This post is part of the series Rural Development From the Ground Up. Read the full series here.
This series of posts is unpacking grassroots development: why it’s compelling in theory, and what it actually looks like on the ground, in practice.
In the last post, Shiny hopeful things, I talked briefly about some of the promise and problems of Development, and I introduced the compelling idea that rural communities can create their own development from the ground up.
Grassroots development recognises that rural communities know their own realities and what positive change looks like for them. Every local context is different, and rural people know the details: what is there, and what is needed.
Grassroots development values local knowledge, local strengths, and the agency of rural people to create change.
But here is where things start to get messy. While the last post explored ‘shiny hopeful things’, this one digs down a layer, into the greasy works. How does grassroots development actually work? Who are the rural people we are talking about, there at the grassroots? Who gets their hands dirty creating change?
Grassroots development is a great idea. But in practice it still needs unpacking.
I’ll start with a simple, practical observation. In all the rural places I have worked, and with all the different rural communities (in several different languages), I don’t recall any community ever saying to me:
“We are doing grassroots development!”
In fact, I should clarify that I don’t remember any community saying anything to me at all.
Communities don’t talk. Individuals do.
Rural communities are made up of individuals. These individuals have things in common – but they also have differences. They certainly do not speak or think in unison.
This might seem obvious. But it is amazing how often practical, obvious things get lost when we talk about Development. Decision makers often claim that they understand what rural communities need or want. Grassroots development proponents counter that communities themselves are best placed to know their wants and needs.
But what about down at the grassroots, in the community? Does everyone agree?
Usually, on the ground, there are different ideas – and a few different interest groups. From a distance, it may look like an undifferentiated swathe of grassroots rural community, but up close, in practice, the community is a seething ecosystem of individuals and groups with different identities, resources and agendas.
These individuals and groups share a common identity as community members – but this is not their only identity. They have some common interests, distinct from the interests of outsiders – but these are not their only interests. Women and men, old families and blow-ins, prosperous and not…imagine all the ways that rural community members might see things differently! Clearly, rural communities do not speak in unison.
So where, then, does development come from? Outside developers often assume it comes from a big-picture rural development policy decision or project created “for” rural communities: like astro-turf laid in neat squares across the landscape. Grassroots development proponents argue, on the contrary, that change needs to grow organically from roots in local ground. This means actions “with” or directly “by” rural communities.
I concur with the latter; I am no fan of plastic grass. And yet, community action is a funny thing. Community action very seldom starts with a community.
Or with a Development Organisation, either.
Community action, despite the name, often starts with individuals or small groups. Someone decide to do something for their community. They start. And they inspire others to get involved.
Other people join: adding resources, ideas, moral support. Grass doesn’t grow overnight; it’s a process. It can take time to mobilise the support that’s needed to make ideas real. When community action hits critical mass, change happens.
Grassroots development is completely practical. Change can come from the ground up.
This is the inspiring bit. There is no reason why communities can’t create the change they want. There are obstacles of course – and there are also solutions. The collective energy of people working together as a community can achieve a great deal.
But there is one caveat. There is no guarantee that you will like what you see.
Communities on the ground may act, but there is no guarantee that the poor or the disadvantaged will benefit. There is no guarantee that community gains will be equitable, or that some people won’t get hurt.
Because community members are all different, they won’t experience change the same way. If we’re serious about positive change, we need to dig deeper.