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How Does iACT's Community-led Approach Work?

A Community-led Little Ripples Implementation in Chad

Editorial Note: This blog post is the third in a series delving into iACT’s community-led approach and exploring the how, why, and broader impact of shifting power in humanitarian action. You can read part one here and part two here.

A man speaks with a mother and her children at a desk
Program Manager Al Fatah Younous Haroun registering children for Little Ripples.

A community-led approach takes time, takes listening, takes humility, and takes a clear shift in power and expectations from the humanitarian practitioners and global NGOs. It begins with the notion that members of the community have knowledge and expertise, and are the leaders — not simply the beneficiaries — while also acknowledging the many limitations and barriers they face as refugees and while living in refugee camps. In order to lead, they will need partners who hear them and can share their vision for what their children and community need. They will need partners who can join them in creating space and time for people to come together and ideate ways in which the vision can be executed; and they will need partners who will resource them along the way.

iACT has been at the forefront of practicing and advancing a community-led humanitarian approach since our founding in 2009. We have not been perfect in this approach. We often have to question our biases and our practices, and pause to ensure our actions are indeed rooted and grounded in community leadership, even while we face a sense of urgency to establish more programs and support more children and families. We have learned and are still learning a lot, and we continue to gain more clarity and establish a clearer path forward toward humanitarian action and support that is truly community-led.

This blog post shares in more detail what our process looks like, through a case-study of our Little Ripples early childhood education program in eastern Chad.

A group photo of women, some holding babies, in front of a Little Ripples banner
Some of iACT's earliest Little Ripples teachers in eastern Chad in 2013.

Little Ripples eastern Chad: a community-led approach

Little Ripples is a community-led preschool program that nurtures the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children. iACT resources men and and women from the community to adapt, implement, and scale early childhood education and comprehensively support nutritional, educational, trauma, and child protection needs of refugee children ages three to five. While the program is uniquely shaped by each community, it is called Little Ripples in every community and context.   

In 2013, Little Ripples was first implemented by a group of 15 refugee men and women in one refugee camp in eastern Chad. Since then, the program has grown. With resources and support from iACT, Little Ripples refugee team members in Chad have scaled the program to eight camps, and now 1,800 young children are attending 40 Little Ripples centers. Notably, it remains the longest-standing early childhood education program in the eastern Chad refugee camps.

Little Ripples remains the longest-standing early childhood education program across refugee camps in eastern Chad.

A community-led process of program creation

First and foremost, a community-led approach begins by listening to and hearing what the community needs: what its hopes are, and what the gaps in services are. In 2011, Darfuri refugee community members requested support from iACT in providing programming for their young children not yet of primary-school age. What few options existed at the time were run by large NGOs, and caregivers reported them to be low-quality and not safe. As we went from home to home talking to families, caregivers were clear: they wanted their children prepared for primary school, needed a program close to home to ensure their little ones were not walking far distances, and desired to have a daily meal served at the program (the majority of caregivers we spoke with struggled to provide two meals a day to their children).


Soon after hearing from families their desire for programming for their young children, iACT created a Little Ripples advisory committee made up of members of the refugee community, with the interest and capacity to help design an early childhood education program, and global leaders in child development, teacher training, curriculum development, psychology and trauma recovery, nonviolent communication, behavior science, mindfulness and yoga, and measurement and evaluation. The committee helped establish an evidence-based curriculum framework, as well as a training guide, that would serve as the foundation of the Little Ripples program, guiding teacher training, daily structure, classroom activities, and child learning and development outcomes.

During program implementation, which was done through a partnership between US-based iACT team members and Darfuri refugees, the camp Goz Amer community determined the values, daily structure, and routine of the program, as well as classroom activities that would bring the curriculum framework to life. In addition, community members identified a location for the school, designed the layout and dimensions of the buildings and surrounding grounds, and recruited women to train and serve as teachers and leaders. Within months, a Little Ripples school with six classrooms, a play yard, latrines, an office, and storage spaces was built, and 14 women were employed. These women would lead the enrollment process. In the program’s first year, 270 children were enrolled, effectively achieving a teacher-to-student ratio of 2:45.

A community-led process of adaptation

The Goz Amer community was really proud of the small campus dedicated to preschool; however, it was not a financially scalable model. Moreover, caregivers voiced a continued desire for their children to remain closer to home.  And so, in brainstorming with our Little Ripples refugee team as well as with families and community leaders in a second co-creation process, the decision was made to shift to a home-based program. The community suggested it host the preschools in home spaces, and that it would be families living closest to those homes whose children would attend those particular learning centers. It was a novel idea for a refugee camp, and, soon, home-based centers were started in several different areas of the camp.

Children sitting in a circle around their teacher.
Little Ripples class at a home-based center in eastern Chad

A community-led process of daily program implementation

Now, five to six days a week, teachers in different refugee camps from northeast to southeast Chad are offering a safe and joyful learning environment for young children who are being born as refugees. If a student is absent, their teachers check in with caregivers directly. If a new family wants to enroll in a center and there is space, the Little Ripples team processes the intake. If teachers are experiencing challenges, the refugee team addresses and works out the issues. If a teacher is absent or moves out of the camp, the Little Ripples leadership replaces her with another already-trained community member. If classes need to pause due to a holiday or bad weather, the education directors and coordinators make that decision. The US-based iACT team has very little — if any — daily involvement; instead, it offers support, resources, and guidance as needed.


In the day-to-day, our US team is a partner and resource to our Chad team. If team members in Chad need support in budgeting and financial management, we provide guidance. If refresher training or additional technical support is desired, we provide it. These skills-strengthening opportunities equip teachers and coordinators with ongoing tools to manage and sustain the Little Ripples program.

Ownership and sustainability

One of the biggest aspects of a community-led approach is long-term program and financial sustainability. In Chad and other regions in which we operate, we are continuing to work toward the goal of the community to take full financial charge of its programs. In the meantime, iACT provides 100% of the cash funding. The refugee community contributes how it can with in-kind resources: for example, maintaining and beautifying Little Ripples centers, or sourcing local materials to create learning and play materials.

Understanding that having sufficient finances and being able to mobilize funds are extremely difficult for many local communities across the globe, we are working with our team to strategically support our local community leaders and equip them with skills needed for mobilizing funds without relying on the US team. This not only ensures sustainability but also relevance, as local resources are often more accessible and appropriate for a community’s context.


That being said, we cannot forget or ignore the fact that some opportunities can be almost impossible for refugee communities. The reality is that refugees are often discriminated against and also lack access to being fully engaged in their country of refuge. With our community-led process, we hope to work with local and regional stakeholders to strongly push and advocate for refugees’ inclusion in all aspects of community and stakeholder engagement and for access to resources, including the ability to acquire travel documents, access to regional and national meetings, access to country-level funds available to the local, non-refugee community, and so forth.


Without having progressive policies in many countries we operate in, financial sustainability can be nearly impossible to achieve in this community-led process. Therefore, we will continue to provide resources, while in parallel, advocating for policies and practices that enable our refugee team to secure and receive funding. It is also the role of host countries, policy makers, and different stakeholders to push the community-led approach as a sustainable way to shift power.


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