New solutions to existing problems: The role of grassroots organizations in community development

Interview with Diana Mitlin

To be able to achieve good governance, local governments must not only work together with communities, but also grant them a certain amount of responsibility. In an interview with URBANET, Diana Mitlin, Managing Director of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, talks about the importance of community-led development and the value grassroots organisations can add to local communities.

Ms Mitlin, could you briefly outline the concepts of community development and community-led development?
Community development has become a very general term, which can more or less mean anything that the person using the term wants it to! However it is important to recognise that both terms in their concept of development include those who are most disadvantaged; it is therefore about much more than just economic growth. Community development also emphasises the social and the collective. Social and economic development is not just about individuals but has to include a notion of societal gains.

Community-led development is an entirely different concept. Community-led development may be supported for instrumental or normative reasons. Many local people and professionals believe that development at the local level is not effective if it is top-down; we have all seen investments that were made by development agencies and governments but were not maintained. In a context in which the government is weak, both in capacity and financial resources, local involvement can take on these challenges. Community-led development also supports the notion of decentralized democratic change. Those supporting this concept recognise that development is much more than just material improvements. Real development is about new options and the individual and collective capability to prioritise needs, design alternatives and work out how those designs can be realised. This process must be led at a local level.

What can community-led development potentially contribute to overall larger processes of urban development? How does it tie in with approaches for multi-level governance?
Community-led development has to take place on multiple levels if it is to be effective in substantially changing current urban development practices. Drawing on my experience with both the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and Shack/Slum Dwellers International, three levels are important. First of all, local people, women in particular, should be part of organizations at the neighbourhood level. Second, these organizations need to collaborate across settlement boundaries, documenting needs and identifying priorities. Third, settlement networks need to be linked at the city level, working together with local government officials and politicians on inclusive solutions and preventing the manipulation of the grassroots process.

What are the biggest challenges grassroots organisations in the Global South are facing when getting involved in processes of urban community development with institutional actors?
There are a small number of challenges communities face when trying to work with national government departments and development agencies that I see again and again. First, projects are not sufficiently flexible to enable local community groups to determine their own priorities and how they can best be addressed. A strong local involvement cannot happen without restructuring these projects. Those most in need who have to be central to the projects will only come on board when the project is approved and activities begin. This does not mean that there are no rules or accountability; but the rules need to be more related to processes. That means that communities have to document needs and identify priorities rather than solutions, e.g. communities need improved water suppliers. Once it is agreed that there is this need and resources are available then local residents can be engaged around working out the solutions that will improve their situation; if the solution is already pre-determined it is unlikely to be work as local ownership will be too weak. Secondly, these agencies prefer formal procedures, which immediately bias interventions towards those who are more likely to be familiar with formal processes, i.e. the better educated or those working in the formal sector. These are generally men and have a higher social status and incomes. Consequently, those most in need are disadvantaged from the beginning. Thirdly, it is rare that program designers get it right the first time. Those working on the ground have to be encouraged to learn from mistakes and how to improve them. This requires a process that is about learning and not criticism. Fourth, this kind of transformative change occurs over a 15-20 year time period, a time frame that most programmes are too short for.

What institutional prerequisites need to be in place for grassroots organisations to be actively involved in urban development strategies?
Grassroots organizations need to be networked or federated at the local level to enable their capabilities to be built. These networks help to ensure that local groups are not isolated and they prevent politicians manipulating groups and making deals that exclude them.

The experience of SDI suggests that professional support is needed, in part to link to officials, i.e. build collaborative relations, and in part to develop new solutions using alternative technologies. For example, groups have been recently developing options around decentralized waste water treatment for sanitation. Communities need support to develop a short list of new technical options that they have not previously been introduced to. However, such professional support may also undermine the role of grassroots organizations and prevent genuine local involvement and decision-making.

What can grassroots organisations specifically contribute to tackling urban poverty that national, regional or local governments cannot do?
This question suggests that it is either/or and I am not sure that this is the case. The most effective interventions happen when local community groups collaborate with local government. National governments can play an important role in providing resources, but local governments are important when it comes to urban poverty reduction. Local governments influence local land development, access to services and regulatory frameworks for the development of informal settlements. Local governments are relatively close to the people and are able to respond to needs.

Why should local governments collaborate with grassroots organizations? Particularly in situations where resources are scarce, it is common to find clientelist political relationships. These prevent resources from being used effectively, encourage communities to compete with one another and strengthen vertical relations of power further disadvantaging many of the most vulnerable citizens.

Grassroots groups networked at the city level can challenge these practices and facilitate more accountable local governments. Grassroots groups can develop new solutions for existing problems and make use of both local governments and citizens for this. In both resource-rich and resource-poor contexts, grassroots organizations can develop an alternative neighbourhood-based voice that challenges prejudice and the discrimination of the poor. Women frequently participate in these neighbourhood processes, securing friendships alongside material improvements. Consequently new public roles for women are developed that prevent them from being isolated.

How have transnational networks like Shack/Slum Dwellers International tried to intervene in and shape processes of urban development? To what extend have they been successful in their attempts to influence housing policies?
Networks such as SDI have sought to support the work of local grassroots organizations. They have shared methodologies such as savings-based organizing, community-led enumerations and new approaches to informal settlement upgrading. They have also connected groups through community exchanges to build their local capacities and strengthen their voice.
Their efforts have resulted in local groups being able to negotiate improved access to state resources, and changes in policies to make housing more affordable. At the heart of their efforts is the strengthening of local organizations so they can decide on their own preferred development options, and to negotiate for these options to be taken seriously by the authorities.

What are the strengths of transnational networks and what role can they play for community-led development?
Networks such as SDI build on the efforts of local groups. They cannot replace the role of cities and national federations; rather they enhance their contribution. International exchanges provide local groups with a chance to see how development works in other places. This expands their horizons and presents them with new options. In addition, international exchanges attract positive responses from authorities, and the voices of low-income groups have a better chance of being heard in this context. And finally, exchanges in which informal settlement dwellers and local authority representatives jointly participate build relations of collaboration and solidarity.

So community-to-community exchanges amplify the voices of informal settlement residents; through this, grassroots organizations are more likely to succeed in their work and negotiations.

Diana Mitlin

Diana Mitlin is Managing Director of the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester and also holds an appointment at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Her work focuses on urban poverty and inequality including urban poverty reduction programmes and the contribution of collective action by low-income and otherwise disadvantaged groups. For the last 20 years, Diana has worked closely with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. She has recently co-authored (with David Satterthwaite): Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature and Reducing Urban Poverty in the Global South.
Diana Mitlin
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