Growing is often its own trap. For social initiatives, increased visibility brings the temptation of growth for different reasons, including perceived impact and success. Expanding initiatives often attract attention, raise public expectations, demand larger teams and increased resources. In these scenarios, it appears counterintuitive to try to work closely with communities given the time and effort that entails, often with unpredictable developments and outcomes that are hard to measure.
And because expansions are usually financed by large external grants, there is seldom a focus on local resources. Dependence on foreign donors usually results in independence from communities, or in the very least it hinders the work of building sustainable communities that don’t rely on the resource-intensive presence of organisations. Thus, connecting with communities sounds like a nice, yet inefficient, goal. However, avoiding this type of work might lead to local communities becoming increasingly distant from platforms that they do not feel connected to.
Paraguay is a young democracy that still carries the historical weight of 35 years of dictatorship. It is one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America, according to Transparency International. Land distribution is among the most unequal in the world. And for all the positive macroeconomic indicators, social inequality and poverty have recently increased. With such pressing challenges, it is not unlike many developing countries struggling with a restrictive social environment, while rushing to tackle as many development problems as possible. In such a scramble, it is hard to visualise the relative importance of community-building.
As in most places, social media campaigns and symbolic victories by civil society leaders fail to empower and connect with people. Locals might perceive that those victories happen because “they are famous, educated, and have resources”, as one old man working in the streets of our city, Ciudad del Este, once told us. Consequently, victories that are not rooted in community work might unintentionally further alienate average citizens.
If anything, I believe this holds true for anti-corruption organisations—with all the political weight usually attached to their work. Namely, anti-corruption workshops mean little if there is no follow-up on strengthening communities. Similarly, appropriate legislation or public agencies that promote transparency matter little if anti-corruption movements have little power, especially if there is no long-term strategy on engaging communities.
Towards an ecosystem working against corruption
In 2008, when I was 17 years old, some of us students led a month-long demonstration exposing corruption in the education sector of Paraguay. A year later we created reAcción, a youth-led anti-corruption NGO, which despite winning some mini grants from Transparency International and the World Bank Institute, lacked significant funding until 2015. In the first 7 years, all our resources went into activities and we lacked paid staff members. Still, we expanded as a volunteer network to three of Paraguay’s largest cities, implemented different community projects, and experimented with rigid organisational models not fit for our dynamic network. We were lucky to make many mistakes early on, and the tensions between community and programmatic work taught us plenty.
The incentives in our sector are clear: follow a development model that favors size and expansive geographic presence, and cultivate a perception of impact. In such a model, it is not enough to act at a local level. “Never mind your focus on the education sector, corruption is everywhere and so should your initiatives”, we were once told. Noise from organisational success will always be louder than the voice of the people in the communities one works with.
But our experience tells a different story: our progress in battling corruption within the education sector has mainly stemmed from the community we patiently built and the competences we developed during the process.
Building and sustaining connections is hard. But it is worrisome that as organisations, many follow incentives that lead us to become much like a virus, which needs to constantly multiply while feeding off problems in different places. Sometimes this seems to reflect a business model of sorts. Instead of working with the aim of becoming redundant by extinguishing the problems we tackle, we continue to see them as raw materials to sustain entire industries and enterprise-like organisations.
Community facilitation with students in Ciudad del Este, 2018.
Our team members were in their early 20s when we got our first major grant (at least for us). We had no advisors or people to guide us. Contrary to expectations, we invested in a couple of 18 year-olds as reAcción’s first staff members, former volunteers. Our first major project emphasised community-building for anti-corruption in the education sector. We bet on training our volunteers. Technology and other fashionable components were present, but most of our time was spent on activities with people from the community.
We knew we wouldn’t see much impact for a few years. In hindsight, it was a risky bet. But our focus on maintaining closeness with community was such that we designed two of our initial projects to eventually become autonomous organisations—this process has already started as they have developed their own approaches and teams. Instead of becoming big, we’ve started to become an ecosystem.
Development in the hands of community
We could have applied for larger grants earlier. But it would have come at the price of our community-building. We could have hired development practitioners to speed up our monitoring mechanisms and increase the impact of our projects. But it would have come at the cost of time with our volunteers and their critical engagement with the reality of the problem. This is not to demean the value of expertise; it’s to shed light to the need for that expertise to be shared withmore than simply exercised oncommunities. What some might say we lost in time, we gained in integration, experience, fellowship, and cohesion.
Hence, when we found evidence to suggest that our anti-corruption efforts have contributed to an increase in the number of poor schools that received funds for infrastructure, it was an entire community’s win. The neediest schools receiving resources went up from 20% in 2015 to 80% in 2017. This was recently highlighted in an article published by the Open Contracting Partnership.
Workshops with students include sessions about monitoring budgets and civic tools to hold the Paraguayan government to account- reAcción
At a recent meeting, I mentioned how our organisation is looking to get funding from our community’s members and small businesses. One gentleman applauded our idealism, stating he wished things worked that way. Upon reflection, I understood something. Probably for most well-established NGOs, it must sound quite naïve to think the local community might actually support a worthy cause. So, I wonder, how many of our victories and failures are advancing our communities’ power to claim ownership of their own development?
Of course, different issues require complementary types of interventions. And yes, working in the grassroots requires a lot of extra work. But corruption, fundamentalism, xenophobia, and crime have an easy time spreading in places where people have no platforms, and no alternative communities through which to join other people that have similar demands. What I’ve learned from our anti-corruption work in Paraguay is that we urgently need community organisations as platforms that can bridge the gaps between policy-oriented NGOs, think-tanks, environmental groups, and so forth. The current model’s incentives and certainly most donor requirements do not facilitate such a transition.
It’s difficult to avoid the trade-offs inherent to growing as an NGO. But when growth comes at the expense of community-building, it concentrates benefits to the few, while the rest steadily become passive spectators—much like growth in economic terms. In anti-corruption, this is a flaw we unconsciously pursue. From NGOs to the economy, we should stop self-justifying development that is not community-centred.