In Times of Crisis and Beyond, Local Leaders Are the Ones We Need
by Dedo N. Baranshamaje, Director of Innovation
“What would it look like if we decided to find and fund local organizations applying themselves to bringing value to their communities?”
It was a sunny summer day in 2012, and the question came from American philanthropist Andy Bryant, executive director of Segal Family Foundation. He was visiting the Population Services International office in Bujumbura where I worked, looking for organizations to whom his foundation could give grants.
The question caught me off guard because, in East Africa, it was rare to be asked how to solve problems. Especially by someone like Andy to someone like me — a native of Burundi and a community builder. This was not the set-up I was used to. Often, solutions came already theorized and packaged by foreigners, ready to be rolled out. Often, solutions arrived without substantial input from the people being served or by the people already doing that kind of work. Often, aid dollars arrived too late to stem the tide of the emergency for which they were designated.
After two weeks of reflecting on how to answer Andy, I decided to flip the question. Instead, I told him what we needed to do to create the future he was imagining.
What we built together turned out to be Segal Family Foundation’s Social Impact Incubator (SII). SII is a seven-month program that provides tools for local leaders and connects them to funding. It’s geared toward people who saw a problem in their community, decided to fix it, and are making substantial progress leading sustainable change, even though they’ve likely never heard of Skoll World Forum. We call these leaders “champions” — they are deeply rooted to the issues and engage communities in their own development. The champions attend regular trainings where we break down concepts like strategic planning and offer new financial management tools and systems. Then the champions can take practical steps to support their vision. Slowly, we saw this network providing healthcare services to communities that struggled to access it. We saw our SII champions creating opportunities for women to self-determine. We watched participants build financial instruments for communities taking care of orphans and those most struggling in society. Best of all, SII became its own community. We saw champions building relationships, inspiring and supporting one another to action.
Three years into our Social Impact Incubator, Burundi experienced a political crisis that sparked an exodus of refugees, internal instability, and violence. During the crisis, we saw nonprofit organizations close doors. We saw expatriate staff going back home. We saw the country scramble to continue to function. The international aid response was messy, confusing, and, in the end, too late. It was a terrifying and uncertain time. But that wasn’t all. We witnessed the community we had been curating rise up. We saw our SII leaders adjust their programs to respond to emergent needs. For instance, when supply chains were disrupted, SaCoDé provided sanitary pads to women in distress, free of charge. They also opened their doors to offer work opportunities to those who had lost their jobs. We watched the champions link up initiatives to continue the work when everyone else was gone. When money was tight, their only currency was the depth of their relationships, to each other and to their communities.
I had known hypothetically why creating a space for locally-led organizations — in a sector heavily dominated by a top-down, internationally-led process — was important. But I could not have imagined that the local leaders would be the ones, in difficult moments, to lead in practical and meaningful ways. I hadn’t realized that they would also turn the crisis into an opportunity. The champions showed that building on each other’s strengths creates intersectional solutions. This is a stark difference to the band-aid approaches of bilaterals, who frequently operate in silos while competing for resources. While they are busy fundraising, the local organizations are offering direct aid. I couldn’t have proved that funding local leaders was sustainable and, in fact, the only viable path when reaching communities of need requires relationships built on trust. Yet this was what we were seeing. We realized that this is how change-making in international development should happen: fostering local leadership to give agency to communities.
I left Burundi and re-settled in Malawi. Segal Family Foundation restarted the Social Impact Incubator in 2016 and even replicated SII in Rwanda a few years later. Though the program has changed to fit the specific contexts in Lilongwe and Kigali, the focus remains on amplifying the impact of proximate leaders. Everything was going well. And then coronavirus hit.
It felt like déjà vu. A good number of international organizations in Malawi were quickly shorthanded, following the evacuation of their international staff. This put pressure on our partners to develop quick strategies for addressing the pandemic and keeping people safe. Just like in Burundi, the SII organizations rose to the challenge. Now again, local leaders are bearing the brunt of the frontline response — but without the frontline funding. We know that local and national NGOs receive a minuscule fraction of all international humanitarian assistance — just 0.4 percent in 2017 (source). The average budget size of an organization joining the Social Impact Incubator is a mere $80,000.
And yet, despite small budgets, these local leaders are picking up the mantle. We have seen health partner Wandikweza reaching out to the government to propose trainings on how to offer health services in remote areas. In a country where only 5% of the population can access health care, Wandikweza wasted no time in scaling mobile clinic services to decongest already-stretched hospitals and quickly organizing community health responders. We watched mHub convene the tech community to develop solutions to share real-time information and resources. They connected the public with status updates on COVID-19 outbreaks, along with locations of the closest treatment centers and health guidelines from the Ministry of Health. We noticed GGEM Farming helping rural farmers manage their crops, stabilizing prices to avoid food shortages, and distributing packages of food and seeds to households most at risk. Their size isn’t stopping them from serving. And operating on a small budget has caused many of our partners to take advantage of each other’s networks to do more. GGEM Farming, Wandikweza, and mHub are all working together and combining their resources — it’s a relational economy, one that spans 60+ organizations in Malawi alone.
Similar to Burundi in 2015, I am seeing local leaders at play in difficult conditions. Yet I’m also seeing the ways responses at the grassroots level could look. Their strong ties to local communities have already created a vast network. It’s a multiplier effect, but not the kind of scale funders are usually looking for. While funders are excited to put money behind an innovation that can be rolled out to the masses cheaply, the solutions proximate leaders offer may be less sexy but doubly effective, thanks to local buy-in. Knowing how to navigate local politics and processes is the key to success.
I see parallels between how these crises are addressed, and perhaps that is a lesson. COVID-19 is giving us a fresh perspective on where to begin, as funders think about how best to contribute to the greater good. We’ve learned that we need to start with people who, when everything else isn’t working, will still be there. We must seek those proximate leaders who can be tasked to respond and rebuild in the aftermath of an emergency. Here are some ways we can re-imagine partnering with communities experiencing hardship and injustice:
Question the money you are giving to large INGOs. As our experience with various crises has shown, for programs to be more effective and have long-term outcomes, they have to be led by people who are in touch with the day-to-day realities of those they are serving — especially when it comes to communities who have good reason to distrust outsiders’ help and intentions. The current instability is exacerbating the difficulty for local organizations to access funding; we need funders to acknowledge the formal and informal experience of those on the ground at this moment. While the bilaterals are still trying to coordinate a massive response to COVID-19, Wandikweza has already grown into a second district and imported an ambulance. Free from bureaucracy, proximate leaders can take action in a fraction of the time.
Rely on leaders with lived experience. There are lots of new proximate leaders trusted by communities who understand their context and reality. They are well-suited to join boards and ask the right questions. Seeking local expertise is not only necessary, but a prerequisite for achieving our goals. Interrogate and review the process through which you vet organizations, as well as ways your understanding of what is important for communities with highest need might be biased. Often, the barriers to the success of local organizations are the hoops foundations put in place to mitigate risk, instead of adapting to seize opportunities and bring change.
Listen and learn. Refrain from judgment and listen to communities you seek to serve. They have all the solutions but lack the resources to activate change. Increase the ratio of funds you invest in communities that are marginalized and then learn with them. Philanthropists have already been challenged in this way in the past several years by critics Edgar Villanueva and Vu Le, yet it remains an ongoing battle. Committing to continue to learn about systemic problems signals eagerness not to oversimplify their problem. You don’t need to understand everything in order to fund — instead, trust and learn as you partner with local leaders.
Challenge other funders. Talk about this shift in strategy to your funder friends. Addressing inequalities in access to funding won’t happen until funders take responsibility and see it as an issue they need to solve rather than acts of sympathy for communities that are struggling. It’s like the concept of “social proof” — other donors are more likely to act when they see a peer taking an action and talking about it positively.
Crises like COVID-19 remind us why strong and deep relationships with communities are most important. Whether we are talking about political instability in Burundi in 2015, coronavirus in Malawi in 2020, or even the United States in its march toward justice and equity for all, it is obvious to me that local organizations need to be at the forefront. Such a shift would transform international development to be more just, more sustainable, and more impactful. Let’s ask them now: “What do you need to bring about the future you are imagining?”
Dedo N. Baranshamaje is a community builder and social justice advocate. As Director of Innovation at Segal Family Foundation, Dedo is responsible for challenging the status quo, including the foundation’s own. He is a connector who brokers partnerships between philanthropists, key government officials, and visionary non-profit leaders. He is a tireless activist and networker; engage him over a glass of wine on how to drive more responsive philanthropy and investment in Africa.