Community Development from the Grassroots

Development is a real partnership, respectful of the needs and perspectives and experiences of local communities and their knowledge, grounded in values of equality, justice, and pluralism, built on empirical evidence. SEED-SCALE is a model of development that avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional forms of development.

Development aid efforts are often under fire, and often legitimately, for a combination of inefficiency and waste, lack of democratic accountability and local ownership, top-down paternalism, duplication, fostering of dependency and passivity, lack of sustainability, and cultural ignorance.

Often, these efforts are characterized by harmful cycles of large-scale spending that initially generate a flurry of programs and services, but peter out when aid agencies and governments change priorities and cut funding.

This leaves communities with a shell of infrastructure for programs that can no longer be implemented due to lack of ongoing financial support. Consequently, schools will sit empty without teachers and students and educational opportunity will stagnate and decline, clinics will lack nurses and doctors and health outcomes will deteriorate, and infrastructure for water and sanitation will go unused and begin to break down because of lack of maintenance and upkeep, increasing the disease burden and putting populations at risk.

These critiques of development aid are often valid, depending on the context and location of development efforts, and it is important that they are acknowledged and addressed. But while criticism has become commonplace in both academia and the media, solutions and constructive responses to these weaknesses and even outright failures have largely been lacking. Many of the same errors continue to be made in the development sector and despite rhetorical flourishes that can be relied upon to refer to concepts such as sustainability, community coordination, and participation these often characterize primarily the language of development efforts, rather than their actual content and character.

Critique is welcome, but we need to find a way to advance human development and the social and economic rights it enables – individually and collectively – that is accountable, sustainable, locally responsive and culturally aware, and not subject to the whims and vagaries of the funding priorities of governments and aid agencies and to their unpredictable and often unreliable revenue streams.

The promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights - which adopts many aspects of the Declaration in a legally binding form - will only be realized when development is pursued more responsively, more effectively, and with greater accountability.

Introducing SEED-SCALE

There is a model of development that avoids many of the pitfalls of traditional forms of development that are so dominant, despite suffering from structural flaws that undermine their efficacy and sustainability. The model was developed by the Future Generations family of community-based social change and development organizations in partnership with UNICEF. It has proven itself in diverse contexts over and over again. But as of yet, it has not become prevalent amongst development aid funders, policymakers and practitioners. It is time they give it a look.

The method is known as SEED-SCALE, and it builds on the human, economic, and social resources of local communities, rather than being dependent on large scale transfusions of capital from external agencies and organizations. SEED-SCALE starts with the human capabilities of a community and it expands upon them building on an initial base of the human and other resources available. Indeed, SEED-SCALE involves three interconnected sources of development: local communities, the government on national, regional, and local levels, and outside experts and funders who may come from the same country or from abroad and may work in academia, development, and the humanitarian aid sector. They work in partnership, with a strong emphasis on the local community assessing its needs and resources and taking responsibility for its development.

Whatever the community determines are its development priorities is subjected to evidence-based testing to ascertain if indeed it reflects social realities and the most urgent needs for the community as a whole; the community’s members participate in this process of basic research. In fact, behavior change is a key goal of SEED-SCALE development, and, because of the central role of local community to its process and functioning, it is often able to achieve sustained behavioral change that large scale development efforts that are primarily funded and run by external organizations fail to achieve.

Core values of SEED-SCALE which are used by local communities, government, and outside aid agencies to direct, assess, and fine-tune programs are:

  1. Equity and inclusion
  2. Sustainability of values, environment, economy and culture
  3. Holistic orientation that assesses if development is balanced
  4. Interdependence, ensuring that diverse community sectors and individuals work together in genuine partnership
  5. Iteration of the process so that improvement can be achieved by repeating processes and adjusting them as necessary to yield better outcomes

SEED-SCALE is not an untested theory, nor is it merely a method of human development. It is a practical, achievable form of development that has been tested and yielded substantive results in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and elsewhere. It has had particularly notable successes in the areas of healthcare, women’s rights, education and environmental conservation.

An appropriate method for realizing the promise of the UDHR

Fundamental principles of SEED-SCALE align themselves with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include equity and inclusion, sustainability, participation, democratic accountability, and special attention to the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disadvantaged communities, especially minorities. Consequently, SEED-SCALE is a particularly appropriate method for realizing the promise of the Universal Declaration in its principles, process, and the product of transformed and empowered communities it seeks to create and sustain.

In healthcare, SEED-SCALE often utilizes community health workers who have basic training in principles of health and hygiene and who can transmit this information and utilize basic skills to substantially lower infant and maternal morbidity and mortality, improve nutrition, enable vaccination, and reduce infectious disease. Many community health workers are women, contributing to their development and improving their status within communities. In India, Nepal, and Peru community health workers have been an integral part of improving health and healthcare.

In the area of education and women’s rights, SEED-SCALE has been used with great success in Afghanistan, where schools for girls have increased substantially in number, providing new opportunities for education for girls which had been cut off due to war, religious extremism, and militant terror.

When used to advance environmental conservation, SEED-SCALE works cooperatively to balance the economic, social, and cultural needs of communities with ecological and public health imperatives to conserve and protect natural lands and biodiversity. From Kerala and Narangwal in India to Curitiba, Brazil, SEED-SCALE has worked and is working.

Development should be a true partnership

Development that is a real partnership, respectful of the needs and perspectives and experiences of local communities and their knowledge, grounded in values of equality, justice, and pluralism, built on empirical evidence and repeatedly tested for efficacy and sustainability, responsive and adaptive to changing community needs and realities, and genuinely participatory and inclusive that builds upon local resources and expands them with support from government and development aid practitioners can and does succeed.

But to do so, we need to be willing to build upon its successes, to share them, and to scale them up for the benefit of individuals and communities around the world not well served by the prevalent model of development. They are striving for a better life and mode of development that respects and realizes their social, economic, and cultural rights, recognizes their local resources, capacities, needs, and preferences, and empowers them to be actors in their development, authors of their own futures, and agents in the process of securing their human rights.

- This commentary is based on the following book, ‘Just and Lasting Change,’ and has been submitted with the permission of the author, Daniel Taylor.


About the author

Noam SchimmelNoam Schimmel is Associate Professor at Future Generations University and Associate Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, at McGill’s Faculty of Law. He researches in the areas of human rights, development studies, the politics and ethics of human rights law and its application, and global justice. He recently was Research Visitor at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, Oxford Faculty of Law, where he researched reparative justice, the human rights of Rwandan genocide survivors, and the human rights responsibilities of NGOs. He is currently Visiting Associate Professor of Ethics and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.