How to Kindle Community Ownership: Lessons from a Nobel Laureate

In 1989 I was fortunate enough to visit the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi Kenya. The Green Belt Movement has been a successful reforestation program for over 30 years. It was started by Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. I recently read her autobiography “Unbowed”, and was struck by how early in her career she realized that projects were less likely to be successful if there wasn’t community ownership from the onset.

“None of these projects lasted for long. I learned that if you do not have local people who are committed to the process and willing to work with their communities, the projects will not survive. This showed me that we needed to make local people feel invested in the projects so that they would mobilize themselves and their neighbors to take responsibility for sustaining them.

That was the beginning of communities themselves taking ownership of Green Belt Movement initiatives, and I have insisted on working this way ever since.” Unbowed. Wangari Maathai, 2006.

Start kindling community ownership with the Ten Seed Technique

The Ten Seed Technique is my favorite for facilitating participatory needs assessments. The technique is a very visual one that allows the literate and illiterate to participate as equal partners and contribute meaningfully to the discussion. Each workshop participant is given 10 seeds as voting tokens to be used in prioritizing community needs.


Read the entire February 2011 Newsletter to see photos and access information on the 10 Seed process.

Top Down
Old-school development hasn’t always included communities in the process of assessing need, designing project activities, having a stake in project management, and full takeover at the end of the project. Contemporary development now sees this as paramount for maintaining the positive outcomes that contribute to long-term impact: improve your development results by fully engaging community members as partners and owners.

Bottom Up
The Center promotes developing successful projects that can be managed and sustained by communities:
1. work side-by-side with communities to develop long-term, sustainable adaptation programs
2. empower communities to take full charge of programs once up and running

Why is this important? A criticism of the traditional project cycle is that when an NGO completes its two-year project, they leave their community at the helm of project management without sufficient training and technical support—and perhaps even without much interest in the project. For example, how many communities have you been to and seen two-year-old water projects that no longer function?

We propose beginning on day one by creating partnerships with communities, fostering the improvement of community capacity for project management, and encouraging representative leadership to carry on with project activities long after you’re gone. This is the stuff of community based development: Communities are involved from the beginning and participate in each important step of the process.

What are your thoughts on the differences between Top Down and Bottom Up?

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