As the name implies, community-led approaches are those that are led not by a non-governmental organization (NGO) or other outsiders but by a collective, community process. Community-led approaches are grounded in the idea of “people power”; that is, the ability of ordinary people, even under difficult circumstances, to organize themselves, define their main problems or challenges, and collectively address those problems.

This view of people’s power reflects the thinking of writers such as Paulo Freire,[1] who has emphasized the dignity, agency, and voice of even the poorest, most oppressed people. It also resonates with work in the tradition of liberation theology,[2] Robert Chambers’ work on participatory rural appraisal,[3] Mary Anderson’s Listening Project,[4] and the global wealth of participatory action research,[5] among others.

In this respect, community-led approaches are not new, and they reflect development principles that have been known for many years. Still, highly participatory approaches have so far had a marginal presence in international child protection work and deserve much wider attention. Community-led approaches reflect the fact that communities have been taking steps themselves down through the centuries to protect vulnerable children, although they have never named this work “child protection.”

The purpose of this chapter is to help readers to understand what is meant by a community-led approach. Its objectives are to:

  • increase awareness of how communities already take action that helps to protect children;
  • boost understanding of what a community-led approach is;
  • outline key principles that underlie a community-led approach; and
  • stimulate critical thinking about community-led approaches.

Key Question for Practitioners

Should there be more room for more community-led approaches in the setting in which you currently work?

Relevant tools from the Toolkit: FAC 1; TRN 3, TRN 4, & TRN 5; MGM 2.

[1] Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder & Herder.

[2] Guttierrez, G. (1988). A theology of liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

[3] Chambers, R. (1994). The origins and practice of participatory rural appraisal. World Development, 22(7), 953–969.

[4] Anderson, M., Brown, D., & Jean, I. (2012). Time to listen: Hearing people on the receiving end of international aid. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects.

[5] Chevalier, J., & Buckles, D. (2013). Participatory action research: Theory and methods for engaged inquiry. London, UK: Routledge UK; Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (Eds.) (2008). The Sage handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Pretty, J., Guijt, I., Thompson, J., & Scoones, I. (1995). Participatory Learning and Action: A trainer’s guide. IIED Participatory Methodology Series. London, UK: International Institute for Environment and Development.

The term ”child protection” may evoke images of serious violations against children and the intervention of police, social workers, or trained child protection workers.

In reality, however, most children worldwide grow up without ever having talked with police, social workers, or child protection workers. Usually, family members, neighbors, and other community members do most of the work to keep children safe. For example, imagine the following scenarios:

Terms such as “community-led” can take on a variety of meanings. Based on experiences in different settings, there is little doubt that ”community-based” and “community-led” processes are often equated. However, there is in fact a world of difference between the two approaches (see Tool TRN 3 in the Toolkit), as the former are top-down whereas the latter are bottom-up.

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.

As valuable as community-led approaches are, they are by no means a “silver bullet” to be used in all situations. If the pressures of time and the magnitude of violations against children are enormous, as can happen in emergency settings, then a slow, deliberate, community-led process by itself may not be the best option. For example, if girls and boys are being recruited in large numbers and put into very dangerous settings, it might be more appropriate to use a top-down approach to stanch the flow of recruited children.