Aid can be better. Let's talk about how.

“In his breakdown, he not only owned up to embezzlement, but also to having let down his own family, his community, his people, and the generations to come.” A guest post from Rajasvini Bhansali, Executive Director of IDEX.

Thoughtful Conversations & Sideways Approaches: The Barefoot Guide Connection

Are there alternatives to the cynicism and disillusionment that pervades in so many organizations that are working towards ‘development’? Where are the people who are interested in creating more grounded, creative, and human ways of doing this work?

You can find them here.

When I first picked up and started reading The Barefoot Guide to Working with Organisations and Social Change almost four years ago, it was one of those strike-you-through-the-heart moments. Finally, someone had given voice to what I considered my role to be as someone working in aid and philanthropy. Finally, someone was talking about authentic leadership and how to make it more possible for ordinary people to acquire more power over the choices and decisions that affect their lives.

And more importantly, they were talking about my role in it.

This was very different than the conversations I’d been having about reports and strategic frameworks and research proposals. These were pre-how-matters days and upon finishing the Barefoot Guide, I sent it to all my colleagues, printed out the pictures to decorate my office walls, and made readings from it part of our team meetings.

I don’t think I’m the only one who felt this immediate kinship. The Barefoot Guide has now been downloaded well over 50,000 times as a vital resource in enriching development practice. Two popular Barefoot Guides have already been produced. Four translations currently exist and five more are nearing completion. Two more Barefoot Guides are in the works.

All of this flurry of activity, which had been happening via listserves and emails between a global team of seasoned practitioners across many organizations, has moved to a home on the web, The Barefoot Guide Connection, where all of us can join in.

Among the many great online communities focused on aid, The Barefoot Guide Connection is invites practitioners who are interested in a genuinely ‘developmental’ approach to their work. The following excerpt from The Barefoot Guide shows what this means:


The authors of The Barefoot Guide offer four “guides” that we have found to be particularly true and useful in our work.

1) Development (and the will to develop) is a natural, inborn process.

In whichever state we may ?nd organisations, they are already developing. They may or may not be developing healthily or in ways they like or are even conscious of, they may be stuck in some places, but they have been developing long before facilitators came into their lives and will continue to do so long after they have left. We cannot deliver development – it is already happening as a natural process that we need to read, respect and work with.

2) People’s and organisation’s own capacity to learn from experience is the foundation of their development, independence and interdependence.

Learning from experience is as old as the hills, one of the natural, organic processes, though seldom used consciously, by which people develop themselves. We learn by doing, by thinking about what we have done and then doing it a bit better next time. We also learn especially well from peers, horizontally, who share with us their experience, connecting it to our own experience.

Learning how to learn effectively, from own experience, enables people to take pride in their own intelligence and knowledge and to build a healthy independence from outside experts.

3) Development is often complex, unpredictable and characterised by crisis.

What does it take, and how long, to help a woman in crisis to ?nd her courage to deal with an abusive husband or for a community to ?nd the con?dence to deal with corrupt councillors? When an organisation seems to be on the verge of imploding is this the end or a chance for renewal? What complex and unanticipated development of forces contributes to a once-?ourishing social initiative rolling over and dying?

Development is inherently unpredictable and prone to crisis. Yet almost miraculously, developmental crises are pregnant with opportunities for new movement, for qualitative shifts.

Practitioners or donors often avoid offering support in times of crisis, thinking it signals failure, when the opposite may be possible. Recognising and working with crisis, with all its unpredictabilities, are central to a developmental approach.

4) Power is held and transformed in relationships.

We live, learn and develop within three kinds of relationships: relationship with self, interpersonal relationships with people around us and external relationships with the rest of the world. Power is held in relationships, whether it is the struggle we have with ourselves to claim our inner power, or the power some have over others or the power we hold with others, or the power the State wields in relation to its citizens – without relationship power means little, it has no force, for bad or for good. If we want to shift power, we have to shift relationships.


Come join and explore The Barefoot Guide Connection with me! (I’m excited to follow the blog and I’m planning to jump in the Café to discuss, “Has the word ‘learning’ become overused?” Right up my alley.) The site is a hub for the sharing of questions, frustrations, possibilities, and resources—something all of us working in development can use.


This post originally appeared at:


Related Posts

RCTs: A band-aid on a deeper issue?

Would YOU fund this organization?

Spotting Community Ownership

Development Aid 2.0

Seeing the future in sovereign local organizations – Part 2

Why Organizations Matter

Whose capacity…really?

A so-called “lack of capacity” is used to justify many antiquated practices in the aid industry. And if left an unexplored concept, capacity building is arrogant at best.

Illustration from “The Barefoot Guide to working with organizations and social change”

The general (and often pejorative) assumption in the development sector that the capacity of “local partners” should be measured by the degree of formal structure is something that must be re-examined.

What about the capacity found in local civil society groups’ deep contextual knowledge, embeddedness within communities, resourcefulness, language and cultural skills, and the ability to operative in a responsive manner to local needs? These are capacities that international NGOs and donors lack.

The Community Development Resource Association offers the following perspective,

Donors need to engage in self-reflective practices themselves in terms of their own organizational needs. Yet the honest donor will admit how little this is practiced, how little responsiveness there is, how little real listening, and how many preconceived programs and methods are foisted on communities.

Some of these are in response to superficial fashions of the time, some of them to political pressures which are of northern, rather than southern, origin…If donors cannot respond to what is needed with considered flexibility and openness, then they should avoid the straw allegiance to the concept of capacity building, and even development itself, for it can only be regarded as posturing.

Perhaps the ability and penchant to understand and work with organizations of any size and type can and should become a core skill of anyone working on behalf of change. We need funders, aid practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and do-gooders thinking carefully and differently about what it is to do justice to local people’s own vast and vital efforts in the developing world.

What do people need to develop? Technical assistance, oversight, and inspection? Or resources, solidarity and encouragement?

If there’s any capacity to be built after decades of development aid, perhaps it’s our own.


Related Posts

Are you a square? Or a blob?

A new kind of aid donor: Four things they do differently

Accountability to whom? Keep asking.

Does aid need a 12-step program?

Friday’s Poetic Pause: “Capacity Gap”

The Carpenters and the Rude Man

Write a book in 4 hours with 20 grassroots organizations?—How!?!

Lucia Hass knows how! She shares her recent experience in Myanmar, which she has graciously agreed to cross-post from her site, beads—passion for facilitation.


With development loosing political interest in developed nations, It has become even more important that stories of grassroots organizations get told and heard. Local organizations however usually dread reporting time, and most will not see monitoring and reporting as an opportunity to learn.

So when I was asked to facilitate a seminar in Myanmar with local organizations on their community empowerment approaches and to “do something with monitoring” I cooked up a process that served both purposes: a writeshop.

When the community empowerment seminar started I told participants that they would write a book together. Nobody really believed that this would happen of course, but their interest was tickled. And the next afternoon, in just four hours, they did it. Forty people produced 27 stories about their work in community development and community empowerment. They all looked at it and said: “Wow! How did that happen?”


A good book starts with some research. In this case, staff from the seminar host organization used their monitoring trips to partner organizations to discuss experiences with community empowerment approaches. They had a simple format to document their findings:

Table: Research format and my suggestions for improvement

The programme officers wrote 11 research reports in all, and this was used as an input for the seminar design. Based on my reading of these reports, I have made some suggestions for further improvement in the table above. In the seminar I worked with these suggestions to deepen the understanding of participants on the concept of empowerment.

Who will read this book and why?

Participants had a quick buzz about this question and came up with the following main audiences:

  • Our own staff, and people from other grassroots organizations, so that we can learn from each other
  • International organizations so that they can have a better understanding of the existing capacities among grassroots organizations in Myanmar
  • Donors who want to fund community empowerment work, so that they know what works in Myanmar (Jennifer: See also this recent statement of policy recommendations for donors from 36 community-based organizations in Myanmar.)

What are you most proud of in your work?

There is something magical about this question. I ask participants to think about it, sit with somebody from another organization and share with each other. Initially there will be some frowning, but then very quickly eyes begin to sparkle and the buzz increases to indicate a very high level of energy in the room.

When the buzz goes down, I ask people from the same organization to sit together, and write down a title for each of their main achievements. I also encourage them to think about failures, things that didn’t work that would be good to share so that others can learn from it. The can write each achievement (or failure) on one A4 paper, writing large enough to read from the other side of the room. I walk around the room to help participants that look a bit puzzled. In this case for instance, one organization was proud of the reserve fund they established to overcome gaps in their funding situation. They were not sure if this story would qualify for the book. I asked: “Does it make your organization stronger? Does it help you to achieve your goals? If so, then you have empowered your organization, and this is an important story to share with others.

Organising the chapter layout

This next step is very important to get right. We will build the draft layout of the book. Participants must share all their cards, and in such a way that others get a basic understanding of what the experience is about. They can then cluster similar stories together. The risk is that people will just read out the title they have written, so we do not understand what the experience really is. Or they start telling the whole story, which will take too long at this point in the workshop. There will be time for sharing later in the process, because participants will help each other to write. For now we need to get a joint feeling for all the stories in the book, and where everyone’s story will fit. As a facilitator, I help participants to be brief and tell it so that others will want to hear the whole story.

As the pictures below show, we used to floor space to build the book layout. When half of the stories were shared, we stopped to find possible chapter titles for each cluster. This helped participants to find the right place in the book for the rest of their stories. I encouraged them to help each other and asked people to explain why they put their story in a particular cluster. This helps to create joint understanding.

Make sure everyone is listening, and encourage the one sharing her story cards to make it interesting so that others can know what the story is about. Don’t tell the story yet though! Some stories are soooooo interesting that people can’t wait to hear more. It’s ok to allow a bit of sharing when it is clear that everyone is engaged! Don’t allow one-on-one discussions at this stage though, others will quickly loose interest.

Self organizing the write groups

This next step requires the facilitator to completely trust the self-organising capacity of the group. You cannot organise sharing and learning among over 40 people on 27 topics. You can however give them a tool to self organise for this sharing and writing!

I have borrowed this self-organisation technique from Open Space Technology. People basically make their own agenda for the afternoon, in less than half an hour. Here’s how I explain it to the group:

  • There are 3 columns, meaning 3 blocks of one hour each. This afternoon, everyone in this room can do three things. You can either write your story, or join the writing of a story that sounds very interesting to you. While you write, you can share and learn from each other.
  • In a moment, people from the same organization can discuss what they want to do. Which of your experiences do you like to write-up? Maybe some of your experiences are similar with that of another organization and you can write one story together? What are interesting experiences that you want to learn about? If you are two from the same organization, you can do 6 things this afternoon!
  • I have made 5 rows, which means that there will be five groups working together at the same time. And we will do this three times. If there are more than 15 stories you want to write this afternoon, we can create more rows, which means more groups working at the same time.
  • When you know what you want to write about, take one of the 15 empty post-its from a cell on the whiteboard and write your name and the title. The tile should be the same as in the book layout we have just created, so that others can remember what it is about!
  • Next you need to find the stories you want to learn from. Will they be at a time that you are free? If not, negotiate for the writers to change to another time, so that you can participate in that group.
  • It is good to have a maximum of 6 or so in a group, so when groups emerge that are larger, I encourage you to split up.
  • OK group: make your agenda!

Don’t allow too many questions at this stage. Some people have already understood and want to get started, so you need to get out of the way. If you see puzzled people, approach them and help them out. The only time where I haven’t seen this work was when the facilitator could not let go! Trust that participants can do it, and they will. It looks a bit chaotic, but it is productive chaos: The agenda was agreed in 20 minutes.

Some (very) basic guidance for writing

I only give a few tips, but they help people to feel they can do it. First tip is to write your story as if you are telling it to your friend. It’s not a report! Second tip is to think of a good flow for your story. I make two suggestions for flow:

  1. a) What was the issue? b) What did you do about it? c) What is the result?
  2. a) What did I or we do with the community? b) What did the community do with the people? c) What did the people do for themselves? d) How has that made life better in the community?

The second flow is actually a result chain: 2a input, —> 2b output —> 2c outcome —> 2d impact. Later in the seminar, when we talked about monitoring, I linked back to these 4 questions and showed people the result chain logic behind it. I try to stay away from definitions, but rather use these simple questions to help people build a logical story about their work. My translator actually observed during story writing that most people have a lot to say about 2a and 2b, but very little about 2c and 2d. That makes sense, because outcomes usually take a while to materialize, and impact even longer. However, if you regularly tell this story about your work and you never get to talk about what people are doing for themselves, you may not be making the difference in people’s lives that you are aiming for. And that is one of the main purposes of monitoring: checking that you are making a difference, and adjusting if you are not. (The other main purposes are learning, and accountability.)

Writing itself

Prior to the writeshop I met with the program officers to discuss facilitation for the writing groups. Helpful facilitation skills are:

  • Probing for more details in the story, for instance the “But-Why?” method.
  • Listening and helping to find the right flow in the story
  • Leading discussion of approaches that seem similar
  • Taking notes when everyone else forgets to do that in the heat of the sharing and learning

What you will see is that some people work in groups and some work alone. It is interesting to observe this, and to find out why some stories seem to draw more interest than others.

Participants were very surprised to find that writing can actually be fun. One participant said that she would never again write a report on her own. She would rather sit together with her team to learn and discuss. She felt the discussion made the understanding of her work deeper, and it was not just more fun, but also produced a much better story than she could have written on her own.

No need to worry about those who write individually. Others can read their story later, when they are posted on the story wall. If time allows, some of these individual stories can be read out loud to the group.

Editing and publishing the book

We are currently translating all the 27 stories, and will probably need to edit a bit further. If the experience is interesting, I’ll add it here later.

Your observations, questions and suggestions are most welcome!


@LuciaMHNass is passionate about facilitation of small and large group events, and longer-term capacity development processes that deal with poverty, power and progress. Lucia has been living and working in West-Africa and Asia for over 25 years. She blogs at


Related Posts: For some other how-to’s on working with grassroots organizations, see these related posts on: building strong relationshipsgrantmakingmentoringmeasuring the strength of partnershipsexchange visitsoral reportingassessing written reports, and assessing community ownership.

“With the available resources we had…”

Understanding the organizational dynamics of local, indigenous, community-based groups directly serving vulnerable families is vastly different from the project-based, accountability-by-paper world of the aid industry. While those in the aid system may acknowledge local groups’ resourcefulness in mobilizing local resources, their language and cultural competencies, and responsiveness to communities’ needs, there are challenges in working with local groups that many organizations are not up to. James Oonyu, the Founder and National Director of Liregu Christian Grace Ministries, a faith-based community development organization based in Lira, Uganda, shares the capacity challenges his organization faces. He also describes the very real challenges he comes up against in working with donors.

The question remains—how can we begin to tackle these challenges on both sides?


The way the donor system works right now doesn’t favor a majority of community-based organizations (CBOs). I think there is need to rethink their approach, which works so perfectly with well-established organizations. The bigger organizations that are well supported by the donors are so wasteful with high administrative costs and a focus on matters of policy. CBOs accomplish their objectives because they understand the community so well, because that is where they are based.

James Oonyu, Founder and Director of Liregu Christian Grace Ministries, leads a community meeting in northern Uganda.

This is where I began from when creating the organization I work with today ( With very little education and after struggling to find what to do, I decided to initiate a community-based organization in 2002. With my natural talent of community mobilization and a little knowledge gathered on the Internet on formation and management of CBOs, I went back to this slum where I partly grew up and put up a community leadership structure and set up specific objectives we needed to achieve to support our community.

Our drive was to begin the CBO with the available resources we had; we had local people, time and our ideas of local activities we could engage to address our community’s most pressing needs. Among the greatest challenges our community faced was a high rate of HIV/AIDS, environmental health and the orphan crisis. We focused a lot in raising HIV awareness and home support of orphaned children using our own local resources. We formed music, dance and drama clubs and put up wonderful community HIV/AIDS awareness shows. We also fundraised within the community to support education of orphaned children and vigorously mobilized the community to keep our slum clean to prevent diseases.

As much as we did this, we were so concerned about our growth and sustainability. We had trust, a committed leadership structure (though many were semi-literate), a bank account, and involved local communities in all our program activities. We were also gender sensitive. It was mostly women who formed part of our leadership and despite our Christian evangelical background, we worked with everyone without discrimination. We did this to position our CBO to compete for donor support. However, each time we submitted proposals to donors, we were turned down for lack of technical ability to manage their funds.

James Oonyu shares a moment of joy with community members of Liregu Christian Grace Ministries.

We had no resources to hire technical staff to write “professional” proposals or to pay for an expensive annual audit, which are core requirements from donors. Some of the managers of well-established organizations did reach out to us to help us grow, but they also put across very tough conditions—they asked for bribes! Once one of these representatives drove 350km just to come to share with us how he could approve our proposal if we agreed to hand over a quarter of the funds we asked for to him once funding was approved. He was so disappointed when we refused that he promised to “kill” our CBO. However, his plan failed!

The biggest practical challenge most CBOs face is lack of technical capacity. Many of them are initiated by local communities without relevant skills. However, they so well understand needs and culture of their community and they even know right approaches to address their pressing problems. However, many CBOs lack understanding of how to design achievable projects, fundraising, and financial management. To me, the relationship between CBOs and the donor community must begin from building their capacity first before funding is provided. If not, they will inadvertently “steal” from the project funding they are given to build their capacity and meet their administrative costs.

These are just some of the many challenges sincere CBOs on the ground face, which frustrates the process of building strong relationships with donors and other larger organizations.


James Oonyu is a development practitioner with eleven years of experience working to empower local communities in Uganda. He is a Founder and National Director of Liregu Christian Grace Ministries, a faith-based community development organization based in Lira, Uganda. He has also worked as a project administrator at Adam Smith International, an international advisory firm working throughout the world to help reform and improve economies and institutions. He holds a merit postgraduate certificate in research methods of Centre for Basic Research in Uganda and a 1st Class Honors degree in development studies from Ndejje University.


This post originally appeared at:

Related Posts

Searching for Closure: A Kony2012 Postscript


How to build strong relationships with grassroots organizations, Part 1 of 3

Capillary Philanthropy: Businesses, local NGOs, and the future of aid

The Marginalization of CBOs by Development Actors: A Perspective from Zimbabwe

Would YOU fund this organization?