2010: Getting the Grassroots the Recognition & Support It Deserves

As 2010 gets underway, like so many others, I’m hopeful that the new year will bring better times. But I’m acutely aware of how the strain on the global economy is pulling apart the very fabric of social safety nets that the most vulnerable children and families depend on—one thread a day. The UN estimates that nearly 400 million of the poorest Africans will see their incomes drop by 20 percent, to about 50 cents per person per day. Firelight advisory board member, Geoff Foster, a long while ago planted a vivid image in the minds of development folks working in Africa: the safety nets that protect children there are nested one within the next.

Think of these safety nets as the layers of an onion. The first layer is the extended family safety net that supports the biological family. The next layer is the community safety net that supports the extended family. And the third layer is the government safety net, which in too many cases, is weak and far from those that need it the most.

But the bonds of affection and solidarity that link the biological family to the extended family to the community are strong. And unlike government services in Africa, families and communities are always within reach of children in need. Helping to sustain these safety nets is foremost in our minds here at Firelight.

Working as a pediatrician for more than 20 years in Zimbabwe, Geoff very early on noticed the disturbingly fast-growing phenomenon of children being orphaned and otherwise affected by AIDS. He spearheaded some of the first research conducted on this, and quickly concluded that strengthening safety nets is key to improving vulnerable children’s lives.

But if these safety nets are so important to children’s well-being, why are they not higher on our collective list of priorities?  Three important reasons:

1.    Both public and private funders don’t know how to identify and reach the grassroots organizations working effectively with vulnerable children and families.

2.    They also don’t understand what motivates and drives these community-based organizations, or how effective they are and how much of a positive impact they have on children’s and families’ lives.

3.    Funders of all sizes are concerned—naturally—about where their money goes, but too often they try to ensure accountability in ways that work against small local organizations.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve tried to combat these misperceptions and increase awareness and understanding of the grassroots in Africa, but this year, the stakes are even higher as the numbers of vulnerable children and families swell. In the coming year, Firelight will be working harder than ever to overcome these obstacles and to keep resources flowing to grassroots organizations to keep those vital safety nets from unraveling.

Recently, Funders Concerned About AIDS (FCAA) released a report tracking HIV/AIDS funding flows. One of their main recommendations to private funders during tough economic times is to “consider resourcing local NGOs and community-based organizations, which tend to be the most effective agents at reaching and delivering services to the most vulnerable HIV-affected individuals and families, and…are primed to best engender a longer-term, sustainable response.”

However, as their data indicates, only about 2 percent of total funding for international HIV/AIDS work ($10.6 million of $518.9 million) was earmarked for social services, and 1.6 percent ($8.2 million of $518.9 million) for orphans and vulnerable children.

There is clearly a disconnect between how prominent grassroots organizations are on funders’ radar screens, and how effective and successful they have been in improving the lives of vulnerable children and families. Our goal in 2010 is to eliminate that disconnect in the following ways and help put FCAA’s recommendation into widespread action.

Identifying Good Grassroots Organizations

Firelight has a network of about 330 grantees in Africa, and many more with whom we are in touch but have not been able to fund. Our experience demonstrates that it is very possible to identify solid, hard-working, resource-stretching organizations operating at the grassroots.

If you are considering how you or your organization might get involved to help communities help children in Africa, Firelight would be happy to help you take your first steps. If you’re already involved in supporting grassroots work, we would love to have you as a discussion partner and sounding board.

Understanding Community-Based Organizations

Firelight’s grantee-partner network is a unique group of organizations created around local responses to everyday problems, with energetic and determined leaders, and very tangible results. Over the next three years, as part of our ‘learning agenda’, Firelight will be holding discussions with the leaders and beneficiaries of these grassroots groups, focused on the following questions:

1.    What problems have you decided to address, and why? 2.    How have you gone about approaching these problems? 3.    What effect have you seen already from your work, and what do you expect to see in the future? 4.    What do you see as the optimal way to link your community-based work with government policy and services, so that they reinforce one another? 5.    How can Firelight best help strengthen your work?

We will listen carefully; note similarities and differences; put partners who can help one another in touch; and use our insights to improve our own work and to inform and persuade funders and policymakers of the importance of grassroots efforts and solutions.

We will regularly share our progress on this blog, through voices from the field, our staff, and other partners, who reflect on these questions on a daily basis.

Ensuring Accountability

Funders are often concerned about their funds being diverted from where they were originally intended to go. They may also be worried about corruption.

These concerns often translate into fairly heavy accountability mechanisms; for example, long reports and heavy-handed evaluation systems imposed on grantees. Often funders will also require a professional accountant on staff, which by itself excludes most community-based organizations from consideration for funding.

But in our experience, in a community setting, what keeps funds focused on their original purpose is not double-entry bookkeeping, but the number of eyes on the cashbox. In both grassroots organizations and the communities that surround them, there are scores of people keeping an eye on the funding to make sure that it goes to help the most vulnerable members among them.

In 10 years of grantmaking, Firelight has “lost” less than 1 percent of the grants we’ve made, meaning that we were able to verify that 99+ percent of our grants were used for the purposes for which they were intended.

Questions, comments, ideas? Please help us jump-start 2010 by lending your heads, hands, and hearts to our campaign to provide even greater support to the grassroots organizations helping children and families in Sub-Saharan Africa.