why do we strengthen CBO participatory learning and action capacity?

Each organization will have its own definition of program success and thus have different needs in order to achieve that success.  Regardless of size, they all want to be effective organizations whose work positively impacts their communities. Drawing on the expertise of our own Program Officers and Lead Partners, as well as best-in-class technical consultants and experts from across the continent and the globe, we strengthen our grantees’ participatory learning and action methodologies so they can have deeper impact while actively engaging their communities in every step of the process.  

Participatory learning and action (PLA) is an approach to social change based on the fundamental belief that the meaningful participation of beneficiaries, key stakeholders, and ‘community’ is critical to more fully understanding an issue and carrying out actions for relevant, effective, and sustainable change. Firelight supports our CBO grantee-partners to implement PLA methodologies to facilitate the meaningful participation of community members at all stages of the learning-action cycle – from understanding an issue to carrying out actions to evaluating and reflecting on outcomes. With community participation and iterative learning and action cycles, community-based approaches become more responsive, relevant, and effective over time – sustaining change for children and youth both now and in the future.

 The story of Tanzanian Firelight CBO grantee-partner Agape AIDS Control Program illustrates the power of this participatory learning and action methodology:


In the early 2000s, the HIV and AIDS epidemic was ravaging the Shinyanga region of Tanzania – leaving high numbers of vulnerable children with no parents to care for them, to send them to school, or to protect them from abuse. Agape AIDS Control Program was founded in 2006 by a group of people who were concerned about this growing crisis and its resulting human rights violations. Initially, Agape members worked to battle stigma and violence against people living with HIV, encouraging patients to seek treatment at medical centers while also helping them pay for legal services.

In 2009, Agape began to expand its services, focusing on children in the community affected by HIV and abuse. They raised community awareness around child protection, parenting skills, ending child marriage and teenage pregnancy, and educating adolescent girls about sexual and reproductive health – with both support and prevention activities. On the preventive side, Agape works with communities to condemn gender-based violence, risky sexual behaviors, and traditional practices like child marriage using a combination of public dramas, radio shows, and facilitated intergenerational dialogues. On the support side, Agape supports survivors of child marriage and young mothers with vocational training or primary/secondary education. They have even established the Agape Knowledge Open School to give these girls a place to stay while attending secondary school. In addition, Agape supports these girls with psychosocial services, peer support clubs in schools, and training in financial literacy. They also train families in parenting skills, budgeting and saving, and effective communication.

Firelight began funding Agape under its cluster of grantee-partners working on child rights. Building upon Agape’s existing strength in mobilizing and actively engaging communities, Firelight trained Agape in participatory learning and action (PLA) methodologies such as H assessments, body mapping, and transect walks. The process of “Community Dialogues” – or the use of participatory community mapping methodologies as well as Agape’s existing intergenerational dialogues – brought together children, adults, and community leaders to discuss and map out the local norms and values that were either harmful or helpful to children. As part of the exercise, participants recommended solutions for how to build upon strengths in the community and how to address persistent challenges. This participatory methodology allowed Agape to make sure that their programs were actively responding to the real needs and concerns of the community.

For instance, during the Community Dialogues process, Agape discovered that traditional healers often trick young girls into marrying older men in the community, who pay for the healers’ “matchmaking” services. These child marriages are usually agreed to by the girl’s parents, who then provide a dowry to the man. When this situation came to light, Agape decided both to directly involve traditional healers in their interventions and to intensify their parenting workshops. As a result of Agape’s efforts, traditional healers now attend all community awareness meetings on child marriage, and recently, these healers have even been informing Agape of planned child marriages. This information allows Agape to work with law enforcement to stop these marriages from happening and to ensure that girls are returned to their families and to school.

After receiving capacity building in participatory learning and action methodologies, Agape is more equipped to continuously use these processes to engage their communities in surfacing new information and solutions in the fight against child marriage.

“The government has committed to reducing the national prevalence of child marriage, but this can not be done without reinforcing the active participation of communities. The process of Community Dialogues needs to be continuous, bringing together community members to debate, to discuss, and to come together around a way forward in the fight against child marriage and traditional practices they find outdated.” - Mustapha Isabuda, Agape Program Manager