To transform our agencies and child protection practices, we first have to transform ourselves. An essential first step is to reflect on our own mindsets, values, and attitudes.

As discussed earlier, many practitioners and agencies assume that they are the “experts” or specialists on child protection. Although communities are regarded as partners, specialists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) typically define the issues to be addressed, design and develop the interventions to be used, and lead the implementation and evaluation of the interventions. The NGO leads the “program,” a term that embodies a focus on its own activities.

The underlying attitude is that communities lack the ability themselves to address the harms to children or may even use inappropriate methods that violate children’s rights. Relatively low value is placed on deep empowerment and sustainable action. This mindset lacks humility since it assumes that we, the child protection specialists, have the expertise and answers on child protection issues.

In contrast, community-led approaches trust communities. They assume that communities have the ability to solve their problems and to reinvent themselves in ways that enable full participation and support for vulnerable children. In community-led approaches, communities hold the power to make the key decisions about which harms to children to address, how to take community-led action to address these harms, and how to evaluate their action.

The appropriate role of outside child protection specialists and agencies is to facilitate. This facilitation, however, does not lead toward particular issues or actions but makes sure that it is the communities who take the decisions, using processes of inclusive dialogue and collective problem-solving.

Respect and Humility

Respect and humility are at the center of the attitudes that are needed to enable community-led work. Respect is based not only on human dignity but also the recognition that communities have been engaged for centuries in supporting and caring for children. Respect also comes from understanding and appreciating that communities have many valuable resources such as natural helpers, youth groups, women’s groups, religious leaders and groups, informal networks (including kinship networks) for supporting children, nonformal community leaders, teachers, and nurses. In addition, communities may have social networks, valuable practices, social cohesion and processes of collective discussion and action, among many others. Respect entails appreciating the difficulties that communities face, not the least of which may be ongoing poverty and poor food security in countries classed as low- or middle-income.

Like all aspects of human social organization, communities are imperfect and can themselves present significant risks to children’s well-being. However, a respectful orientation recognizes that communities, even in their traditional beliefs and practices, are not set in stone. Rather, they are dynamic and continuously engaged in a process of change.

Humility is grounded partly in an appreciation of all the things we do not know about communities and their context, how they support their children, and community strengths that help protect children (see Tool FAC 1 from the companion Toolkit). Humility also flows from an understanding of what local people do for their children even under challenging circumstances. When we listen and learn deeply, we see that communities are highly concerned for children’s well-being and can develop practical solutions that help their children and fit the local context. Community actions build on local resources that tend to be more sustainable than are NGO-run programs and approaches.

It is important, then, to ask ourselves questions such as: “Who am I to think I’m the ‘expert’ on child protection in this community?” and “Am I doing enough to learn deeply from communities themselves?” Honest reflection on these questions often helps to reposition ourselves from an “expert” to a “co-learner.” In this view, outsiders have much to learn from communities, while communities can benefit from the outsider’s perspective, questions, and knowledge.

Greater Power Sharing and Trust in the Community Process

To play the facilitative role that is appropriate, external agencies and child protection specialists should respectfully enable the community’s own power. For example, it should be up to the community rather than the NGO to decide which issue(s) to address and how. When the community holds the power and makes the decisions, the community empowers and mobilizes itself, taking ownership and responsibility for the process and the well-being of children. As a result, the community is more likely to achieve sustainable results.

This shift of power requires a change in mindsets and orientation. For one thing, it requires much greater trust of the community process. Trusting communities entails seeing them as smart, practical, resilient actors, who have the collective agency and the human resources needed to support vulnerable children.

As discussed below, trust is not a matter of blind faith. We should trust the community process only if it achieves a number of observable benchmarks or qualities. For example, we should trust community decisions only if they have been made in an inclusive manner and do not embody the views only, or mainly of, the local power elite. Inclusivity is not assumed; it is something that is gauged empirically through observation, discussion with people who are positioned in very different ways, and reflection and analysis.

Challenges to trust frequently arise with regard to so-called harmful practices. Some child protection specialists argue that without the NGO guiding the process, communities might decide to do problematic things such as protect girls from sexual abuse by marrying them off at a young age. In a community-led process, however, facilitators can usually help communities to avoid such ill-advised actions by enabling dialogue about the benefits and harms of marrying girls off at a young age and insuring that diverse views are shared. Even if it is a local norm for girls to marry young, these discussions frequently help to plant the seeds of change and to empower local change agents who initiate social change processes that lead communities to reject early marriage.

NGOs that use a community-led approach may set ground rules that keep the facilitator and community within the boundaries of action criteria (see Tool MGM 5 in the companion Toolkit). A commonly used action criterion is that the proposed action should align and be consistent with children’s rights. This guards against an “anything goes” approach that could permit a community to choose an action that harms children.

Keeping the Focus on Communities

Perhaps the most fundamental shift required for community-led work is to follow the adage: “It’s not about us [our NGO or group] but about the communities.”

Top-down approaches frequently focus on us (the NGO or outside experts) and which issue(s) we have identified, which intervention we have selected, our capacity building and intervention strategy, etc. As we do the trainings, lead the implementation, and conduct the program evaluation, we celebrate our accomplishments by branding our work, even placing large signs and plaques in community meeting halls. This approach keeps the focus on the NGO and can encourage low ownership and a sense of local powerlessness and dependency.

Keeping the focus on communities and on what communities do requires first that child protection specialists background their technical knowledge and universalized vocabulary. If a community member says, “A problem here is that children are out of school to do heavy work,” the child protection specialist might reply, “Aha, so there is a problem of child labor,” or even add, “My agency has extensive experience addressing this, and we’d be happy to work with you to address it.” This exchange shifts the emphasis from the community to the NGO, with power concentrated in the hands of the specialist.

Perhaps a more appropriate response would be to ask questions such as: “Could you please give me an example of this problem in your neighborhood?”, “How does this affect children?”, “Why do you see this as a problem?”, and “What do you think the community could do to address this problem?” These questions keep the focus squarely on local understandings and action.

Keeping the focus on communities also requires systematic efforts to support communities’ agency and resilience. If we enter with the attitude that “communities are overwhelmed and don't know what to do,” we will likely favor an expert-led approach that puts community people in a secondary position. Being in a secondary position undermines people’s sense of agency and well-being. Evidence from many humanitarian and development settings indicates that collective planning and action by local people contributes to their well-being and resilience.[1] When communities take decisions and implement their own steps to help their children, and when children participate in meaningful ways, people’s feelings of empowerment, agency, and hope for the future increase. Taking their own steps and seeing positive results, communities increase their problem-solving capacities, thereby strengthening the community resilience and confidence that are needed to meet future challenges.

Of course, placing the emphasis on what communities do entails a significant shift of mindset. We have to believe that communities can in fact address and solve their problems, perhaps with facilitation and modest support from outside agencies. Program managers must share this belief and be in a position to support practitioners in adopting a facilitative role and using a community-led approach. They must also be able to articulate to senior managers why this approach is essential and will help the agency to achieve its goals.

[1] Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2), 122–147; Hobfoll, S., Watson, P., Bell, C., et al. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid-term mass trauma intervention: Empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283–315.