHI-CIDSS program that had trained 250,000 community leaders who responded brilliantly during the 2013 typhoon Haiyan. With MCC support, the Philippines brought a local mayor and community leader as keynote speakers. 

Things were looking good for CLD. Knowing that local people needed to be in the lead on advocacy, we launched MCLD chapters in six countries in Africa and in Mexico, hosted by INGO country offices. 

In 2016, the UN held a humanitarian summit, where civil society pushed hard for “localizing” humanitarian response through a “Grand Bargain” – along very similar principles to CLD. Majority World initiatives like the NEAR Network were launched to push Minority World funders to honor that promise and shift resources to local actors. 

Then came a rise in autocracy and racist violence in many countries including the US. The Black Lives Matter movement forced people of conscience everywhere to face the depths of systemic racism, including racist roots of international development. 

Support for MCLD grew, and I was able to hire staff beyond myself – including a remarkable individual – Gunjan Veda from India, who had worked as a journalist, been part of multiple social movements and served on the staff of India’s Planning Commission.

The COVID-19 crisis was a turning point for MCLD. As “outsiders” were pulled out of low-income communities, community leaders stepped forward to protect their neighbors. And – spoiler alert for INGOs – they would not want to step back. Hundreds of community leaders came to MCLD as a platform for collective action, accurate information and collective voice with their own governments. Groups of community-based organizations (CBOs) began launching their own MCLD chapters with no INGO support of membership at all. In 2020, MCLD Nigeria became the first registered National Association. 

Then, in November 2021, USAID Administrator Samantha Power announced goals of ensuring 25% of USAID funds would go to local actors and 50% of all programs (whether by local or international actors) would be community-led. 

Thus by 2022, both the nature of MCLD membership – with its 2000+ CBO members, most of them in Africa – and our opportunities for impact were transformed. And Gunjan, as a passionate Majority World leader had emerged as an in-demand spokesperson not only for MCLD but within an ever-widening #ShiftThePower Movement.

MCLD will be a network of independent national associations, each applying the principles of CLD in response to the needs of their own members. Gunjan will be the executive director of MCLD-US and executive coordinator of a global secretariat made up of staff in countries around the world.

As long as there is breath in my body, I will support her here in the US as well as the hundreds of inspiring Majority World leaders who’ve found a place to stand in MCLD.

When I started this journey in the 1970s, I believed that ultimately the world would transform – that racist oppression and war would inevitably give way to democracy and justice. I no longer believe that. The struggle for justice and human dignity will be perpetual – our reward needs to be in the spiritual strength that emerges from the struggle itself.

Featured photo: John and Gunjan meet with the now-late Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, father of India’s green revolution and former Hunger Project board chair, in his office in September 2019.