Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Local Is Better

It’s no secret that the world has lots of problems.  There’s the shaky global economy, climate change, overpopulation, widespread poverty, clean water shortages, limited access to education (especially for girls), etc.  It’s a long list.  Many people, myself included, have wondered how billions of people cannot meet basic needs despite billions of dollars being spent to aid them.

Despite all the bad news we read and hear about every day, there are some innovative and low-cost initiatives that are imbuing a sense of real accomplishment and change on the grassroots level in places where the need is greatest.  So, as a change of pace from the same-old, same-old stories about the often less-than-successful and controversial efforts of foreign aid, the UN, World Bank, IMF, microfinance institutions, etc., I’d like to take a brief diversion in the opposite direction and bring your perspective down to the local community level where a little bit of money and a lot of common sense are making a big difference.

Many people directly involved in development aid will tell you that local is better.  In other words, utilizing the knowledge, imagination and participation of communities in need can help address problems faster and more effectively than traditional, top-down approaches that involve government and other bureaucratic institutions.  And this “local” approach is driving a wave of successful development efforts, notably microgrants, that takes some of the best features of traditional development aid – like intellectual capital, funding, and measurement tools – and combines them into something collaborative, sustainable, and, most importantly, effective.

Microgrant programs, in particular, have been generating some impressive results recently in countries like Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.  It’s helpful to think of them like traditional grants, but with a few key differences.  In a typical case, an NGO or similar organization works directly with local facilitators (often university students or NGO leaders) with connections to under-resourced communities.  The facilitator organizes a series of meetings where the local community discusses its most pressing problems and comes up with proposals for addressing them.  Comments are taken on each proposal from field advisers.  When proposals are well developed the community votes to select the one it wants to implement, creates a plan, and then does the actual work required to make it a reality.  The microgrant provider funds them with grants that usually range from $1,000 to $5,000, and each project has its own metric for success, timeframe, and sustainability plan.
In a way, it’s just common sense.  Who better to solve a local problem than the people being affected?  Rather than coming up with ideas to help a specific community from the outside as most development aid organizations have traditionally done, microgrant providers have developed a streamlined approach for stimulating innovative community-led projects and their realization.

Each microgrant impacts communities in two ways: it directly alleviates a pressing social problem through the funded project, and it empowers community members to design and implement their own solutions. Since the community controls planning and spending, the projects are locally appropriate, effective and highly efficient.

Microgrant programs are often confused with their distant financial cousin microfinance.  The key difference is that microgrants fund social sector projects for which a loan could not be repaid, like a vocational training center, animal-rearing project or a canal to prevent flooding.  With microfinance, the borrower takes out an actual loan and is required to pay interest on it.  Microfinance has shown a lot of promise and delivered some impressive results – primarily in low-income countries in Southeast Asia – but it has come under fire of late mainly due to the issue of some borrowers not being able to pay off their loans and falling into a spiral of increasing debt.  That’s not to say microfinance should be completely discounted as a solution, only that other solutions like microgrants might be a better option in many circumstances.

While community involvement coupled with microgrants is often an excellent and effective solution to a wide range of development issues, not every problem can be solved at the local level with local resources.  Some problems are massive and intractable.  But you have to start somewhere.  If you think of every development problem as a journey that needs to be undertaken, then the well-known aphorism by Confucius is an apt summary: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Or around $1,000.

Mick Emmett is a volunteer with Spark MicroGrants.