The international humanitarian community has prioritized sustainability in its global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The links between these SDGs and child protection are most visible in SDG 16, which targets the ending of abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children. Another target of SDG 16 is ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making at all levels.

The community-led approach is a useful tool for achieving SDG 16 because it enables sustainable action against harms to children and engages people at a grassroots level in participatory decision-making and collective action in support of vulnerable children.

Community-led approaches also support the international agreement under the Grand Bargain[1] to support locally-driven approaches to aid.

Numerous features of community-led approaches enable the sustainability of the community action and the associated outcomes for children. Because the process is community-led, there are high levels of community ownership. Community members see the action as an extension of their collective concern and responsibility for children. As a result, they are likely to continue their efforts even after the NGO has left their community.

The steady, ongoing emphasis on what the community does to support vulnerable children also creates less dependency on the NGO, auguring in favor of sustainability. In addition, the high levels of volunteer effort and the low costs of the community action further enable its sustainability.

Nevertheless, various issues can limit the sustainability of community-led approaches. One issue is an excessive reliance on particular facilitators. If an NGO uses external facilitators, communities may become dependent on them and lack the full confidence to stand on their own.

To prevent, this, NGOs could ensure the gradual phasing out of external facilitators early in the action process while at the same time training action facilitators who themselves are members of the community and have been selected by the community. In the Sierra Leone action research, for example, the external facilitators spent progressively less time facilitating and more time documenting the community action process and helping to prepare community members to play a facilitative role.

A similar problem can arise even if communities use internal action facilitators. Communities may become reliant on particular individuals to facilitate and energize the community action process. If a health problem or a difficult family situation pulls that facilitator away or leads him or her to resign, the community action process can suffer as a result.

A useful strategy for preventing this is to train multiple, internal facilitators, thereby enabling backstopping and avoiding gaps that might occur if a particular facilitator needs to step back. Also useful is a strategy of training up members of different sub-groups—such as youth groups or religious groups—on community facilitation skills.

Through this approach, greater numbers of people become involved in facilitating the community action, thereby avoiding reliance on one or two individuals. As this type of process develops, it is useful to help communities think through how they will coordinate the work of different facilitating individuals and/or groups.

Despite communities’ best efforts, a recurrent challenge to sustainability is the extensive time that people such as community action facilitators, Peer Educators, and focal points invest in the process, without remuneration and having sacrificed the earnings they would likely have made if they spent that time working. Paying everyone is unlikely to be a practical solution, as this can monetarize the helping. Payment also tends to be unsustainable, since the community is not likely to have the money to pay people on an ongoing basis.

Fortunately, communities are good problem solvers and frequently develop ways of supporting and thanking people who give extra time and service to the community. In Sierra Leone, for example, communities thanked the community members who had helped to facilitate, coordinate, and monitor activities by setting aside extra land for collective gardening. With little support from external actors, the community members who devoted the most time to enabling the action received seeds and took part in collective gardening that improved the food security of their families.

Because communities need support from the formal child protection system, efforts to ensure sustainable action should focus also on government stakeholders. A useful strategy is to engage with government stakeholders at district, province, and other levels to gain their buy-in on the community-led action and to enlist their collaboration.

Often, the community-led action on an issue such as teenage pregnancy creates grassroots pressure for the delivery of services (for example, contraceptive related services) by the relevant Government Ministry. If UNICEF and/or NGOs provide parallel training to the relevant Ministry, thereby building its capacities to support the community-led action, the groundwork is laid for sustained collaboration across all levels in ways that strengthens the wider child protection system.

Learning from the community-led action can also be used by different agencies to promote child friendly policies that support vulnerable children.[2]

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, is internal to ourselves and humanitarian agencies. There is a risk that agencies will try a community-led approach to child protection but treat it as an “interesting pilot” rather than a highly useful approach that ought to be made sustainable on a wider scale in the child protection sector. Extensive work is also required to institutionalize a community-led approach and to make it central in our work on child protection.

This work entails reorienting, reeducating ourselves and our agencies, and helping other agencies and stakeholders take a community-led approach. At the end of the day, the question is whether we have the courage to transform ourselves in order to strengthen child protection outcomes for all.

[1] Australian Aid, Belgian Development Cooperation, Government of Canada, German Humanitarian Assistance, et al. (2016). The Grand Bargain––A shared commitment to better serve people in need. Istanbul, Turkey.

[2] Wessells, M. G., Lamin, D., Manyeh, M., King, D., Stark, L., Lilley, S. & Kostelny, K. (2017). How collaboration, early engagement and collective ownership increase research impact: Strengthening community-based child protection mechanisms in Sierra Leone. In J. Georgalakis, Ramalingam, B., Jessani, N., & Oronje, R. (Eds.), The Social Realities of knowledge for development: Sharing lessons of improving development processes with evidence (pp. 74–93). London, UK: Institute for Development Studies.