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Why iACT Embraces a Community-led Approach

Editorial Note: This blog is the second 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.


A group of men and women posing for a photo in front of an SUV.
iACT refugee team members on a listening trip to two newly established refugee camps in eastern Chad. (Photo: iACT, April 2024)

It has become clearer than ever that the traditional top-down approach to humanitarian action is not sustainable in the context of today’s global crises. With 67% of refugees living in protracted displacement situations, it no longer makes sense for large international NGOs to come in for a short period and then leave, or for them to simply implement predetermined or pre-designed programs. Communities need local and long-term solutions. They need partnership and the opportunity to take ownership of humanitarian programming, not an endless cycle of dependency. 


There are a multitude of reasons iACT embraces and promotes a community-led approach, but here are four in particular that stand out: 

 

1. A community-led approach is beneficial for people affected by conflict. 

For conflict-affected communities, the act of shifting power and ownership of a program into their hands can be life-changing. Rather than being dependent on an outside organization for everything, leading their own program can return a sense of purpose, enabling them to stand in their own power, and take back control, in situations where displacement has made such things elusive.


“I like [Little Ripples] because I get to go to work in the morning and I feel I have a responsibility. I hear the children call me teacher, and they sing songs and welcome me into the classroom, and it makes me feel good.” – Refugee community member and teacher in iACT education program Little Ripples

Two female teachers lead a class of preschool students sitting in a circle
A Little Ripples preschool class in eastern Chad. (Photo: iACT)
2. A community-led approach is what people affected by conflict want. 

In every context where iACT operates — from Chad to Armenia to Mexico — and with every community we have listened to and worked with, the resounding message from men, women, and youth is: We want to have a voice, make decisions, and be leaders.


Individuals in the places we visit frequently share with us their ideas for projects they wish to implement, and they are clear in their desire to take initiative to lead programs that they believe will be for the good of their fellow community members. People also explain to us how they fill in the gaps that they see left by outside agencies. In most cases, affected communities are better equipped to identify their own priorities and needs, making interventions relevant and effective.


Here are some of the messages we have heard:


“We do not have power. Our life is reliant on NGOs. Enough refugee life.” - Hassan, refugee community member 

“I thank iACT that hires the refugee employees and for the community opening a lot of programs in the refugee camps — all this directed by the refugees which has participated in a big part in improving our lives.” - Murtada, refugee community member and iACT project coordinator

"Organizations don’t support sports programs. So the youth, on their own, make programs." – Saleh, refugee community member

“We are working to improve the future of our community.” – Magboula, refugee community member and teacher in iACT education program Little Ripples

3. A community-led approach is financially beneficial for the humanitarian sector. 

Beyond the humanitarian sector’s moral imperative to shift power, a community-led approach makes financial sense. And as the world faces more and more crises and less funding to meet the critical needs of every person and family, the cost of supporting people in crisis needs to be more cost-effective with more money invested directly into the community. A community-led approach moves our system towards addressing that need. 


The costs of setting up and sustaining a community-led program are significantly lower than that of international NGO operations in each context, and, after program set-up, costs go down rather than up. For iACT, hiring from within the conflict-affected or local community means we can keep our US staff small, and can lean into partnerships with local actors, leveraging local resources. This not only keeps costs low for our organization, it also creates growth opportunities for the local community. 



4. A community-led approach drives greater long-term impact.

As an outcome-driven system, a community-led approach is proven to be more effective at achieving outcomes and impact, and refugees and conflict-affected people can be supported in meeting their own aspirations long-term. For example: iACT’s community-led early childhood education program, which is across eight camps in eastern Chad, has demonstrated — through baseline and follow-up evaluations — to support the positive social-emotional development of young children as well as help them learn their letters and numbers, while remaining the longest-standing early childhood education program in this region.


A community-led approach is dignifying, cost-effective, and more sustainable. Without community leadership and ownership of services and programs, we risk stunting progress in a community’s recovery and development following displacement, not addressing the core community needs, not leveraging existing community assets, and remaining in cycles of ad hoc humanitarian service provision. However, by supporting community-led initiatives, affected communities are more invested in long-term success, especially when they have actively participated in program design and implementation.


Four soccer coaches holding up their coaching certificates
Soccer coaches with the Refugees United Soccer Academy in Mexico. (Photo: Fish, Angel City)
BARRIERS TO REFUGEE LEADERSHIP

We cannot speak to a community-led approach without mentioning the very real legal and structural barriers that exist, preventing people living in refugee camps and areas that have experienced (or are still experiencing) high levels of conflict from being program leaders. Below are just some of the barriers our refugee team members have and continue to face in their efforts to lead programs in their communities: 


  • They may lack the right to travel freely outside their camp 

  • They may lack the right to open a bank account

  • They are not included in coordination meetings held by humanitarian organizations

  • They have to live and operate within a donor-driven system they are unfamiliar with 

  • Donors and actors from the global north don’t trust refugees or conflict-affected people to manage funding

  • Donors and actors from the global north claim that refugees or conflict-affected people lack the capacity to implement humanitarian programming


As an organization, we have decided to persist in demonstrating the processes and impact of a community-led approach despite such real and perceived barriers. 


CONCLUSION

It’s time to shift our mindset. 


Yes, there are still many major challenges, such as institutional and legal restrictions that prevent refugees from fully engaging, especially those living in refugee camps or countries of refuge. The humanitarian system was not set up to support refugee and community-led action. That said, in our experience, the first barrier is MINDSET. We have to move from a place of limitations to one of possibility, creativity, trust, and open-mindedness — and then ultimately letting go. 


The time is now. There has never been a more urgent need for a paradigm shift in humanitarian intervention. It is evident that the conventional top-down approach is insufficient to address the requirements of communities dealing with prolonged displacement and war as we face the realities of today's myriad global crises. Local and long-term solutions are required, as expressed by the voices of those who are impacted directly and who long for agency and support. In addition to fulfilling these goals, adopting a community-led strategy opens up a wealth of advantages for the impacted communities and the humanitarian sector at large. iACT is dedicated to showcasing the possibilities of community-led solutions. By continuing our approach and advocating for systemic change, we are working to create a future where communities are active players in defining their own futures, rather than passive beneficiaries of charity. Let's keep advocating for support, cooperation, and resilience in our joint efforts to create a more equitable world.



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