“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 Uganda.

This is where I began from when creating the organization I work with today (www.liregu.org). 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.

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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.

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This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/04/08/with-the-available-resources-we-had/

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Comment by Steve Forbes on April 9, 2012 at 1:34am

As always Jennifer you bring to light an important perspective that is often not considered, as CBOs evolve in their own rite and are only  relatively recently becoming recognized.  The difficulties James described so well must be overcome if CBO's are to reach their full potential, which, in my opinion, is to become the necessary link and vanguard  (foot soldiers as Samuel Maruta refers to them) from the community to the resources they need in order to achieve sustainable self sufficient.  James provides an excellent case study and highlights very well how the lack of technical capacity is the CBO's biggest practical challenge, which I think includes vocational and business training and education, and access to credible, reliable information and community development resources.   Without the internal capacity, it must seek it from the outside and that usually means conditions, which as James described so graphically  can be too much to bare and opportunity is lost.   

For a long time now I have been seeking the ways and means to establish that crucial link as an extension service to enable communities to reach out on their own terms and initiatives to become their own agents of change and development.  Although the concept is well (more or less) defined and is being applied on a small and slow scale since there has not been the CBOs in place to take the lead, and it has a long way to go since it intends to be self sufficient in its own right in order to maintain its independence to work directly with the Community thru its CBO, not to provide funds and hardware, but rather to provide information, methods and services to enable the Community to prepare and implement its own plan of action to meet its prioritized goals and assure continuous  progress and improvement.  With enough CBO's like those described and those who responded, I think the foundation is being laid, and I hope the extension services (SuDex) will become one to the innovative ways Vijay calls for.  

Comment by Vijay Bharatiya on April 8, 2012 at 2:45pm

thanks for sharing. We all face this reality when working with the community groups. We too face the similar challenges. Strength of community groups is the URGE to grow that it has. We need to find innovative ways to seek resources and it will be good to tap sources other than donor  agencies which is anyway difficult for small community based groups. 

Comment by Michael Donahue on April 8, 2012 at 12:09pm

". . . 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."    Jennifer I appreciate your perspectives and posts.  Our organization recently facilitated a program for the US Dept. of State with Fellows from Kenya, Uganda and the USA with a focus on urban agriculture. Several of the fellows operated small CBO's  and or worked on their own, and others were connected collectively to a larger Nairobi based NGO, Mazingira Institute. Clearly all of the participants had incredible understanding of their community needs, all already in action in some way,  yet when the opportunity to apply for funding would come up, the collective group were able to access technical resources quicker, present a more coherent, collaborative project plan and respond with what I would call less stress and tunnel vision focus to just get it done. Our organization would end up working virtually as much as possible, ( ironically a part of the problem) with the CBO's or individual who had fewer technical resources,  time  and experience to support their presentations and in the end, I suspect we simply did it  for several reasons, (it is not what we are designed to do.),  including so we would look good in the eyes of our funding source.

Comment by Susan Burgess-Lent on April 8, 2012 at 11:51am

Jennifer,

I'm so with you on this. Thanks for sharing the story.

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