Grassroots Process Design

Michelle Maiese

September 2003

The Importance of Grassroots Involvement

"Top-down development programs often exacerbate post-conflict problems, increase tensions, and marginalize local communities."

"For example, the humanitarian assistance program that was initiated in South Sudan in the 1980s made community participation almost impossible." -- Vivien Erasmus, 249

Grassroots process design aims to address these issues by increasing public participation, empowering local actors, and fostering a sense of community ownership.

Grassroots process design seeks to increase local actors' sense of ownership in an intervention process, empower local communities, and create an environment more conducive to lasting peace. It recognizes that peacebuilding strategies must give individuals and groups the opportunity to rediscover their cultural identities and regain their independence.[1]

When communities find themselves in crisis situations, urgent humanitarian interventions can be quite helpful, and almost always reflect honorable, humanitarian intentions. However, given the compromised state of post-conflict groups, there is significant risk that external intervention can have unforeseen, negative consequences.[2] In part, this is because the peacebuilding process introduces a new set of relationships between the groups recovering from conflict and the external actors working to help them. If parties feel that outsiders have imposed peacebuilding policies, intervention strategies are far less likely to be successful. Indeed, short-term emergency funds and emergency-oriented NGOs have the potential to intensify conflict and add to existing tensions.[3]

To a large extent, the effectiveness of external aid depends on the ability of international actors to truly understand the conflict situation they are trying to mitigate.[4] Post-war rebuilding should be based on a holistic and in-depth understanding of the problems and the ways these problems are connected, of available resources, and of the respective agendas of the various actors.[5] However, donors of humanitarian aid and development assistance can be insensitive to local social and cultural conditions, and proceed as if they are rebuilding a society from nothing. They may ignore important contextual issues and assume that from their "Western" perspective, they know best. But any attempts to impose liberal values or principles may be seen as paternalistic, or as acts of aggression.[6] In fact, failures to effectively mobilize the community sometimes lead to conflict between NGOs and local actors, worsening an already bad situation.

Donors sometimes promote a perception that the programs being supported belong to the agency, rather than to the community.[7] This top-down approach makes community ownership almost impossible. As a result, traditional leadership and systems may become marginalized, and local capacities for peacebuilding ignored. In some cases, external actors may use funding mechanisms and donations as political tools to direct peacebuilding in a way that suits their own interests.[8] In other cases, communities simply become overly dependent on these funds and agencies.

Many have noted that the quality of external assistance to war-torn societies must be improved if it is to contribute effectively to peacebuilding. There must be more listening and discussion and less imposition, and more facilitation and empowerment and less control.[9] Donors must be aware that some positive changes are not measurable, and they must seek to understand these changes from the perspective of community members. Ultimately, the ownership of the intervention process must reside largely with local communities. If done effectively, grassroots process design can reduce political opposition to intervention, and foster good relationships between external actors and local labor and communities.

Community Mobilization

Additional insights into grassroots process design are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Many people speak of grassroots process design in terms of community mobilization programs that aim to minimize dependency and create a sense of ownership at the grassroots level. Such efforts also tap into the local knowledge and resources of a community, with the recognition that these resources can be crucial to a successful intervention.[10] They foster indigenous democratic elements, conflict resolution mechanisms, and civil society, and promote democratic development that reflects local values and history.[11] Even after the assistance program is withdrawn, community mobilization strategies can continue to be effective.[12]

The central goal of community mobilization is to re-empower communities to make vital decisions and strengthen their capacity to address the needs of their people.[13] John Paul Lederach refers to grassroots process design as an "integrated framework," in which the participation and empowerment of people within a local setting is stressed as the best way to identify and handle problems.[14] Empowerment results from processes that promote self-awareness, and encourage public participation in the process of naming and creating appropriate responses to people's needs and problems.[15] Local actors must formulate their own goals for the future, and their voices must be heard in the decision-making bodies that dictate the course that development will take.[16] Indeed, all groups, including the marginalized, should be encouraged to express themselves.

Participation of local people in the process of conflict transformation is crucial because it helps to foster self-sufficiency and sustain development over time.[17] If there is no national ownership of the development process, political ownership of the rehabilitation process will simply remain with the external actors.[18] And if they are not active participants, people at the grassroots level cannot become "stakeholders" in the measures meant to assist them. The promotion of local and national ownership of external assistance can restore confidence and dignity and contribute to building local capacities.[19] Creating such localized ownership involves transferring control from donors to recipients, and allowing local and national actors to gradually acquire the skills and confidence needed to direct peacebuilding efforts. Over time, the role of external actors can be reduced to back-up support, facilitation, advice, and financial assistance.[20] Administrative donor control can be replaced by collective control and responsibility on the part of the recipients.

Involving Local Actors

As noted above, the grassroots level is a vital source of information for assessing the merits of peacebuilding operations and development plans. Indeed, local communities should be involved in planning, designing, and evaluating these operations. The accountability of donors and implementers towards local communities is an essential part of work toward social development and local ownership of peacebuilding. Thus, external support should assist and reinforce local communities, rather than replace local efforts.[21]

In many contemporary intervention efforts, however, the involvement of local actors is limited or non-existent. Project design, feedback, and evaluation are often least open to public participation. The implementer simply asks the community for relevant information, but assumes that it alone has the means and skills to design and evaluate peacebuilding programs. Evaluation is typically donor-sponsored and comes in the forms of reports issued by the implementing organization.[22]

In What Areas Can Local Involvement Be Effectively Increased?

To be sure, there are many different levels of involvement. The most limited level of public involvement is when people are informed about matters that affect them on a need-to-know basis, and are not asked for their input. In other cases, external actors define problems and processes, but then consult local actors and grant them a limited voice. However, the external actors have no obligation to take people's views into account. In procedural participation, local actors are encouraged to engage in achieving project goals, but not participate in designing those project goals. In an "interactive partnership," on the other hand, local actors work together with external actors to design, implement, and assess projects.[23]

In its most advanced form, grassroots process design seeks to engage local populations extensively in decision-making for needs assessment, project design and project evaluation.[24] Thus, it aims to promote structures that increase the level of community participation in planning, managing, and supervising peacebuilding processes. It also includes strategic plans to make implementers more accountable to recipients. Eventually, those at the grassroots level will take initiatives independently of external actors, and external actors will assume the role of facilitating projects designed by local communities.[25]

The "elicitive model" seeks to discover and solidify the resources that exist in a specific post-conflict context, and to empower under-represented individuals to voice their cultural traditions.[26] These individuals can often provide external actors with the in-depth knowledge of local and national dynamics and forces that they need to gain a holistic understanding of the postwar situation, the root causes of the conflict, and the different actors involved.[27] At the field level, external actors must build informal communication networks that can increase trust and provide insight into local realities. Building these networks requires intercultural, team building, and communication skills.[28]

While identifying individuals who can provide important information about a conflict and explain its dynamics can be difficult, these "resource persons" are crucial.[29] Consulting with resource persons can also yield information about project objectives, strategies, resources available within the community, and time frames. Ideally, these consultants will be unbiased and reliable.

Once the basic facts are understood, a wider dialogue process that involves local authorities and community leaders should begin. A broad-based process, involving all interest groups, must be emphasized.[30] Dialogue between the various stakeholders, including community members, donors, and service providers, is an integral part of this process. In cases of modest community involvement, donors might provide a clear explanation of the project objectives, strategies, and management structure that are being proposed, and ask for feedback from the leaders.[31] In cases of more advanced grassroots participation, the community can participate as a full member of the planning. In both sorts of cases, external actors must view local authorities and communities as equal partners, deserving of respect. In addition, donors must make a long-term commitment to the development project, be committed to the notion of community ownership, and be flexible enough to allow for community participation.[32]

Donors should also strive to utilize existing community resources, including technical knowledge as well as material, financial, and human resources.[33] For example, they might seek to establish good lines of communication between political, business, church, and civil society leaders, or promote education and training programs on tolerance at schools and in the workplace.[34] External actors might also strive to develop rehabilitation technology that utilizes local skills and materials or channel aid through community-based organizations.[35] Or, they might implement specialized interventions and institutions to provide professional and technical support and training that are not available within the community itself.[36]

Finally, communities should be encouraged not only to meet immediate survival goals, but also to envision positive change for the future. External actors should promote capacity-building measures for local institutions and communities, and promote programs that are characterized by community decision-making and implementation.[37] Ultimately, it is these local resources that will determine whether a lasting peace can be sustained.

Community Mobilization Strategies

Community Leaders' Workshops: As noted above, community mobilization seeks to create a dialogue between the community, donors, and service providers, and ensure full cooperation between all stakeholders. One community mobilization strategy is to introduce a Community Leaders' Workshop. Those participating in such workshops might include local authorities, representatives from community structures and institutions, leaders of women's groups, religious leaders, relevant professionals, and representatives from humanitarian agencies.[38] These workshops can serve as the primary mechanism for making important decisions about project objectives, strategies, and organization. Either an appropriate local authority or an external facilitator can chair the workshop.

Those attending the workshop have an opportunity to discuss a wide variety of important issues pertaining to the peacebuilding and development process. First, parties can discuss the various roles and responsibilities of the community, the donor, and the service providers. A system for managing the project should be accepted by all stakeholders, and their various responsibilities should be clarified.

Once the community has assessed its needs and its available resources, it can work with service providers to formulate a project proposal and present it to the donor. If the donor agrees to the proposal, it provides specified resources to support the local program. This locally owned set of objectives and strategies is usually unlimited in time.[39] The donor project, on the other hand, contains a limited set of objectives, limited in time and resources. This ensures that in the long-term, ownership of local programs lies primarily with the communities themselves.

The Workshop can in this way establish a set of agreements that define how the project will proceed. Because it involves the community in planning efforts, it is an important part of community empowerment. In addition, the Workshop is a good way to conduct needs assessment, and to make all parties aware of the limitations and financial constraints of the donor. It provides a great forum for sharing and clarifying information, promotes accountability and transparency, and leads to cooperation between the various internal and external actors.[40]

Participatory Planning: The development of community action plans through participatory planning is another way to mobilize the community. During participatory planning, community leaders and technical/professional persons come together to share information and develop a strategy. It is thought that the information obtained through collective research and analysis reflects reality more effectively, because the participants bring first-hand knowledge and understanding to the research project.[41] Because policymakers and other participants can take the research results and "translate them into concrete policy and action," this process also makes it more likely that the research will be relevant and have an impact.[42]

Engaging local actors in these processes also transfers ownership of the research to those intended to benefit from it. The plans developed belong to the local community, and based on such plans; the community can seek assistance from donors and monitor progress.[43] What's more, these locally generated plans, if broadly understood, can create a strong sense of ownership and commitment among the participants.[44]

Finally, because it involves a wide range of local and external actors in a neutral dialogue, participatory planning can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of post-conflict situations and help to build trust among these different actors.[45] And insofar as a collective research process allows participants to see problems from the perspective of a variety of actors, it leads to more integrated policy responses.[46]

[1] William Boyce, Michael Koros, and Jennifer Hodgson, "Community Based Rehabilitation: A Strategy for Peacebuilding," Humanities Department, McMaster University. Available at:, p. 5.

[2] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 4.

[3] Vivien Erasmus, "Relief Aid and Development Cooperation: Community Mobilization as a Tool for Peacebuilding," in Peacebuilding: A Field Guide, Luc Reychler and Thania Paffenholz, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), 247.

[4] Matthias Stiefel,"Participatory Action Research as a Tool for Peacebuilding: The WSP Experience," in Peacebuilding: A Field Guide, Luc Reychler and Thania Paffenholz, eds. (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001), 270.

[5] Stiefel, 268.

[6] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 5.

[7] Erasmus, 248.

[8] Michael Pugh, "Post-Conflict Rehabilitation: The Humanitarian Dimension". Available at:

[9] Stiefel, 270.

[10] Erasmus, 247.

[11] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 5.

[12] Erasmus, 249.

[13] Erasmus, 247.

[14] Lederach, 32.

[15] Lederach, 32.

[16] Pugh, available at:

[17] Lederach, 31.

[18] Pugh.

[19] Stiefel, 272.

[20] Stiefel, 272.

[21] Pugh.

[22] Pugh.

[23] Pugh.

[24] Pugh.

[25] Pugh.

[26] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 5.

[27] Stiefel, 270.

[28] Stiefel, 271.

[29] Erasmus, 250.

[30] Erasmus, 250.

[31] Erasmus, 251.

[32] Erasmus, 250.

[33] Erasmus, 249.

[34] Abdallah, 162.

[35] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 6.

[36] Boyce, Koros, and Hodgson, 6.

[37] Pugh.

[38] Erasmus, 251.

[39] Erasmus, 252.

[40] Erasmus, 253.

[41] Stiefel, 273.

[42] Stiefel, 273,

[43] Erasmus, 253.

[44] Erasmus, 253.

[45] Stiefel, 273.

[46] Stiefel, 274.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Grassroots Process Design." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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