The principles of community-led approaches in the box below have been derived through the reflection and work of groups and agencies who have used highly participatory approaches in many different countries and contexts, including emergency and development contexts. Reflecting the audience of this Guide, the principles focus on how external workers should be oriented and what they should do in order to place greater power in the hands of communities and enable processes of community-led action on behalf of vulnerable children.
Each of these principles is discussed in turn below.
Communities are complex entities, and it is important to enter them with a humility that is grounded in a spirit of listening, learning, and power-sharing. Your spirit of learning should recognize that “I am new to this community and have much to learn about it and how people here understand and care for children.”
Working with humility is not a feigned role but a genuine, appreciative orientation that views local parents, community members, and children as people who have accumulated wisdom in supporting children. The spirit of power-sharing should recognize that the community has agency and can take steps on its own to improve children’s protection and well-being—but only if people have the motivation, space, and power to do so.
Trust is the essential foundation for NGOs in enabling community-led work on child protection. Without trust, local people will likely be reluctant to get involved, since they may see the discussions and processes as reflecting outsider values and priorities. NGO workers can build trust by listening to and respecting local people and by taking time to build relationships.
Of considerable value is the patient approach of sitting and listening, responding, and talking in an open, respectful manner with elders, women, or youth in contextually appropriate contexts, such as an urban center or under a tree. Even where time is an issue for the NGO workers, it may be possible to continue slow, respectful discussions while assessments are being conducted.
Building relationships requires having a mutual understanding about the role of the agency. Most often, when an NGO arrives in a community, community members assume (based on experience) that the NGO has resources available for those who say and do the “right” things. In a community-led approach, the NGO needs to emphasize the central role of the community.
A useful way to do this is to discuss the limits of what NGOs can accomplish and make it clear from the outset that they are not coming in to convince people to do something in particular or to provide resources to initiate specific action. Rather, the role of the NGO is to support community action on behalf of vulnerable children.
As child protection workers, we sometimes begin our engagement with communities by analyzing violations against children, using international concepts and terms, and discussing interventions according to international standards.
However, this mode of engagement puts the NGO in the driver’s seat and makes it difficult to learn deeply about the community and to form a strong, authentic relationship with local people. Having positioned ourselves as “experts” who impose our own language and questions, we tacitly judge local people and practices. This not only marginalizes communities but also makes it difficult to build trust with the community. After all, why should local people open up to us if we, the outsiders, judge local practices by outside standards?
In humanitarian work, there is a pervasive listening gap. Pressed by preconceived timetables and donor expectations and focused on implementing their own programs, NGO workers frequently do not take time to listen to local people. Even when outsiders do listen, they frequently filter what local people say through their own “expert” categories and priorities rather than taking a more empathic, open approach.
Yet empathic listening is an essential first step toward deep engagement with communities (see Tool FAC 4 from the Toolkit). Empathy is absent or weak when an NGO worker imposes his or her own language, assuming that they know what the important harms to children are, and spends time analyzing rather than listening in an active way.
It can be valuable to ask in an open way questions such as: “Who are considered children in this community?”, “What harms do they experience?”, “What do people do already to help keep children safe and improve their well-being?”, and “What happens when harms to children occur?” Only by asking such questions and paying close attention to local idioms and understandings will we be in a position to understand how community people see children, child protection issues, and various protective factors.
A useful step toward understanding communities and building trust is to make sure that initial learning efforts focus on community strengths as well as deficits. A deficits focus, such as one that looks only at forms of violence against children, can give a one-sided picture and tacitly judges the community or implicitly prescribes a particular solution. Taking a deficits approach can leave communities feeling disempowered and unappreciated or misunderstood.
Instead, the initial engagement with communities and learning phase should be appreciative and seek to identify existing community strengths, assets, and resources—as well as deficits. Valuable strengths may include natural helpers, female and male leaders who are seen as legitimate and as good role models, traditional or contemporary social norms of caring collectively for children, and religious groups, women’s groups, or youth groups that help to support children’s safety and well-being. Particularly in rural settings where traditional values and practices are strong, there may be endogenous mechanisms for managing conflict between families, promoting justice, and enabling collective harmony.
In all settings, there are non-formal social networks that make it possible to send key messages and mobilize groups of people. One of the most valuable community resources is the habit of collective dialogue, planning, and action. Community-led approaches frequently succeed by virtue of activating and building on these resources, which bring forward practical knowledge and problem-solving abilities, while also being low-cost and sustainable.
The rapid assessments favored by international NGOs have value, yet they do not allow deeper learning about communities, their context, or their power dynamics. Since every context is different, it is essential to regard each community as distinct, learn fully about it, and avoid imposing a universalized approach that does not fit.
To understand and work well with communities, it is essential to learn about the power differences within the community; that is, “who is at the table” and “who is not at the table.” This can be done by learning about children, children’s issues, and supports for children from different sub-groups within the community, who may vary in gender, age, socio-economic status, religion, ethnicity, or other dimensions.
Such learning can help to guide efforts to enable an inclusive process. It can also help to avoid developing projects that quietly privilege the local power elite without doing enough to support the children who are most vulnerable. Ideally, the learning will be ongoing (see Tool FAC 8 in the companion Toolkit) and will intermix quantitative and qualitative methods, including direct observation of children.
A high level of inclusivity is one of the hallmarks of community-led approaches. If elite groups dominate community decision-making then other people may go along with activities, but there may be only modest levels of community ownership and engagement. Similarly, if only a small number of people contribute to a community action process or only particular sub-groups benefit from it, jealousies and social divisions may arise that will likely limit its effectiveness or lead the group to burn out.
In contrast, community-led approaches engage “people power” by bringing in many different segments of the community, enabling everyone to have a voice and to take part in and “own” the decision-making and action.
Although it takes time to cultivate, broad participation not only makes the approach truly a community effort but also makes it more likely to be effective and sustainable. When most people in a community contribute to choosing the issue(s) to be addressed, developing an action that builds on local capacities and resources, and making the action work, then the resulting collective motivation, sense of ownership and responsibility, and lack of outside dependence will help the action to succeed and to continue.
In keeping with a “people power” orientation, a community-led approach puts communities in the driver’s seat and enables them to make the key decisions on matters such as which issue(s) to address, how to take effective action using their own resources, which capacity building is needed, and so on.
Throughout, the role of the NGO is that of facilitator rather than expert. The NGO and its community facilitator do this by means of power-sharing and providing space for collective dialogue, problem solving, and decision-making by the community.
A useful motto for this approach is: “If it doesn’t come from the community, it’s not a community-led approach.” The more typical project-based approach, which puts NGOs in the driver’s seat, undermines a spirit of community agency and action. When communities hold the power and take the key decisions, however, they achieve a high level of collective ownership (see Tool TRN 10) and responsibility for the work, thereby boosting its effectiveness and sustainability.
Extensive dialogue between many people who are positioned in different ways is essential for enabling a community-led approach. Compared to a quick, project-based approach, it takes time and patience to enable inclusive dialogues that help the community to agree on common priorities and a collective vision regarding which child-related issues to address and how to support vulnerable children.
Rather than following pre-established timeframes, it is important to work according to community time and to allow agreement to emerge in an organic manner. Rather than forcing agreement too early, a better strategy is to view disagreements as natural and helpful for enabling a full exploration of ideas and to allow additional time for discussion. Rather than assuming that general community meetings allow full participation, it is better to assume that the most marginalized people and children will not naturally have much voice or decision-making influence in such meetings.
A patient, flexible approach is needed in part to enable the community to invent other processes that ensure full child participation with keen sensitivity to issues of gender, social class, religion, and other possible bases of social exclusion. To work in this slow, inclusive way requires flexibility on the part of not only the facilitators but also the managers and donors.
9. Build community capacities for mobilizing the community, making inclusive decisions, and taking effective action
In developing a community-led process, it is important to build community capacities that enable effective action and that make it possible for communities themselves to implement actions on an ongoing basis. Key skills for communities include conducting dialogues without destructive conflict, mobilizing discussions and actions that include many different people, and building capacities that contribute to effective action.
Initially, an NGO facilitator may stimulate and help to manage discussions. In order for a community-led process to develop, however, the facilitator has to step back, provide space for community leadership, build community capacities for engaging different people in the discussions, decisions, and actions, and help communities themselves to run their own process without dependence on an external facilitator. Building community capacities for self-mobilization can be useful in taking a community-led approach to scale, as communities who have learned to mobilize themselves in a more effective manner may be in a good position to help other communities learn to mobilize themselves effectively.
At every turn, community-led approaches seek to avoid the creation of parallel systems such as new committees and structures, which can undermine the considerable strengths that are already present. Capacity building should be part of efforts to build on existing resources, and the capacity-building approach, partners, and steps should also be decided upon by communities rather than being imposed by outside actors.
10. Enable bottom-up collaboration and linkages between communities and formal child protection stakeholders and mechanisms
Communities are not islands that can address the full spectrum of child-protection issues themselves. For example, most communities are not likely to have the expertise required to treat and fully support a child who has been raped and who has become suicidal. In such cases, it is vital to have functioning referral mechanisms that help children to receive the specialized mental health and psychosocial support that they need.
Many governments have a formal child protection system that includes specialized mental health supports, though often on a limited basis. Also, the formal aspects of child protection systems frequently include district-level or provincial social services and supports for children that can backstop communities and also help to build community capacities for child protection. If formal stakeholders at district and provincial level see the value of community-led approaches and work to support such approaches, they can become natural allies in efforts to take community-led approaches to scale.
In a community-led approach, linkages and collaboration between formal and non-formal systems are driven not by an NGO or outside experts but by the community itself in a bottom-up process.
This is illustrated by the case of community-led work in Sierra Leone (detailed fully in Tool MGM 2 in the companion Toolkit). Here, the communities chose to address teenage pregnancy and specifically requested the support of district-level health workers, who then provided key services and also helped to build community capacities for preventing teenage pregnancy. This bottom-up approach created a partnership in addressing an issue of common concern for both the communities and the formal actors involved. Because the partnership originated through community action, community members felt a strong sense of ownership about supporting the formal actors’ involvement, and they actively welcomed health actors into their villages and heeded their advice in a way that the health actors reported as being quite unusual.
Effective linkages between government actors and communities can also contribute to the scalability of community-led approaches. In Malawi, for example, Save the Children, together with district-level personnel who worked on HIV and AIDS, helped to form Community AIDS Coordinating Committees (CACs) that reflected on how children and adults were being affected by AIDS, what they were concerned about, and what they could do. The members of each CAC used their skills to mobilize Village AIDS Committees, which used volunteer efforts and local resources to support AIDS-affected children. As the Village AIDS Committees worked within a community-led approach, they received support from their CAC, which in turn connected with district-level structures.
This tiered system made it possible to reach a large number of villages and also to provide the backstopping the Village AIDS Committees needed. Because the process was community-led, the communities were still active five years after the funding had ended.
Communities frequently come together around and act on children’s issues, and children may be among the leaders of a community-led action. In fact, children are some of the most important resources that any community has. Even in difficult circumstances, children have agency and creativity, which they can use to help prevent and respond to harms to children.
When children become valued participants early on in the community dialogues, communities are more likely to draw on the lived experiences of girls and boys in identifying the key harms to children. When communities are ready to address particular harms to children, children may become central actors in and leaders of the community-led action.
If, for example, a community selects early sex as the issue to be addressed, it would be essential to have children playing a lead role in the community action since children are the key actors in sexual activities at an early age.
To enable a process in which children are valuable actors and change agents is very different from the “participation light” approach of many programs, in which children take part in relevant program activities but do not make key decisions about and lead important parts of the community activities.
A community-led approach is not an “anything goes” approach. Some child protection workers are justifiably concerned that certain community-led actions such as early marriage violate children’s rights. To avoid such issues, it is important to support only community action processes that are consistent with the best interests of children.
A community-led approach to child protection recognizes that local social norms may consist of a mixture of risk factors and protective factors. A protective norm such as sending children to school supports children’s rights and well-being. However, some norms support practices that are contrary to children’s rights. In such a situation, it is valuable to view communities as dynamic and potentially open to social change.
By using child rights as a compass, well-trained community facilitators can help communities to reflect on various options, even without explicitly mentioning child rights. Facilitators can also support internal change agents in developing and implementing community-led options that are consistent with children’s rights. Without making people feel judged or in some way put down, a facilitator can help community people think through the negative aspects of practices such as early marriage. Through dialogue and reflection, the community may come to see that it is inadvisable to “protect” girls by having them marry early.
In a community-led approach, social change is not directed by an NGO that might seek, for example, to end corporal punishment of children by teaching people about child rights and how to report violations of child rights. Instead, social change is guided by communities through the internal influences of opinion leaders, collective discussion and action by local people, and modeling by people who demonstrate different behaviors, often while respecting positive underlying values. Communities select which issues to address, thereby building on community readiness to change regarding those particular issues. In this respect, a community-led approach capitalizes on community readiness—or ripeness—for change.
Because communities select the issues and design and implement the action for addressing them, they collectively own, drive, and buy into the change process. To be sure, the social change process does not happen overnight. Yet as more and more people become involved in the community-led action, the weight of social behavior comes to lean in a new direction. As youth leaders, religious leaders, women’s leaders, elders, and ordinary people model new behavior and come to expect others to engage in the changed behavior, reciprocal social expectations evolve and lead to a change in social norms.
In the humanitarian and development arenas, child protection typically focuses on issues such as violence against children, sexual and gender-based violence, separation of children from families, child labor, and the recruitment of children into armed forces or groups, among others. As expressed in the global Child Protection Minimum Standards, there is keen interest in mainstreaming child protection by incorporating child protection aspects into work in different sectors.
Yet the “silos” that pervade the humanitarian architecture are highly visible when it comes to child protection. For example, issues such as teenage pregnancy are typically seen as health issues rather than child protection issues, unless the pregnancy has resulted from sexual abuse or exploitation. Similarly, out-of-school children are more likely to be seen as an education issue than a child protection issue, unless children have dropped out of school due to bullying or abuse by teachers.
Communities, however, usually take a more holistic approach. In the Sierra Leone case study (see Tool MGM 1 in the companion Toolkit), communities identified teenage pregnancy as one of the biggest harms to children. This was because girls who became pregnant dropped out of school, as did many boys who had caused the pregnancies. Young people saw being out of school as “losing their future,” and many pregnant girls had to engage in sex work in order to support themselves and their children.
Consistent with the theme of starting where communities are, it is vital to enable communities to define the issues and address them in ways that seem most appropriate and likely to be effective. This requires greater flexibility and a more holistic approach than NGOs and other external actors typically take.
How the principles discussed above translate into practice depends greatly on the context. The fact that each community is unique makes it unadvisable to use a cookie-cutter approach. The principles are designed to invite outsiders to learn deeply about the context and to help support communities to develop contextually relevant solutions to the issues that harm their children. In this respect, using the principles contributes to a highly contextualized approach. Urban communities may take different approaches than rural communities might, yet the process still follows the principles above.
The following chapters will say much more about how these principles translate into practice, but it is also essential to read and use the tools included in the companion Toolkit.
 Donahue, J., & Mwewa, L. (2006). Community action and the test of time: Learning from community experiences and perceptions. Case studies of mobilization and capacity building to benefit vulnerable children in Malawi and Zambia. Washington, DC: USAID.