Our Voices

Empowering Local Leadership: Transforming Development Aid with Bottom-Up Solutions

Coinciding with World Water Day on March 22, John Lewis Young Leader Hana Kebede shared commentary about the challenges that persist in her native Ethiopia surrounding access to clean water. Having seen firsthand how millions of Ethiopians are still living without essential infrastructure like clean water and electricity, Kebede, a senior at Tufts University, made the issue the focus of her fellowship’s capstone project. In spite of substantial gains in recent decades and the billions of dollars in development assistance that Ethiopia receives annually, roughly half of Ethiopia’s population still lacks access to potable water, electricity and basic sanitation—leading Kebede to examine how alternative development methods that center local voices could result in more inclusive and effective aid allocation, in contrast to the more historically prevalent top-down approach.

Born in the southern region of Ethiopia and having made multiple trips back, I have seen firsthand how millions of Ethiopians are still living without essential infrastructure like clean water and electricity. Even after substantial gains in recent decades in Africa’s second most populous country, roughly half of Ethiopia’s population have no access to potable water, electricity and basic sanitation.

This experience drove me to wonder about the rift between the billions of dollars in development assistance that Ethiopia receives annually from bilateral donors such as USAID and the challenges that persist as Ethiopian communities lack sufficient services of healthcare, clean water and energy security.

I wanted to know if there was a better way that development dollars could be spent to ensure that local Ethiopian populations are getting the support they need and want.

As I further explored alternative development methods, I learned about the concept of community-led development (CLD), a global movement that is transforming development projects and assistance around the world.

Rather than the top-down style that places power in the hands of foreign philanthropists or government bureaucrats who live thousands of miles away from disadvantaged communities, CLD aims to shift decision-making and financial support directly into the hands of local communities, whether in Asela, Ethiopia, where I was born or Minneapolis, Minn. where my family lives today.

“Our mission is to shift the power so local communities can achieve their own vision and goals,” John Coonrod, co-founder of the Movement for Community-Led Development (MCLD), told me in an interview in January. MCLD is a Washington-based nonprofit organization working with 1,500 civil society groups globally, including several dozen in Ethiopia.

One of those organizations in Ethiopia is WEEMA International, a US-based nonprofit group that has been practicing community-led development since 2011 in Southwestern Ethiopia, about two hundred miles from the town where I was born.

Wide-ranging initiatives, including access to clean water, education, health care delivery, women’s economic empowerment, and climate resilience, are all part of WEEMA’s comprehensive approach. Every program run by WEEMA is carried out in close collaboration with local communities.

“We’re embedded in the community. We’re hyper-local,” WEEMA founder Elizabeth McGovern said, in explaining how all decisions are driven and implemented by local community members. “Nobody wants an outsider to come in and tell you what to do.”

This approach is extremely important to decolonizing the development sector. For decades the standard of global development has been rich countries and philanthropies, usually led by white men, telling developing countries what they need and how the money they give will be spent.

A report by the Council on Foundations and the nonprofit group Candid found that 61 percent of the $8 billion awarded by American foundations in 2019 went to organizations headquartered in the U.S., rather than in the countries the U.S. funders were attempting to help.

The same report found that in the 2016-2019 period, only about 13% of U.S. foundations’ global grant dollars went directly to organizations that were based in the country where programs were being implemented.

Colonialism and Western imperialism have left a lasting impact on who has access to what resources and aid. It has shaped our modern world and created the current environment of developed and developing nations–forming a Global South vs Global North narrative. The essence of the subjugator and subjugated dynamic that stems from colonialism has seeped into development practices, removing agency from local communities.

“It’s decades and decades of patriarchal governance, a legacy of colonization which is still largely intact,” said Coonrod, who has been working in the development sector for over 40 years. He worked at the Hunger Project from 1977 until his recent retirement on January 1st, 2024, and served as the organization’s Executive Vice President.

Organizations should aim to shift power dynamics not just by choosing what they are funding but by how they are doing grant decision-making as well. Too often grantmakers use intermediaries when strong local alternatives are available. Part of shifting the power and mindset within the development industry entails taking guidance and actively listening to the voices and perspectives of local people when setting agendas and making decisions.

The paradigm began to shift in the 1990s and early 2000s as more organizations began to see the importance of bottom-up holistic approaches. The 2010 review of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) was accompanied by coordinating advocacy efforts by civil society groups to move away from top-down decision-making.

As one part of this shift, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The SDGs highlight the importance of sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11), clean water and sanitation (Goal 6), and peace, justice, and strong institutions (Goal 16).

The launch of the Movement for Community-Led Development in the same year marked a crucial step in this evolving narrative, signaling a growing recognition of the importance of community-led initiatives. WEEMA, which got its start in 2011 with a clean water project in Mudula, Ethiopia, also personifies the SDG goals across all of its work.

Over the past nine years, MCLD has seen increased adoption of community-led development by nonprofits and other organizations in Africa and other parts of the world. Regional networks are also growing in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia.

USAID has also joined the push by aiming to provide 25% of all program funds directly to local groups by 2025 and 50% by 2030. “If we truly want to make aid inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said, in launching the localization effort in 2022.

However, as Coonrood and McGovern both noted, major challenges remain in achieving this paradigm shift. Working with local governments is a necessary aspect of development projects in many regions and at times poses a difficult hurdle in implementation. Furthermore, there are challenges to the efficiency of getting money to various smaller groups, rather than a small number of large organizations, which entities like USAID are accustomed to. It is extremely important to find intermediaries in these countries that are positioned to distribute large amounts of money to multiple reliable groups.

Coonrood points to the example of United Way South Africa which is supporting a diverse array of local organizations on health, education and financial stability efforts. “We need a United Way kind of vehicle where local groups have already been vetted (to receive funds),” Coonrood said.

As the global development community continues to navigate these challenges, the shift towards community-led development offers a promising path forward. I hope that my next visit to Ethiopia will show the tangible benefits of this promise in action, both in my birthplace and across the nation.

Hana Kebede is a senior at Tufts University and a John Lewis Young Leaders Fellow. Her email is [email protected].