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.

Broadly, a community-led approach to child protection is one that is driven by the community itself. Indeed, a useful guide to recognizing community-led approaches is the adage, “If it doesn’t come from the community, it isn’t a community-led approach.” This applies to all phases of the child protection work, from the selection of the issues to be addressed to the evaluation of the action effects.

The fullest versions of community-led child protection embody all the criteria shown in the box below. However, community-led actions may be thought of as varying along different dimensions, including the extent of community power and decision-making. In the fullest community-led approach to child protection, the community selects the harms to children to be addressed and decides how to address them and what local capacities and resources will be used. This is important because the selection reflects the vision, values, concerns, and judgment of the community members. The issues selected become rallying cries that support community ownership of the issues and the community organization and mobilization to address them.

Criteria for Community-Led Approaches to Child Protection

  • Community decides the child protection issue(s) to be addressed
  • Community decides how to address the issue(s)
  • Community decides what local capacities and resources to use
  • Community designs the action
  • Community implements the action
  • Community conducts its own evaluation of its action
  • Relatively low reliance on outside facilitators or actors
  • Inclusive community participation, including girls and boys
  • High levels of community ownership
  • Minimal reliance on outside actors

In weaker variations of community-led approaches, which are perhaps better described as “participatory approaches” or “community mobilization approaches,” the NGO decides the issue or the general contours of the issue. Based on its assessment data or its donor’s priorities, for example, an NGO might decide that the issue to be addressed is violence against children, with the community free to decide which form of this violence to address.

A difficulty with this approach is that the issue of violence against children may evoke low levels of community ownership and may also contravene community social norms. Because such an approach starts with the issue being defined by the NGO, it is difficult to call it a community-led approach.

It is important as well to be clear about the meaning of “community.” A community may be defined in many different ways.[1] Here, it is defined as a collective of people who live in a particular area and are willing to collaborate on the achievement of a shared goal[2] such as bringing in a harvest or, in this case, protecting vulnerable children.

In relatively homogeneous, stable communities—such as rural communities with low population movement in which residents share a common language, ethnicity, and religious preference—a community may be characterized by shared values, beliefs, identity, and social and cultural practices. However, in peri-urban or urban settings where people come and go, a community may not be homogeneous or stable, and there may not be a shared language, religious preference, and identity. Nevertheless, local people may be willing to collaborate in order to enable the protection and well-being of their children.

Essentially, community-led action happens when a group of people in a particular area recognize that it is within their collective self-interest to work together to address a shared need or concern.

When we say that community-led approaches are led by a collective community process we mean two things. Firstly, the community holds the power and makes the key decisions—it is not an NGO or the government that guides the decisions but the people themselves. Secondly, a significant number and diversity of community members either participate in or give moral support or encouragement to the decision-making and work conducted by the community.

For example, if only 5% of the residents of a community take part in a group effort to improve parenting, it would be odd to call this a community-led approach, since speaking of “a community” implies a more holistic social engagement. However, it is possible that an initiative started by a small number of community members will eventually spread and becomes a community-led action.

It is also important to remember that many communities are dominated by a small, elite group of decision-makers who may be the relatives of the Chief, or the people with the most education. These small elites may not actually speak for local people in the sense of representing their interests. Indeed, small power elites frequently act in ways that advance and preserve their own interests and power, while deliberately excluding or marginalizing other people. As emphasized throughout this Guide, it is highly important to reflect continuously on questions such as: Who is the community? Who actually participates in or is left out of the community-led process? Who holds the power?

A collective process qualifies as community-led when a significant portion of the community makes the decisions regarding a particular task and actively encourages work on that task. From this standpoint, a community-led process is one that is run through people power, not through the power and action only of men, or formal leaders, or community elites. This point becomes even clearer in the principles outlined below.

[1] McKeown, C., Rubinstein, R., & Kelly, J. (1987) Anthropology, the meaning of community, and prevention. In R. Felner, L. Jason, R. Hess, & W. Wandersman (Eds.), Prevention: Toward a multidisciplinary approach (pp. 35–64). New York, NY: Haworth; Patrick, D., & Wickizer, T. (1995). Community and health. In B. Amick, S. Levine, A. Tarlov, & D. Walsh (Eds.), Society and health (pp. 46–92). New York, NY: Oxford University Press; Zakus, J., & Lysack, C. (1998) Revisiting community participation. Health Policy Planning, 13, 1–12.

[2] It should be noted that in some geographic areas, people who live near each other in a similar area are not willing to collaborate with most other people, possibly because they fear others or because they compete strongly with others for things such as food, water, and shelter. In such settings, it seems inappropriate to speak of a “community.”