It was a risky venture from the start: a group of colleagues from south and north, jungle and city, Spanish and English and Kichwa-speaking backgrounds coming together to do something that to our knowledge had not been done in the Ecuadorian Amazonian province of Napo: ask communities what projects they wanted to implement themselves, give them a little bit of money and a lot of practical training to bring the projects into existence, and invite them to help make the process better the next time around.
That was the simple premise of Amazon Partnerships Foundation (Fundación Tarpuna Causay), which Ecuadorian and North American colleagues and I founded in late 2008. Going from premise to program was not simple, however, and the lessons we learned revealed not only the source of rampant dissatisfaction and disappointment in development work, but glimmers of opportunity for community-based organizations (CBOs) to bring about a fundamental shift in the nature of aid.
Our experience, as one example among many, suggests that effective development is not simply about pouring more money into CBOs. It's about flattening the power structure so that community-based organizations come to the table as equal negotiating partners on all aspects of projects, from design to outcome measurements to funding. This shift could help international funders realize the long-elusive increased return on investment, and more importantly, unleash the immense power of communities to change their lives.
Changing the Power Dynamic: A Compelling Reason
From the beginning, we saw no point in joining the overcrowded field of non-profit organizations working in international conservation unless we had a compelling reason to do so. Having worked for years in Latin America, I had seen the same problems we all see in development: lack of services and support reaching communities, lack of community participation, lack of commitment to the projects (both from the community and outside the organization), little or no use of projects, disunity, and community infighting. Beneath the evidence of failed projects, a sense of apathy or sometimes disgust prevailed. Despite the fact that many people in communities would claim they wanted "projects", those who were not leaders looking for self-aggrandizement or personal gain were often tired of the routine that built up their expectations but left them disillusioned in the end.
Meanwhile, plenty of good organizations were genuinely committed to saving the Amazon rainforest, but many lacked the agility, the access, the time, or communication skills to get to know local populations and figure out where the organization's and community's agendas intersected. This lack of understanding contributed greatly to raised and dashed hopes. It also diminished the likelihood that all stakeholders could evaluate the situation from a different angle, to identify the strengths or assets that communities brought to the table and determine how these could be used to meet the communities' priorities.
Like others who promote asset-based community development, we believed a major problem was that communities were not the drivers in their own development. Organizations that support them, while staying true to their own mission, should collaborate as truly equal partners, which meant changing the power relationships so that above all else, communities determined their priorities and would take responsibility for their own development. Based on that premise, communities would have greater agency in seeking support from NGOs, government institutions, and foundations. Our desire to try to change the power dynamic, to experiment with supporting communities on their timetable according to their self-defined priorities, compelled us to dive in.
Practicing the Community Self-Development Methodology
Through trial and error, the Amazon Partnerships Foundation (AFP) team and our community partners created the Community Self-Development Methodology, which yielded highly positive results. Our intention was to work with fewer communities in greater depth. We established relationships of mutual trust and accountability that would enable us to respond to changes, allow time for the community's learning curve, and provide a natural give-and-take that helped us understand how to improve our support. Our reach was not extensive; our focus on relationships, training, and learning, however, was intensive.
With a volunteer board, just two staff members, and a small budget, we funded seven projects ranging from rainwater catchment systems to reforestation to organic agriculture practices. We conducted more than 100 workshops on project management for eleven communities, and positively impacted 1300 women, men, and children in three years. More than half of the communities we worked with achieved outcomes based primarily on their own benchmarks that qualified them to submit a follow-on proposal, all of which were approved. Even more encouraging was that communities were practicing the values our methodology intends to promote: creative problem-solving, greater transparency, and understanding and accountability instead of punishment and finger-pointing.
For example, the community of Campana Cocha, which installed more than 50 rainwater catchment systems and planted 135 trees, has been inspired by their own success to come up with other creative ideas. Before their APF project, most believed that expanding a costly and ineffective piped water system was necessary to meet community water needs; now they want to expand the use of rainwater catchment systems. On land that had been cleared to build government houses, they now want to replant trees and pursue conservation projects that will help transform Campana Cocha into an "eco-community."
An example from the community of San Pedro de Chimbiyacu shows how the group explored the implications of transparency in their rainwater catchment project. In a meeting in which community-elected inspectors shared results of monthly visits to determine how well families were maintaining their systems, two women disputed their scores. The inspector explained what she saw on inspection day and that she had a responsibility to record true information. After a spirited conversation about why data collection and verification are important, the entire group concluded that the inspector's data would stand for calculating the overall maintenance scores for the project. The inspector agreed to do a follow up visit for the two households in question, submitting that data in a separate report.
Resolving conflict through accountability was an important part of the project in the community of Canambo. At a meeting we held with the project committee (elected by the project participants) everyone acknowledged that the outcomes of their organic cacao production project weren't sufficient to qualify for follow-on support.
We discussed how APF could have helped the community better understand the budget process, and how the committee leaders could have been more transparent with incidental spending so participants would have been more willing to cover unexpected costs. The community president said he wanted to use the project management skills acquired through working with APF to submit a proposal to a different funder, and he requested our technical assistance. Working through problems together, we all left the meeting with a clear understanding of what we could do differently next time, and the relationship between APF and the community was stronger as a result.
The Great Funding Disconnect
While communities were starting to discover their power to meet basic needs and confront climate change, other organizations started to recognize that APF's relationships with communities could help them find groups to work with. On the one hand, we found this encouraging: communities that had worked with us gained skills, confidence, and clarity about how they wanted to continue improving their lives, so they had greater capacity to make the most of projects with other groups. On the other hand, we were concerned that some of these organizations, which did have a mission of promoting well-being and environmental protection, were circumventing the process of building trust and accountability with communities so that they could meet "community participation" requirements from their funders and guarantee their operational budgets.
The question of how to build genuine partnerships for better results also came up as we worked with international aid agencies, for example, the German Development Cooperation (GIZ). GIZ in its various iterations has partnered with the Ecuadorian environment ministry for years, helping to secure UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation for the Sumaco-Galeras national park. The agency recognized the importance not just of gaining international protected status for the park but of supporting communities' livelihoods through agro-forestry and forest management programs. With the goal of building natural resource management and policy-making capacity so programs can be managed locally and permit the eventual withdrawal of outside support, GIZ has a strategic interest in working with local partners to help execute its outreach and education initiatives. Its budget is structured around these training and technical assistance objectives.
Without question, GIZ has provided valuable financial assistance for some local organizations, including Amazon Partnerships Foundation. GIZ contributed a portion of the budget for our locally filmed documentary on climate change and for the creation of an implementation handbook for the Community Self-Development Methodology. GIZ also helped fund local staff. This financial support aligned with our larger strategic goals: to promote climate change awareness, local leadership, and grassroots capacity to bring about change, and to build a strong local team that could act as role models both for community members and professionals in the local non-profit sector.
While this funding was indisputably beneficial, unfortunately we weren't able to leverage it in ways that could make the biggest impact. What we experienced with GIZ was similar to what we experienced with other institutional supporters, namely funding parameters that were too restrictive, time-elongated, or reactive to serve the goal of building an organization, not simply executing a project. Despite maintaining a positive and productive relationship with GIZ staff who visited project sites, shared our materials for education and outreach, promoted our projects among regional government agencies, and turned to us to help build liaisons with communities, GIZ did not have a budget mechanism for making a significant investment in our organizational development.
This was a missed opportunity for us, of course, because the difficulty in raising money eventually caused us to scale back our on-the-ground operations and look for other ways to continue implementing our methodology. We believe GIZ also missed an important strategic opportunity not just with Amazon Partnerships, but with the sector in general. With even just a fraction of its resources as an international development agency, it could have invested in cultivating a cohort of qualified, local organizations that foster genuine community-powered development. A network of communities with the capacity to give meaningful feedback on natural resource planning and to meet some of their own basic needs would have helped GIZ accomplish its long-term conservation goals. Those communities would have bought in to GIZ's vision because they could have taken some ownership of it. CBOs, as the logical and most effective liaison with individual communities, could have played a key role in that process.
Our critique is not intended as a criticism of GIZ or any other institution. International funders (whether private or government) and NGOs must juggle numerous and competing agendas that complicate even the best efforts to build grassroots capacity. But our story suggests that exploring how we can create a culture of partnership between funders (and NGO intermediaries) and CBOs could result in much greater success for everyone.
Real Change, Big Rewards
Community-based organizations are generally characterized by the fact that they work locally, maintain on-going relationships with local people, are led or managed by local representatives, and use local assets, whether monetary, in-kind, or otherwise. Geographically and culturally closest to the people they represent, CBOs have the most insight, most influence, and most agility to incubate, catalyze, or nurture projects. They are at the fulcrum of real change.
The question is: how can we unleash the power of these organizations? Based on APF's experience, we believe that CBOs:
- Need the freedom to develop their organizational identity and professional processes. They need the financial flexibility to develop missions that reflect their constituents' priorities and promote projects that people want.
- Can benefit from administrative support and training. Larger organizations can share ideas for how to streamline processes, collect useful quantitative and qualitative data, and communicate the grassroots agenda to stakeholders that are farther removed from it. The key is for outside organizations to listen to CBOs regarding what is feasible for local circumstances.
- Need platforms for exchanging information with other CBOs. These platforms give people the encouragement to turn good ideas into concrete initiatives, which can feed into the development strategy that they have helped create along with institutional or large-scale players.
This doesn't mean writing a blank check--it means getting to know CBOs and allowing CBOs to know funders, letting go of some of the gatekeeping, and establishing real dialog. It is in everyone's best interest to ask questions that cannot necessarily be answered with a checklist: What's really going on on the ground? What are people saying? What are the good ideas? What are the biggest challenges? Where do the communities' priorities fit within those of the funder?
Just as we witnessed applying a similar philosophy with communities, a relationship-based approach between CBOs and bigger funders helps promote more mutual transparency, better opportunities for qualitative evaluation and impact measurement, and more agility in responding to actual grassroots needs. Organizations like Global Fund for Community Foundations, which has taken this funding approach with Amazon Partnerships Foundation and dozens of others, has ample evidence proving that nurturing the CBO sector in the Global South results in meaningful change in communities--everything from better access to services to increased problem-solving capacity and creativity.
Of course, relationship building takes time and may require a funder to make some structural changes. For large organizations, this may seem like an all-but insurmountable challenge, but testing a relationship-based funding approach in one department, working group, or funding area could help determine how and whether it has organization-wide application.
With so much promise to cultivate bottom-up--top-down development, we should seize the moment to reassess the power dynamic between CBOs and funders. The stakes are simply too high for not re-evaluating business-as-usual strategies, and the benefits could be gamechangers.
Mary Fifield is Executive Director of the Amazon Partnerships Foundation. She is also the author of a blog called Earth in Here
 GIZ is the product of a recent merger of several separate German government agencies, among them DED and GTZ, which were Amazon Partnerships closest local allies.