Most child protection work in humanitarian and development settings entails attention to both content and process.

The content pertains to the “what”—that is, to the child protection issues that need to be addressed, the actions needed, the measures to achieve accountability, and so on.

The process pertains to the “how,” meaning how human relations form and evolve, how decisions are taken, how local people are engaged or not engaged, and how the actions are implemented and by whom.

Top-down approaches place greater attention on the content than on community process. This makes sense inasmuch as it is assumed that the experts and external agencies will make the key decisions. Local people have relatively little say in which interventions are made and how, since the interventions are chosen and implemented in accord with global technical guidelines and standards, or the existing evidence base, and so on. The unfortunate results of this approach, however, are low levels of community ownership and sustainability.

In contrast, community-led approaches place relatively greater emphasis on the process—on power-sharing with local people and encouraging people to identify for themselves their concerns and priorities,and creating an inclusive means of conducting dialogue and taking decisions. In a community-led approach, the NGO engages with the community from the start in a way that aims to respect, support, and unlock the creative potential of the community. A slow approach of learning, building trust, and keeping the focus on what communities do is used to lay the foundation for community-led work, while avoiding the usual perception that the NGO is the provider or leader. From the start, the initial engagement is as a meeting of equals, with the outside agency playing a co-learning and facilitative role.

When an NGO or other external actor adopts a community-led approach, it is de facto adopting a facilitative role and taking a process-oriented approach. The NGO focuses less on its “program” and more on local people’s dialogue, relations, decisions, and actions on behalf of vulnerable children. It is trusting that a community process of high quality will yield tangible results for children. The NGO works to achieve a highly accountable process—in particular, an inclusive process in which children have meaningful participation and people who are ordinarily left behind have a voice and help to make decisions. It works to ensure that community discussions of issues are slow, thorough, and authentic rather than quick but superficial. The NGO also enables full attention to and discussion of gender-related perspectives and issues.

Since communities themselves may lack the full set of understandings and skills needed to address particular harms to children, capacity building may be a key part of the community-led process. Here, too, the NGO or external actor again plays a facilitative role.

Rather than directing the capacity building process, external NGO facilitators or local community facilitators ask communities whether there are additional things that might be useful to learn about and who might be well-positioned to provide the relevant information or training. Ultimately, the community selects who does the capacity building and also decides how to use what they have learned in developing and implementing the community-led action.

Throughout the process, there is a powerful focus on enabling the collective agency of the community, helping them to weigh up various options, make solid decisions, and engage in concerted action that effectively addresses the harm(s) to children that they have chosen to address. Keen attention is given to enabling a highly inclusive process. After all, it is fruitless and misleading to speak of community-led action when it is only or primarily the relatively privileged people in a given community who lead the process.

To enable the transformational process of having greater inclusivity in community dialogue and decision-making, a great deal of effort should be devoted early on to working with the community to develop a highly inclusive process. Because facilitation is at the center of this transformational process, Chapter 4 discusses facilitators and facilitation processes in greater depth.

By nature, community-led processes cannot be reduced to recipes, checklists, standard operating procedures, or programming manuals. Communities differ enormously, inhabit very different contexts, and resist a one-size-fits-all approach. Because communities are creative in their approach to solving problems and have divergent actors, power dynamics, and situations, it would be simplistic to take a cookie-cutter approach to enabling community-led planning and action.

In one context, a community-led process might be initiated internally by vulnerable children asking for help. In another community, the process might be initiated and facilitated by religious actors animating community action to help children who live in dangerous circumstances. At every turn, we should start from where the community is and build on its own strengths and change processes rather than imposing an outsider approach that is a poor fit with the local context.

This insight has important implications for how to use the remainder of this Guide. In various places, this Guide discusses the community-led approach that was used in the action research in Sierra Leone and in Kenya. However, the Sierra Leone and Kenya examples are best seen as illustrations rather than roadmaps to be followed. With this in mind, the chapters that follow will bring in examples from diverse approaches and invite readers to reflect on how processes such as community planning, community-led action, or community evaluation might occur in different contexts.