The invisible forces at the heart of community-led development


Sera Bulbul


As localization becomes a growing focus in international development, my colleagues and I at the Movement for Community-led Development (MCLD) are determined to ensure it becomes more than the flavour of the week. We believe that every person has a fundamental right to voice in the decisions that affect their lives, and that change must happen from within a community instead of being imposed from the outside. We act with a profound respect for local knowledge and co-learning.

I recently teamed up with two colleagues on a deeply powerful co-created initiative: we spent countless hours in dialogue with civil society leaders around the world considering what it means to ‘decolonize knowledge.’ The ideas that emerged from our conversations moved me – this was the strongest proof of our Movement’s commitment and love. Together, we pondered how to shift the microphone to local voices, wondering, ‘Is the willingness [of international actors] on paper or also in action?’ (Sophie Kange, Uganda). We also came away with action items, including to ‘develop an environment of selflessness’ (Joanna Mbakulo, Uganda) and ‘let local knowledge lead the process’ (Samuel Mutambo, Zambia).

Returning to our co-created project, our conversations with dozens of Movement members inspired so many new ideas they had to be broken into two journal articles. In these, we introduce the Community-led Worldview of Systems Change and offer ten recommendations for taking action to decolonize knowledge and foster authentic community-led development. These recommendations highlight the unique power of the community-led approach and the distinct importance of acting locally. I invite the international development community to take a moment to reflect on one of the ten.

Recommendation: Recognize that the power that fuels progress is intangible

In a world where materialism eclipses the more ethereal elements of the human experience, we are pushing back. Through a community-led lens, intangibles power communities. Community members speak with expert voices, are holders of local solutions, and homes to collective knowledge and social norms. When they feel ownership, dignity, and value, all of these characteristics are the drivers of change – these intangibles fuel progress.

I believe the most powerful invisible force in this world is something so simple: human relationships. Our Movement is full of leaders that I have known for years, some of whom I realize I may never meet in person, but I believe we are genuine friends – people like Béranger Tossou from Benin, Jude Nwachukwu from Liberia, Loren Reyes from The Philippines, and more. I credit our relationships to how the Movement organizes our virtual shared learning spaces. We insist on having the patience to listen – to problems, to solutions, to the realities that people live in their communities every day.

Creating a space where everyone is able to contribute is an art, and some of the most beautiful moments in our Movement occur when we abandon a call agenda to make more time for wider participation. This behaviour calls for an array of intangible investments in energy, time, and a willingness to take risks. It’s how we build trust and how we create spaces where people know they will be listened to and heard, and we have seen time and time again how deeply meaningful that kind of profound human connection can be. Being a part of the conversation matters more than those who are already in it can understand. Our decisions to take a few more minutes to take one more question from a participant or to keep a Zoom call open after the meeting ends so that people can catch up and say goodbye are deeply impactful.

Visualizing the Role of Intangibles

My visionary colleagues Pascal Djohossou, Ann Hendrix-Jenkins, and I crafted the new Community-led Worldview of Systems Change to fuel the needed ‘shift away from ineffective practices based on doing more of the same with tangible resources…to a comprehensive frame where the non-physical and physical levels are bounded and interconnected’ (Pascal Djohossou, Benin). We centre local knowledge, world views, and relationships, all to symbolize how people’s lived experiences fit in with and can build on policies and practices.

When we surveyed members of our Movement as part of our co-creation process, we asked, ‘When trying to foster growth mindsets, what key characteristics are most important?’ We gathered answers from 300 people, and the answer was clear: the characteristics are all intangible. Some of the most popular answers were respectful, trustworthy, dialogue, and willingness to learn. These intangible factors are arguably hard to measure but deeply important – and they are at the heart of the values of community-led development.

What would the transformation we envisage look like? What intangibles can we focus on to ensure that community voices are central in decision-making processes? Internally, MCLD continues to rethink every norm and every process. We know that our quest for transformation is a work in progress. We also know that there is room for everyone and invite you to join us in giving more attention to the intangibles that can change the world.

If you are interested in reading more from our co-created process, Part One and Part Two of our articles are published in Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) Journal.

Sera Bulbul is a Research and Advocacy Associate with the Movement for Community-led Development.

Comments (1)

Rosalba Oywa

I too believe that learning is a lifetime process. We can create change through gaining insights from other people's theories and ideas which has been tested over time.

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