Empowerment only comes from within – thoughts on grassroots development from a development critic

I received a message this morning from someone who is consulting for a BIG agriculture development project in Northern Ghana. The consultant met with me recently because part of their project is in agriculture extension service capacity building, which is my line of work. They met with me to gain insights about the local context, especially since they will be working with the same staff in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture district office I was based in for a year and since very few others have actually spent time with farmers.

The good news is that the project’s initial assessment speaks to the importance of the work we did and the importance of grassroots development that so many NGOs and development projects no longer do (or did they ever?). When I say grassroots development I really simply mean spending time with farmers on their fields and developing strategies with them as opposed to for them.

The project consultant mentioned that even after 2.5 years the local staff in the office are still using the capacity building programs we developed and in new and improved/different ways.

I am always hesitant to work with BIG projects and consultants, especially for capacity building because the project activities are always too short term and the -fly in and out of a place strategy, in which many consultants work, can disrupt longer term localized goals and strategies for development, and waste money on very expensive flights, hotels and other travel related expenses. I understand this because I worked at a local office in Ghana, which saw a lot of this fly in and out of a place strategy.

This development work is funded because of the underlying (false) assumptions of what development should be: technical infusions of cookie cutter ‘expertise’ that seeks to work in different contexts – geography, culture, policy environment – this is the implicit bias in most scale strategies.

I understand this because for the past year I was working as a consultant and managed to convince the company quite easily to keep me in country as opposed to flying me back and forth several times. It makes economic sense -give me a reasonable salary instead of wasting it on air flights etc. It makes sustainable sense – let me get to know the context better so we can co-develop strategies with local partners and monitor more closely. And it makes personal sense as travelling is hard on the body and soul.

So when the project consultant came to me I was happy to relay this information: long term, sustainable development needs to be demand driven and developed with local farmers and partner staff. And the only way to understand these demands and co-develop new strategies to overcome context specific barriers is to be in the context, with local people, testing and trying new things and then communicating that back up in the system.

This is what grassroots development looks like.
This is what my PhD research hopes to focus on, in addition to supporting local social movements that represent smallholder farmers who have no voice in Ghana. The PhD is the only space that has yet allowed me to focus and encourage this work. Differently than many PhD students, it is ideal that I am working closely with African development critics to do this research.

Development ‘experts’ from abroad should merely facilitate problem solving and provide ideas/possibilities to local people, especially farmers. And we should not just work with any farmer, but with those farmers who are most vulnerable – the ones who fall between the cracks of formal, private sector development because they are not profitable enough to work with or who are physically inaccessible.


Agriculture development work that focuses at the top of systems change without accounting for a gendered, racial or class based theoretical understanding of oppression and vulnerability will, and always has, left the most vulnerable people behind.

Political, economic and social systems need to regulate growth and depression for justice – to reduce inequality by working for and with those who are often left behind. The ideal way to do this is to provide spaces for their expression of specific needs and interests, and then feeding those voices back into the systems that oppress them for change. It is not development that should change those oppressive systems, but those who are oppressed. It will not be profitable and it will not be technical, but this is what welfare, wellbeing & justice looks like. It looks like listening, networking and communicating – a lot like a social movements working in a democracy.

Providing a simple functional literacy training program, or extension ‘innovation’, such as ICT, GIS, improved varieties of seed, cook stoves or goats – is never enough. Once you provide to one community and not the other, you are shifting the balance of power, perhaps widening inequality. This is precisely the feminization of labour story we have seen in the past 30 years. Even if farmers agree, it is never enough to assume that your understanding as a foreigner of what is best to solve a problem that you have never experienced yourself because complex power dynamics that are historically, socially embedded are at play.

To provide credit, technological innovation or even capacity building programs that have not been co-developed with those living in a local context, quite simply is an imposition of your own concepts of what development looks like. Development thinks we have the answer – but not only have we been failing for more than 50 years, but what we are doing now (land grabbing, resource extraction, de-regulation for export happy policies) looks an awfully lot like processes of colonialism and structural adjustment.

I gave a lecture yesterday about gender and development in sub-Saharan Africa for an undergraduate course at the university I work at. One of the questions asked was about what works: top down or bottom up development. My answer was of course that the story is complex – that development should never just be one or the other, but should be a blend of the two.

Top down and/ bottom up level development will never progress well-being/welfare if it fails to create empowering spaces for vulnerable populations to express their own ideas of progress, met with resources and facilitation to make those ideas a reality. This is a fundamental ideological shift that we acknowledge as important, but is rarely put into practice.

There is no such thing as a development expert. To assume you have expertise – the answer- the skills, the innovation, the money to empower someone else is not only arrogant but impossible. Empowerment only comes from within.


5 thoughts on “Empowerment only comes from within – thoughts on grassroots development from a development critic

  1. To some degree I agree with your general thesis … I think that depending on the intervention the ‘right’ people to focus on and to work with to change situations changes – and in some cases interventions necessarily need to be multipronged. For more on my thoughts, check out my wordpress blog The Humanist View and that our of our organisation, especially this post https://cparuganda.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/the-karamoja-dilemma/

  2. Yes, unfortunately there are far too many fly-in, fly-out, and fly-by-night consultants. Siera’s message needs to be repeated to the donors as many times as necessary until they start listening. All human communications need to be two-way, with consultants genuinely open to listening to and learning from community members, host country workers, and even expats who have lived and worked at the grassroots level for a few years or more.

  3. I definitely agree with you that development is not possible without the people concerned. But it’s not just international consultants and donors who are “thinking for them” and deciding what “they” need. It’s also local organisations, usually with the best intentions to help “their” people that are reproducing the existing power balance. The process of change is much more complicated than just foreign/local or long-term/short-term divides may suggest. Neither one is good or bad, they need each other. What is really important is the willingness to learn from each other, to share experiences and to work on a basis of equality.

  4. Thank you for all of your comments.
    Chryt, I could not agree more – that is also what I wanted to highlight in this post (although you did in a much more clearly articulated way) that even grassroots development/social movements can reproduce the existing power balance, which is a problem. We see this in a lot of gender development work -sure, get more girls in school, but what if they are taught just how to be good ‘wives’?
    In Ghana for example I really do not think smallholder farmers have a voice, despite a number of ‘movements’. If someone disagrees, please do share I would love to incorporate the movements into my research.
    What I will say though is that even foreigners to a country who decide not to imbed themselves / hire local people or get involved in politics to some extent I think are really missing what genuine transformation / progress looks like.
    I will admit this post stereotypes ‘development’ as an industry and not as genuine progress for the people by the people.
    Any other thoughts, please do share!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s