Top-down approaches provide relatively little space for community decision-making and action since the NGO makes the main decisions and guides the intervention. Community-led approaches reverse this by assigning the decision-making power to communities. However, this power will be meaningful only if communities have sufficient room or decision-making space to choose which harms to address, which actions to take, and to work according to their own timetable and process. This approach requires greater flexibility on the part of the NGO.


Experiences across multiple countries and continents and with diverse NGOs indicate that it can be quite challenging to create sufficient community space. In participatory action research (PAR) with formerly recruited girl mothers in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia,[1] national staff from different NGOs had difficulty letting the ideas about which problem to address or how to address them come from the girls themselves, with advice from their community advisors.

This challenge likely reflected the fact that the child protection practitioners saw it as their role to guide and counsel the girls. After all, they had been trained in child protection, thought they knew the “right answers,” and felt responsible for helping the girls move toward selecting particular issues and using particular interventions that fit global child protection standards.

To manage this problem, the international action research team provided additional training and reflection for the NGO practitioners, who adjusted their mode of working to fit with the maxim “if it does not come from the girls, it is not PAR,” which is a form of people-led action. Happily, the practitioners went on to become good facilitators, with the decision-making power and leadership vested in the hands of the girl mothers.

A practical challenge for many NGOs is how to create sufficient space for community-led approaches without trying to be all things to all people. If the decision-making space and community capacities were infinite, communities could decide to take on harms to children that relate to health, poverty, education, or a host of other areas in addition to the harms that are usually the focus of attention in the global child protection sector. This is a scary proposition for an NGO, which may have expertise or strategic focus on only one or a few areas. How, one might ask, can managers or agencies pretend to be able to address such a wide spectrum of issues?

Further, what happens if the community decided to address a harm to children such as poverty? Although poverty interconnects with and underlies various child protection issues, many child protection stakeholders see poverty alleviation as beyond the work of child protection. Also, child protection practitioners may also point out that poverty alone is not the full cause of child protection issues. Some impoverished families manage to protect their children from harms such as violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, and trafficking, whereas others do not.

Managing Expectations and Boundaries

Fortunately, numerous strategies exist that can help to manage these challenges. One strategy is to help the community make linkages to organizations with demonstrated expertise in household economic strengthening.

A related strategy is to manage the community’s expectations about what the NGO can do. As the NGO engages with the community and learns about members’ concerns, it should provide an honest explanation for why it is there, its role, and what its capacities and limitations are. At various points in time, it will likely be necessary for the NGO to emphasize that the community is responsible for developing and implementing long-term solutions to problems facing its children and that the NGO’s role is to help the community achieve those solutions. It will be important also for the NGO to explain the time-bound nature of its work so that communities do not expect that the NGO will be there on a long-term basis.

Also useful is a strategy of setting boundary conditions and narrowing the decision-making space from the early learning phase onward, by inviting communities to think about issues other than health and poverty. Useful steps for accomplishing this are to develop a set of action criteria (see Tool MGM 8 in the companion Toolkit) and also a practical script for framing the discussion in this manner (see Tool MGM 8). To be respectful, however, the process should acknowledge the tremendous importance of issues relating to poverty and health.

In setting boundaries, it is important to avoid being too narrow or specific. For example, if an agency tells communities that they are free to address violence against children, that would likely strike community members as a form of outsider imposition. The art of setting boundaries is to balance the agency’s need to narrow the field of issues with a community’s need to define what they see as the main harms to children and to mobilize themselves around those issues.

Working in Community Time

The creation of a flexible space for communities also entails a willingness to move according to “community time” rather than “NGO time” or “donor time.”

For diverse reasons, NGOs that use a mostly top-down approach set their own timetables that reflect agency wishes, donor timetables for deliverables, or other external considerations. This creates a sense of predictability and efficiency for managers, who can track program inputs, outputs, and deliverables.

One drawback of this approach is that it is centered around the NGO, not the community. In the rush to move forward, community ownership is typically the first casualty. Such an approach makes it clear that the issue is “owned” by the NGO. It can lead to some time-bound results, but it also precludes the possibility of community ownership and ongoing action to address the issue.

In a community-led approach, it is the community who decides the tempo. If there are community members who have been unable to participate in discussions, extra time may be taken in order to ensure full participation by all. Or, if discussions on which harm to address are not reaching a widely agreed priority, it may be important for the community to slow down, allow a more complete exploration and discussion of ideas, and take more time in reaching a decision. Consistent with the emphasis on process, time considerations should not drive the community.

If your aim is to achieve high levels of community ownership and sustained benefits for children, the likely gains of moving according to community time more than offset the costs in terms of precise timing and predictability. When communities organize inclusive dialogues, discuss various options, take decisions, and develop and implement their own actions to support vulnerable children, they see the activities as “their own” and as a community process rather than an NGO project. Taking ownership of it, they pour their energy and creativity into making it a good process and a useful action for supporting vulnerable children. Since it is a community process, the community does not become dependent on the NGO—they do it themselves and hence are more likely to continue the process after the NGO has moved on to other things.

An NGO that supports such community-led work can take considerable pride in knowing that they helped to create the right conditions, such as slow, inclusive dialogue. In this respect, the NGO program becomes not a portfolio of projects that it owns and carries out in partnership with communities. Instead, the NGO program becomes a portfolio of community-owned and led processes that the NGO has helped to facilitate but that are independent of the NGO. The community does not count on ongoing NGO support to support its own processes.

The key for managers, then, is to adjust their and their agencies’ modalities of work to allow this flexible space for communities. It is not easy to “go with the community flow” and give up precise timetables. At the same time, there are means of tracking progress in community-led approaches, which include specifiable steps and benchmarks (see Tool MGM 3 in the companion Toolkit).

[1] McKay, S., Veale, A., Worthen, M., & Wessells, M. (2011). Building meaningful participation in reintegration among war-affected young mothers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and northern Uganda. Intervention: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work and Counselling in Areas of Armed Conflict, 9(2), 108–124.