Strategies for achieving community-led development

WEEMA Board member, Habtamu Lamore

WEEMA Board member, Habtamu Lamore

Strategies for achieving community-led development

While “community-led development” is gaining traction in the development and humanitarian sectors, putting those words into practice is still a big challenge for many nonprofit groups, philanthropists, and government agencies.

This month, WEEMA board member Habtamu Lamore joined global experts to examine what it takes for organizations to truly achieve community engagement and empowerment – key bedrocks of community-led development – in their day-to-day work. The symposium was organized by the Movement for Community-Led Development, a group of 63 global organizations, including WEEMA International, as well as Save the Children, World Vision, and the Hunger Project.

“The bottom line is authenticity,” said Nancy Wilson, CEO of Relief International, who kicked off the all-day gathering in Washington DC. “If we’re going to say we understand the community and what programs are appropriate for that community, then we have to truly understand the community, not our impressions of the community, but their understanding of themselves. Not our assessment of their needs but their assessment of their own assets and aspirations.”

Bonnie Glick, Deputy Administrator of USAID, echoed the sentiment and referred to the agency’s commitment to fostering self-reliance. “If you’re doing something for other people that they could do themselves, you’re not doing them any favors,” she said. “In fact, you’re probably doing them harm.”

Here are some of the key takeaways of the meeting:

Words Matter: Participants agreed that organizations should be sensitive about not using terms such as “beneficiaries,” that undermine community members’ direct involvement and ownership in projects. Words that show the important role played by community members, such as partners and clients, are preferable.

Let Communities Decide: When communities are given a chance to speak out, participate, and decide on a project, it puts them at the partner level, thus fostering self-reliance and resilience. 

WEEMA’s board member Lamore discussed how WEEMA partners closely with local leaders and other community stakeholders to pursue local solutions for local problems. He emphasized the importance of listening and respecting community voices. Because of poor communications – whether due to poor listening or poor translation – organizations tend to ‘hear’ what they presume the community wants.

Citing WEEMA’s community-led approaches, Lamore suggested working with local leaders and hiring local staff to minimize translation challenges. He suggested relying on multiple sources to ensure that community perspectives are valid. Most important of all, he said, NGOs that deliver long-lasting results will build community trust.

Congratulations to Higa Boarding School!

Three cheers to Higa Boarding School and its students

Kudos to Higa Boarding School in Kembata-Tembaro and the 10th grade students who aced the national exams last June. The test results came back last month and 92 percent of the students – 124 of 135 – received top scores, a key step in completing secondary education and advancing to university-level studies. Even more impressive, Higa was the second highest scoring school in all of Ethiopia.

This is a remarkable achievement for the district’s only boarding school and everyone who has been involved since its launch in 2017. In just two years, the school has added two grades – it now has 9th, 10th and 11th grades. Critical equipment and educational resources have also been added to ensure that students – the region’s best and brightest - have the tools they need to succeed.

Special credit goes to community members, the District Education Department, and the local nonprofit group, Gogota Care, which provided critical support in getting the school - a former university property – off the ground. Roots Ethiopia also deserves praise for its efforts.

WEEMA, which provided computers, textbooks, desks, chairs, and other key resources to the school library and computer center last year, is honored to be part of the success.

We were especially heartened by recent feedback we received from a biology teacher about the equipment upgrades. “The computers and the library improvements had a great impact on the results,” he told us.

Students, teachers and school staff, of course, deserve the biggest applause. Their achievements in such a short time are nothing short of remarkable.





WEEMA Receives Top Award in Kembata-Tembaro

WEEMA’s Project Coordinator, Amanuel Abebo, accepts the award on WEEMA’s behalf

WEEMA’s Project Coordinator, Amanuel Abebo, accepts the award on WEEMA’s behalf


WEEMA Receives Top Award in Kembata-Tembaro

 The WEEMA team is thrilled to be honored recently by the Kembata-Tembaro Zone Administration as its top nongovernmental community partner.

 The award, announced last week at the Kembata-Tembaro Zone’s Cultural, Historic and Language Symposium in Durame, recognizes WEEMA’s wide-ranging contributions to improved clean water access, healthcare, and educational opportunities over the past eight years. Amanuel Abebo, WEEMA’s Project Coordinator in Kembata-Tembaro, accepted the award on behalf of WEEMA.

 The plaque reads: “This award is given to WEEMA International for its dedication in the development endeavors of strengthening hospitals through medical equipment support, building and equipping public libraries, establishing and fulfilling early grade kindergarten schools and addressing community needs via potable water supplies.”

 To learn more about these and other community-led projects WEEMA is undertaking in this underserved rural region in southwestern Ethiopia, read our recent blogs here.




Inclusive education for Ethiopia’s children

Mudula Primary School teachers being trained on sign language in advance of Monday's school opening

Mudula Primary School teachers being trained on sign language in advance of Monday's school opening


First-Ever Educational Opportunities for the Disabled

There are 39 primary schools in the Tembaro District and none of them has ever been open and accessible to children with disabilities. As a result, thousands of young disabled children in the district have no formal opportunities to learn in school, engage with other children, and thrive as they grow older – a situation that will propel most of them towards a life of isolation and poverty.

On Monday, we will start to change this story. As part of WEEMA’s commitment to people with disabilities, we have outfitted the district’s first school, the Mudula Primary School, with wheelchairs, an entrance ramp, classroom resources, and a trained staff who can teach in sign language and support other special needs. More than 30 disabled children – a mix of boys and girls – are registered to attend. All will be entering school for the first time.

This historic moment is the result of a concerted community effort. Teachers, principals, community groups, the government sector office, parent associations, and even the children themselves have all been involved at every step in designing and executing the project – the first of what we hope will be many schools in the district providing access to disabled students.

Ethiopia has an estimated 15 million people with disabilities – 17 percent of the population – and most of them live in rural areas. These populations encounter many disadvantages and are often subject to stigma and discrimination. They are also disproportionately poorer and are largely excluded from political and civil processes that could give them a voice.

Last year we launched a program to empower children with disabilities and build positive attitudes across the entire community. Mudula Primary School, the largest in Tembaro, was chosen as our first target school.

We started the two-year project by holding awareness-raising sessions with all of the stakeholders. Next, we trained teachers and staff on inclusive education. The final step was making the physical improvements, including leveling the land around the school and equipping the classrooms with special furniture. Montessori materials, an abacus, and braille paper are also being provided. To make sure we got everything right, all of the disabled students recently visited the school to see the improvements firsthand and provide feedback.

On Monday, it all becomes real. With nervousness and excitement, more than 30 disabled children will enter the school as full-fledged students for the first time. Next week we will share photos of their first day.

Community-led development

In planning for the inclusive education program at Mudula Primary School, WEEMA’s Education Program Manager, Assefa Tadesse, facilitated training and awareness raising sessions with community stakeholders. Participants included representatives of faith-based organizations, the parent teacher association, influential elders, Idir leaders, and disability union kebele leaders.

In planning for the inclusive education program at Mudula Primary School, WEEMA’s Education Program Manager, Assefa Tadesse, facilitated training and awareness raising sessions with community stakeholders. Participants included representatives of faith-based organizations, the parent teacher association, influential elders, Idir leaders, and disability union kebele leaders.

Putting the community first in community-led development

“WEEMA was the first development organization that ever asked us what we thought we needed.” — Community Elder in Mudula

Holistic, community-led development underpins all of WEEMA’s work in Ethiopia. But what does that really mean?

The “holistic” part is a recognition that communities where we work have diverse interrelated needs. We can’t tackle just one issue – demand for clean water services, for example – and expect it will create thriving communities. Improvements in education, healthcare, and economic opportunities are also needed.

Identifying these broad needs – and then pinpointing specific projects that can help the most – is where the “community-led” part comes into play. It is challenging to do this right and it’s a key difference maker on whether projects succeed and endure, or fall apart after our involvement ends. And WEEMA is not alone: It’s the existential question NGOs providing services constantly wrestle with.

For WEEMA, community-led development means working hand-in-hand with the community at every step – from conceptualizing a specific need, to designing a sustainable solution, to building accountability and improvement mechanisms so projects achieve long-lasting impact.

This means lots of interactions and involvement at all levels, from village elders and government leaders, to local teachers and health workers, to direct beneficiaries themselves, whether it’s school-age children or people with disabilities.

“WEEMA reaches out to the most marginalized, builds bridges within communities, mobilizes local resources, and empowers key stakeholders to ensure that projects are successful and sustainable,” said Ashenafi Tadesse, WEEMA’s Program Manager.  

The key is building community ownership, he says.

“They are directly participating in the project. They know the project is their own. They have an ownership mentality that the project is by them and for them,” he said.

Tadesse offers a few real-world examples to explain what he means: When new kindergarten facilities were built, the community identified and collected local building materials. When a school is being upgraded for children with disabilities, children who are blind and deaf are invited to inspect and provide feedback on the physical changes. When a few computer tablets went missing at a digital learning program for children, the community came together to track them down.

“They felt that this was their project, so they fought to get the tablets back using their culture, religion, strong social capital, and solidarity,” he said.

Building more robust accountability systems is a key focus for improving WEEMA’s community-led model. More extensive training and stronger information sharing, whether through suggestion boxes, complaint mechanisms or other feedback vehicles, are among the options WEEMA is exploring as we seek to keep improving. 

As with all of our work, community members  will let us know which options make the most sense.