The terms “community-based” and “community-led” are often used interchangeably, but there is in fact a world of difference between these two approaches.
A community-led approach to child protection is driven by the community themselves. Here, it is the community who holds the power and owns the process, not NGOs or outside experts. It is also the community who makes the decisions about which harms to children to address and how to address them.
The starting point for this approach is the deep concern that local people have for their children. Any action taken is seen as a means of fulfilling this collective responsibility towards children.
Because the community uses its own resources and motivation to help children, this approach is much less dependent on NGOs or other external actors. As a result, it is more sustainable. The community is changing itself, altering social norms in ways that support the best interests of the child.
By contrast, community-based approaches to child protection are project-oriented and are driven primarily by NGOs or other outside actors. These outsiders identify key child protection issues and then tell the community which interventions are needed.
In this approach, the community holds little power, takes low levels of ownership for the work, and typically sees the work as “an NGO project.” Since the work is dependent on the NGO, this kind of intervention typically does not last after the external funding ends. This expert-driven approach is also less effective in changing social norms that affect children.
What makes a child protection intervention community-led?
Community-led approaches can take many forms, but all of them feature community power, dialogue, and decision-making. Outsiders can be valuable facilitators, co-learners, and capacity builders in this process.
In many community-based NGO projects, children participate in the activities but do not help lead them. It is the adults who make the key decisions. Even when children are involved in making decisions, it is often only in a limited way.
A community-led approach takes child participation to the next level. It enables children's leadership and repositions children as responsible community citizens and change agents.
Because the emphasis is on the community addressing its own concerns, community members are more likely to listen to girls and boys in order to learn their views on harms to children. As the discussions continue about what to do to address these harms, it is natural for children to play a leadership role.
As children help to develop actions and solutions to the problems being discussed, they will come to be seen as responsible citizens—people who care about the community. As a result, their activities are not seen as “children's activities” but as community activities.
This approach helps to build collaboration across generations, and to reduce the tensions and power imbalances that can divide young people and adults. Since the community actions are collectively decided and owned by a large part of the community, the steps that young people take to support these actions are seen not as a power grab by young people but as a means of helping to achieve collective priorities.
Why should children be key actors in a community-led process?
Children can be a valuable resource in designing and implementing child protection work. Their direct experience of what children face makes it essential to involve them in discussions and decisions about effective community action.
NGOs are not always needed to enable child protection. As child protection workers, we should be careful not to disrupt or marginalize the good child protection efforts the community is already making. We should also respect the wishes of communities who do not want to partner with NGOs or other outsiders.
That said, good NGO facilitation of a community-led process can help communities to:
1. Better understand children's perspectives and experiences. Adults frequently think that they understand the situation of girls and boys in their communities. But as both practical experience and ample research shows, adults are typically out of touch with the lived experiences of children and do not understand their perspectives. With skilled facilitation, communities can develop the habit of regularly talking with—and learning from—children.
2. Engage with children as actors. In many communities, children are viewed as dependents, to be seen but not heard, and lacking good ideas and abilities. Skilled facilitation enables communities to make use of children's creativity, leadership skills, and energy in improving the lives of children—while negotiating the issues of power between children and adults that may arise.
3. Work in a more inclusive manner. Left to their own devices, community power elites frequently guide decision-making, and the poorest of the poor—including children who work in the mines or who are sexually exploited—may have no voice. In many patriarchal societies, women and girls have little or no voice. An inclusive community-led process helps communities to support all their children, and it builds the support and participation needed to create effective, sustainable action. It also helps to end discrimination.
4. Support children's best interests. A community’s social norms sometimes enable practices that violate children’s rights or are not in their best interests. Good facilitation encourages the kind of dialogue and reflection that raises doubts about such practices and creates an opening for social change to happen from the inside. NGOs can help to give communities the skills and understanding needed to take appropriate community action to support vulnerable children.
5. Connect with the formal child protection system. Communities sometimes operate as self-contained systems. But a strong child protection system requires effective collaboration between communities and other formal actors. NGO facilitators can often help to broker constructive collaboration between the community and outside stakeholders, such as social workers or local health departments.
In addition, NGOs can often help communities to document and learn from their actions to protect children.
Transforming our approach from a program to community process
Good facilitation is crucial if we want to help communities strengthen their child protection efforts and think critically about what norms and behaviours might be enabling harms to children. A community-led approach involves requires a fundamental shift towards deeper, more respectful engagement with communities on our part.
Yes, but with some care. Attention must be paid to ethical issues and the approach adjusted to suit the context.
One factor to consider is that a long, slow process may not be suited to an emergency setting, where protective action might need to be taken quickly. In these situations, a modified community-led approach could be applied.
However, community-led approaches are not appropriate in all settings and can even cause harm.
Given these possible tensions and different contexts, no universal checklist exists for enabling community action on behalf of children in emergency settings. Still, in most settings, including in protracted crises, it has proven useful to have a slow process of dialogue that included many different people and puts the decision-making power in the hands of local people—in other words, a community-led approach.
How to adapt this approach to different contexts
A bottom-up community-led approach is not a “silver bullet” to be used in all situations. Emergency settings in particular present significant pressures and divisions that may mean a top-down approach is more appropriate. But even in such settings, it might be possible to overlay top-down and community-led approaches.
Also see some of the other links below for more on the use of community led approaches in protracted crises.
Communities are often at the front line of children's protection, so it is appropriate for them to take non-formal steps to protect children.
However, communities are often poorly equipped to deal with criminal cases, such as the rape of a child by a stranger. In these cases, they need the support of authorities. In general, government services can help to support children in communities and complement community action.
Community members may also know that the law prohibits certain practices, such as child marriage, but they may continue the practice because it fits with the community norms and system. Such a misalignment between community systems and national laws can enable violations of children's rights.
For these and other reasons, NGOs facilitating a community-led approach should help link communities with the wider child protection system. A simple step is to ask communities who might be able to help them to achieve their self-selected goals in reducing harms to children.
The ensuing discussions frequently identify district or provincial government actors as potentially helpful, thereby opening the door to dialogue and problem solving with those formal systems.
How ordinary people and communities help to protect children
We often think of “child protection” as being a formal process involving police or social workers. But in reality, families and communities are usually the ones to deal with threats to a child’s safety—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Yes, it is potentially scalable. Here are some examples:
These and other possibilities do still need to be tested more fully, possibly using an implementation research approach.
When they are facilitated well, community-led approaches support children's rights and do not cause harm to children.
In the three countries (Sierra Leone, Kenya, and India) where community-led approaches have been tested most systematically, communities all chose actions that were very much in the best interests of children and addressed issues of teenage pregnancy, early sex, and child marriage, respectively.
Skilled facilitators work with an eye toward protecting children's rights, even if they do not specifically refer to “child rights.”
If your organization did have concerns, however, you could simply establish a criterion that all community-led actions must be consistent with children's rights.
Community-led approaches can also be used to change social norms in ways that support children's rights and well-being.
This change from within, which is based in no small part on collective dialogue and critical reflection, is more likely to change harmful traditional practices than a top-down approach could.
Using child rights as a compass
A core principle for any community-led action is to be guided by child rights. Even without explicitly mentioning child rights, well-trained community facilitators can help communities to reflect on various options.
No. A community-led approach is quite realistic and views communities as complex social systems that have a mixture of supports for and risks to children. It recognizes that most communities are sites of power differences that usually marginalize girls and women as well as other groups.
A community-led approach does not assume that communities are automatically “good” or “bad” or that communities will always make decisions that are in the best interests of children.
Community-led approaches also view communities as dynamic rather than static—they are always changing. When encouraged and supported, this process of ongoing internal change can help shift social norms and cultural practices in ways that support children's rights and well-being.
To help communities engage in constructive, rights-supportive action on behalf of children, external actors can play a facilitative role. We can enable inclusive dialogue, which brings forward voices and perspectives (including from girls and boys) that are not usually heard or considered in community meetings. Such dialogue helps identify cultural practices that are harmful, and which community members are ready to change.
In many respects, we have only begun to tap into the potential for changing social norms through community-led action.
Creating a space for communities to reflect critically
Certain approaches can help a facilitator to raise difficult questions in a community setting, without making people feel judged or put down. This is more likely to lead to critical reflection on potential harms to children and power imbalances.
Adopting a community-led approach does require some discussion with funding partners, but it is often very doable.
For donors who typically support top-down approaches, one useful strategy is to develop small pilot projects that are community-led, possibly as an accompaniment to work that you are already doing under a grant from the donor. Quite often, donors are willing to scale up an option that has data (even simply in a case study format) to support it.
Another option is to seek funding, even a small amount, from a private donor who likes to support more community-led approaches.
Alternately, some international NGOs have more flexible, long-term pots of funding available in parallel to their traditional funding arrangements. Usually these funds are intended for activities such as sponsoring children, but in some cases they may be released for other purposes within an appropriate partnership.
Finally, you could invite community groups—such as youth groups or women's groups—to develop their own initiatives at little or no cost, as a complement to the more typical top-down work being done in their community.
Over the longer term, it is useful to educate donors who are concerned about achieving positive results on behalf of children. Persistence and the discussion of positive results can go a long way towards helping them welcome a community-led approach.
How communities implement and measure their actions
Once a community selects the harms to children they want to address, they need to set out clear action steps. They also monitor and evaluate their actions and make any adjustments needed, although they may not use terms such as “monitoring and evaluation.”
At first glance, a community-led approach might seem less accountable because of its inherent flexibility.
But this approach still involves the development of benchmarks that indicate whether or not the community process is “on track.” Benchmarks might include whether there is inclusive participation in dialogues and decision-making, or collective reflection on the strengths and drawbacks of particular options. If particular benchmarks are not being achieved, the facilitator may invite the community to reflect on why this is occurring and ask what steps could be taken to achieve those benchmarks.
When it comes to measuring whether actions have improved the outcomes for children, the community can internally evaluate the results. Communities themselves frequently conduct internal reviews of collective actions, such as farming: they might gather to review their methods, the quality and abundance of the harvest, and reflect on adjustments to make for the next planting.
Communities can use the same type of internal reviews and reflections in regard to their work on behalf of child protection.
It is also possible for an NGO that has supported the community-led action to conduct an external evaluation (with the community's permission) in order to document the community’s work and accomplishments. Using mixed methods, such an evaluation could compare baseline levels of the community-selected harms to children with those that occurred following, say, two years of the community-led action. The findings would be fed back in a respectful manner to the community, which they could use to guide any needed adjustments in their ongoing action.
How communities implement and measure their actions
A core stage in the community-led approach is to set out clear action steps to address the selected harms to children. The community will also need to monitor and evaluate their actions and make any adjustments needed.
Many people would like to shift to a community-led approach but are not sure where to start.
The good news is that we have gathered together a set of easy-to-use tools to help you to develop essential skills. While the Guide will provide a thorough grounding in a community-led approach overall, the tools below offer practical principles and activities that can be adapted to local environments anywhere in the world.
However, the tools are intended to be only a starting point. The best way to acquire the skills needed to use and support a community-led process is through direct experience and reflection.
Tools for facilitators
For community practitioners and facilitators specifically, there are some specific skills that can be practiced. Facilitating a community-led approach requires the ability to listen deeply, act with humility, manage conflict, empathize with others, understand power structures, and ask the right questions.
Our Toolkit contains nine tools for facilitating community-led work. Each may be used individually or in small groups, and requires 60–90 minutes to complete.
A successful community-led approach does require certain skills. NGOs and facilitators must listen and learn deeply, build trust, encourage inclusion, and challenge their own assumptions and beliefs.
While the full Guide provides an overview of the community-led approach, below you will find guidance on the specific skillsets needed to adopt this approach. These skillsets are best learned and developed through first-hand experience and reflection.
How do I do the learning and trust-building needed in this approach?
Our Toolkit contains a set of facilitator tools, which focus on developing the basic skills needed to facilitate community-led work.
We have also compiled a set of learning tools, to help practitioners learn about children's lived experiences and the views of local people, which also builds deeper levels of trust and respect.
As part of developing this Guide and Toolkit, an action research trial of a community-led approach was held in the rural districts of Bombali and Moyamba in Sierra Leone. This trial showed that community-owned processes were effective, even in addressing challenging issues such as teenage pregnancy.
The trial was run in several stages.
Firstly, trained Sierra Leonean researchers who knew the local languages learned from the communities in a non-judgmental manner about the children, the harms they faced, and what supported children's well-being.
The research team then fed the findings back to the community. Taking the findings on board, the community members asked themselves: “What are we going to do about these harms to children?” This was important in collectivizing their concern and also represented the beginning of taking responsibility for addressing these harms. Additional learning identified how local adults and teenagers understood children's well-being.
Secondly, a trained facilitator lived within a group of three communities that were involved in a community-led process. Their role was to first help develop an open and inclusive process in which all community members had a voice in taking decisions.
This decision reflected a social change process led by the community. To enable this process, the local chiefs were invited to reflect on how it would be useful for them to step back a bit. This made it possible to have honest discussions, in which people could agree or disagree with particular suggestions without fear of offending or going against the chief. The team also offered training (using the training tools in this Toolkit) and ongoing mentoring for the facilitators. Finally, the team made sure to respect “community time,” so that communities were not rushed or expected to meet pre-defined time-tables and benchmarks.
Community planning discussions were then held to focus on the selection of one harm to children to address and how to address that harm through a community-designed action. Although these discussions were flexible and community-guided, they occurred within boundaries set by the action research team.
The discussions for selecting which harm to children to address were conducted over a period of nine months, to allow the slow and intensive dialogues that were needed to work through different views and to negotiate disagreements.
Both clusters of action communities chose teenage pregnancy as the harm to children to be addressed. Teenage pregnancy caused some children to drop out of school, and nearly one-third of such pregnancies in Sierra Leone were the result of sexual abuse and exploitation. Communities owned this issue, since they had identified it as a collective concern and felt responsible for addressing it.
In both districts, communities planned to address the identified harm through a mixture of family planning, sexual and reproductive health education, and life skills. These were enabled in part through trainings provided by other NGO partners. The communities also collaborated with the Ministry of Health at district level, to receive contraceptives and relevant education.
It was ordinary people, though, who led the community action. For example, children in the communities organized street dramas that sparked rich discussions, and parents and children learned to talk about puberty, sex, and pregnancy prevention in new ways. Because communities had designed the action and led it themselves, they saw these actions as their own.
One year after the community action began, the effects were assessed using the survey and other qualitative findings. The results featured high levels of community ownership and signs of that the action had helped address teenage pregnancy.
The full Sierra Leone example
The research trials in Sierra Leone summarized above has been written up into a case study.