A famous US politician often said, “all politics is local.” This is certainly true when it comes to overcoming hunger and poverty in all its forms: overcoming barriers to food production, water supply, sanitation, primary health and education, family income and social inclusion can only be worked out at the local level.

Featured photo: Pyrethrum farm, Chongqing (China), part of the Rural Reconstruction Movement, 1945, Rockefeller Foundation.

Community-led development strengthens both decentralized government and grassroots civil society often known as social movements.


Local government represents the oldest form of government: communities traditionally banded together locally and selected local leaders to mobilize them to solve local problems and protect their rights against incursions from competing communities. Accountability was often very direct, ranging from early forms of consensus democracy to trial by sword. People, in this era, were clearly the authors of their own development; there was no other alternative.

Nations grew up from this traditional base of local self-governance, but added upward – feudal – forms of accountability and tax collection. Colonialism replaced traditional feudal structures with bureaucracies, but maintained the same feudal mindset of upward accountability. The post colonial area, often attracted by the apparent efficiencies of state socialism, maintained this system. As a former Indian politician once said, “The British created a system to enslave us, and we have carefully preserved it ever since.”

With concentration of power (and often, in the absence of systems of checks and balances) came bureaucratic inefficiency and rising corruption. Attitudes of alienation, powerlessness and dependency grew among the people.  Leaders around the world seeking to correct this situation by mobilizing “people power” began campaigning for greater decentralization, such as Ghana in 1983, the Philippines in 1986 and India with the panchayati raj act of 1993. The World Bank and UNDP pressed for decentralization as a pathway to greater efficiency.

An excellent history of this “first wave” of decentralization can be found at this link.

Social Movements

The science of Community-led Development, however, is actually much older, and has its roots in the quest for human dignity towards the end of the colonial era. These included:

Community-led Development Success Stories at Scale

Korea attributes it tremendous economic growth to its Saemaul Undong program of the 1970s.

The Kerala State of India launched its People Planning Campaign in 1996, the first systematic implementation of Gandhi’s vision for the rural local self-governance, following the 1992 passage of the 73rd amendment of India’s constitution, devolving specific powers to local government (panchayats).

Indonesia piloted its CDD program, KDP, in 25 villages in 1997, and then decided to scale it up in 2007 as the National Program for Community Empowerment (PNPM).

The Philippines Kalahi-CIDDS program reached 1.6 million households from 2002 to 2013 with support from the World Bank, and then expanded it into the National Community-Driven Development Project. The government of the Philippines hosted our movement launch in 2015.

Afghanistan launched its National Solidarity Program, as a donor-funded community-driven infrastructure development program in 2003, and in 2018 converted into a comprehensive Citizen Charter program.

The first literature using the phrase “community-led development” the way we use it appears in Canada and New Zealand in 2012, who adopted this approach as national policy for the empowerment of indigenous First Nations.

In 2014, The African Union adopted its Africa Charter on the Values and Principles of Decentralisation, Local Governance and Local Development. As of the start of 2019, too few countries have signed it for it to go into force.

In 2015, the international community adopted the Addis Ababa Agenda for Financing for Development, where paragraph 34 acknowledges “that expenditures and investments in sustainable development are being devolved to the subnational level, which often lacks adequate technical and technological capacity, financing and support. We therefore commit to scaling up international cooperation to strengthen capacities of municipalities and other local authorities.