(Whispering.) “Psst, excuse me, but actually it’s not ‘your’ program. And if you think that it is, we may have a problem on our hands.”

Many would argue that who owns what in development and peacebuilding is a key aspect, if not the aspect, to a project’s or program’s success.

And so a person’s choice word choice when describing their work or do-gooder endeavor can actually reveal quite a lot.

Some may think I’m just being fussy about semantics. They’ll argue that that well done is more important than well said. They’ll point to the fact that international assistance is constantly riddled with phrases and jargon that are eventually forgotten or rendered meaningless. But it’s deeper than that and I’m not talking nouns and acronyms.

I’m talking about possessive adjectives. MINE – YOURS – ITS – HERS – HIS – OURS – THEIRS – WHOSE.

Let’s be honest. How many of you, when talking to a friend, another NGO colleague, or donor refers to “our program” in [insert Country X or District Y or Village Z]?

But let me ask you something – Do you live in Country X or District Y or Village Z?

If you don’t, that should be your first clue that “my project” or “our program” is not the phrase for you to use. Here’s some others.

When people from your community are knocking on your door for help and you are working day and night to help fulfill their self-identified needs, then yes, by all means, lay your claim.

When you are coming up with the ideas and steps forward, based on a collective process to generate solutions to shared problems with your neighbors’ and fellow community members, then yes, “our project” is appropriate.

When you are implementing a project and it’s not just a job or a hobby, it is a matter of life and personal responsibility to people you face every day, go ahead, “our project” can be yours.

When you can identify with the people you’re serving to such an extent that you feel an obligation to be directly accountable to them in a tangible rather than an abstract way, the program is truly “yours.”

Essentially, unless you’re on the ground, doing the work with and on behalf of your own community on a daily basis, I believe a program cannot and should not ever be considered “yours,” grammatically or otherwise. Without this awareness, “our project” can be dismissive and disrespectful to local activists and grassroots leaders.

Every aid worker probably has their own bugaboos. (See posts by Alanna Shaikh and Daniela Papi on theirs.) These come and go as the aid lexicon shifts and changes with the latest development trend. There was a time near the turn of this century when I felt as if I had to discuss the definition of CABA (children affected by AIDS) then later OVC (orphans and vulnerable children) in one more stakeholder meeting, I would literally pitch a fit like a three-year-old.

But this “our project” issue for me has never left. When I was with [insert US-based, corporate aid agency here], though we claimed to work in partnership with local implementing organizations, all the programs were conceived of and spoken of as “ours.” This always struck me as extremely hypocritical, and frankly counter-productive to sound and proven principles of assets-based, community-driven development.

What made them our programs? The fact that we wrote the proposals? (Eh hum, in consultation with our partners of course.) Or were they our programs because, through our funding of local partners, we ultimately controlled how each cent was spent? Or because we were supposedly the ones who had to be accountable to USAID?

How is community ownership even possible under such circumstances? Local partners and communities didn’t have a chance to make the projects theirs. If a project is considered to be someone else’s, and your sense of agency and autonomy are clearly not on their radar, why would you even bother?

Similarly, I hear “our project” used just as egregiously by the DIY aid and social enterprise folks. How many times have I had to endure hearing all about “our project” from the do-gooder newly returned from Kenya at a cocktail party? As I nod and listen, I’m silently thinking to myself that the fact that this project is “yours,” will more than likely contribute to its downfall.

In the Keystone INGO Partner Survey 2010, an initiative to measure the performance of northern NGOs, local organizations sent a clear message. They do not want to be treated as sub-contractors, carrying out international agencies’ projects and priorities. Rather they want help from aid agencies to become independent and influential organizations in their own right, enabling them to respond flexibly to local people’s needs.

When are we going to realize that participation is not just a nice-to-have in this work? Nor is it even enough.

To bring about real change, we need to be talking ownership.

And not our own.


See below a participation typology I’ve adapted and used and am sharing for further discussion on this issue. Reflections and comments are most welcome.


(Adapted from Hart, 1992 and Pretty, 1995.)

Self-mobilization: People participate by taking initiatives independent of any external institutions. Such self-initiated mobilization and collective action based on mutual obligations may challenge existing inequitable distributions of power.

Community-initiated, shared decisions: Community members have the initial ideas, set up the program/project, only coming to the NGO/CBO for advice, discussion and support.  The NGO/CBO does not direct, but offers their expertise to consider and may bring financial resources to bear.

NGO/CBO-initiated, shared decision with community: NGO/CBO has the initial idea for the program/project but the community is involved in every step of the planning and implementation through the formation of new local groups or the strengthening of existing ones.

Consulted and informed: The program/project is designed and run by NGO/CBO but community has understanding of the predetermined objectives related to the project. External agents define both problems and solutions, and may modify these in the light of people's responses.

Informed and assigned: Community members are asked to contribute their time and say what they think about a program/project but have little or no influence about how the program/project is run. Such a consultative process does not concede any share in decision-making and outsiders are under no obligation to incorporate people's views.

Extraction/Tokenism/Decoration: People participate by giving information to outsiders using questionnaire surveys or similar approaches. The information shared belongs only to external professionals and the findings of the research or project design are neither shared nor checked for accuracy. Community members may take part in an event, e.g. by singing, dancing or wearing T-shirts with logos, but they do not really understand the program/project. People have no stake in prolonging activities when the incentives end.

Manipulation: Community members do or say what NGO/CBO suggests they do but they have no real understanding of the program/project. People participate by being told what is going to happen or what has already happened.


This post originally appeared at: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/04/27/not-your-project/


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Tags: CBOs, DIY, INGO, Keystone, NGOs, Partner, Survey, accountability, aid, assistance, More…community, community-based, development, downward, enterprise, foreign, grassroots, international, jargon, ladder, mobilization, organizations, ownership, participation, philanthropy, social, workers


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Comment by Rocky Mountain Peace Institute on April 29, 2011 at 3:15pm
I am extraordinarily delighted to see this post. I was recently speaking with some lawyers that have tried to form a group called Mediators Beyond Borders. This is the biggest sham in the history of newly formed organizations. I would highly encourage everyone to stay arms length from this poorly constructed concept. The goal of this group is to get students to pay annual fees that will support MBB's "projects", basically the founders that wish to retire and travel abroad. They refer to "their" programs. I would highly discourage students, colleagues, faculty, or consultants and practitioners (not Western lawyers that think in terms of the rule of law as it exists in the US or Europe) to remain distant from MBB. MBB's philosophy is that they'll fly "white American colonialist" mediators into conflict zones with a cape and no money to save the day. MBB should read the post someone wrote titled: "Confessions of a Recovering Neocolonialist". It is important for truly international practitioners to communicate the differences between what they do abroad and how, and why it differs so much in comparison to lawyers trained as court appointed mediators in the United States. I am adamantly opposed to this organization given its lack of understanding or knowledge of the international arena. Furthermore, I do not think that they should be asking students to pay to be associated with older practitioners desire to travel abroad. The goal of an international practitioner should be to focus on the people already doing 'the work' in their own countries, regions, cities, towns, schools. As Americans or Europeans, we have a duty to listen, to learn, to identify the successes and failures of those who are in the game every day. It's absurd to think that MBB is trying to Cloke its endeavors in the facade of 'help'. Seems Mediators Beyond Borders could learn a lot from this post. Perhaps they'll forward this article and these comments to their unsuspecting and foiled members.
Comment by Sana Saeed on April 28, 2011 at 1:53pm
I agree that attention needs to be bought to the attitudes and ownership in the ngo/non-profit world in internationally and domestically as well. I think the founder's syndrome can also lead to an ownership attitude at the highest level and the lowest levels of organizations. The need to own and control decision making, but also to make it clear who gets the recognition. In a world where non-profits are constantly vying for funding, this ownership attitude is exasperated to get the attention of donors. But, unknowingly many don't see how this attitude can be harmful to projects and an organization....because this attitude leads to projects being more about attaining future funding instead of attaining positive/transformational results from a project.
Comment by Jennifer Lentfer on April 28, 2011 at 11:55am
While the post is written seemingly about words, it is meant to spark discussion about attitudes and ownership in international assistance. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Keep them coming!
Comment by Sami Faltas on April 28, 2011 at 11:14am
"MY PROJECT" can mean a project I own exclusively. But if I tell somebody "my project is interesting", they will probably, and in most cases rightly, assume that I mean a project I am currently engaged in.

"OUR PROJECT" can mean a project exclusively owned by my outfit. But it can just as well mean that my outfit and others own it and are involved in it together. Anyone familiar with the development business will assume the latter.

So linguistically, Jennifer's post is much ado about nothing. But linguistics aside, she does make some valid points about local ownership.
Comment by Rachel Guimbatan on April 28, 2011 at 11:04am
Interesting, but I would not have any issue if someone lays claim to a programme that I have designed, implemented, coordinated, negotiated, and nurtured for the welfare of my people.  I would want the world to own it, too.  What matters to us who are working at the grassroots level is the positive impact of the project to the people.  Others who consider the project their own are being true to themselves.  We would not be successful without any external assistance/intervention and would be happy to celebrate it with the agencies who believed in us.  To say "our" does not always mean "mine" unless one has personal issues with people who are just happy to be involved.  Now, that is a more serious issue.
Comment by ANDEBO PAX PASCAL on April 28, 2011 at 9:42am

Well said again. The idea of being part of a successful enterprise is always nice. The possessive adjectives normally come in handy while talking about success. I am tempted to think that when it fails, one looks at the other partners to explain it.

Time in development projects shows that the idea that the project should be owned by the people affected by the situation, dawns when the the agency is exiting. This is when questions of how sustainable it is, whom to handover to, how shall 'our successes' be sustained. Interestingly, at the time of planning to handover, there is still talk of 'our successes'. Project ownership needs to be clearly defined from initiation.

Did we bring development or it was a desirable situation here and we only contributed to help in it?!!

Comment by Salvador R. Caluyo, Jr on April 28, 2011 at 9:32am
Great work adn well grounded.
Comment by Thea Harvey on April 28, 2011 at 9:19am
I understand what you're saying, but to be even more semantically nit-picky: you don't want to refer to the project as "theirs," do you?  That distances you even more from the people actually affected.  The problem is the ours can refer to us, but also to us and them together.  There is no word in English (that I can think of) that means the possessive of all of us together.

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