Grassroots Groups Are Key to Women's Empowerment
By Bahati Valerie, Co-founder, COFAPRI, March 2013
COFAPRI, in Eastern DR Congo, is dedicated to helping village women and girls who have been raped and those who are victims of domestic violence. It also raises awareness of the different plights the DRC women and girls, particularly in remote villages, who suffer in their homes and in society at large. COFAPRI strongly believes in working with the grassroots as a unique and trustworthy way to move them into development and help them not to lag behind in development.
The Source of Social Change
Grassroots is defined as the masses of people who are at the basis of any social and community development.
Though those masses are often discriminated against, abused widely, and underdeveloped, they still hold key and reliable information for their full development.
Women's grassroots groups exist in all countries, civilized or not, developed or not; they work tirelessly day and night in their respective areas despite the heavy burdens of life that weigh on them in order to improve their livelihood. They include male and female individuals, all categories, age, and status combined.
COFAPRI believes that the grassroots’ prominent role in development cannot be neglected since sustainable development cannot be achieved with the people who experience underdevelopment, segregation, discrimination, abuse or rape (as it is the case in the DRC) are not involved in the process.
The grassroots are the source of any social change, constructive opinions, and they are able to boost social movement.
This is why COFAPRI is involved in the development process of DRC women and girls: it feels that people need collaboration and mutual support on every aspect for better achievement.
In order to build realistic and valid relationships with grassroots organizations, there are some abilities, attitudes, beliefs, and qualities whose roles and differences will never be left aside because they do make a good difference for boosting development.
Cultivating a Geniune Interest
At COFAPRI, we support the necessity of listening carefully – and in an active and open way to the opinions voiced by the grassroots.
In other words, the listener does not aim at judging or giving quick advice since they are interested in what grassroots are saying.
This is a good strategy that truly depicts a genuine interest in the grassroots.
We cannot find such a courage among many organizations – international or local, which is the reason why they fail to implement strategies that boost real social and non-discriminatory development.
Normally, courage is what it takes to stand up and speak and act accordingly in order to lift people from where they are stagnating.
It is also what it takes to sit down and listen well to the grassroots’ claims and ideas, which nurtures more hope among the local people to get a satisfactory response to their queries. Such courage remains a real challenge since the listener needs to give enough time and opportunity to the speaker to express widely and in detail, their opinions, desires, and wants.
Giving enough platform to the grassroots, in the long run, can turn into a profound, multi-faceted, and enjoyable understanding and practice that traces a rapid way for the grassroots to unite with others from different areas with their different cultures.
Grassroots Own Fresh, Real Field Information
When working with the grassroots, we have to be good listeners because they own fresh, real, and raw information from the field.
Careful listening is believed to be one of the greatest gifts you can give in working with people in grassroots organizations around the world. However, we human beings often fail to do this because we don’t do it enough and adequately.
For better listening to bear positive fruit, there must be more interest in grassroots’ local ownership.
This says that a grassroots’ rights, possession, and investment are the focus because they lead to discovering the same grassroots’ own explanations and resolutions to local problems; this is of paramount necessity to any prospect of sustainability.
A Family of Good Collaborators
COFAPRI women often share with us that they are very pleased and proud to be members of our organization – particularly when we listen to them. One coordinator said,
"We appreciate the way we work in COFAPRI; whenever we have a serious problem, we share it among us and we find a good solution – and you, when you are here, we feel more supported because you advise us and you listen to our worries, and then you guide us.
Your presence among us is always needed; you take care of us and we do appreciate that. This has a very huge impact on our activities and motivation; we do not feel abandoned – we feel we are a united team where there is no discrimination and hatred.
We are a family of good collaborators."
Grassroots organizations are more likely to be open and reactive to people’s real needs on the ground, mobilize local resources, inspire local ownership, and foster community power in special and unique perspectives when there is genuine interest and time spent listening is involved.
Supporters and Grassroots Need Integrity & Openness
Donors of grassroots are often outsiders to the local community; thus, they need to be considerably more aware and attentive to how they may undermine the grassroots ownership, which truly hinders sustainable development.
In fact, all the grassroots must work for their betterment and that of their neighbours.
This will only be achieved if they have been taught how to work with honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, and total commitment for their development.
Teaching the grassroots such positive values implies that they can imitate their teacher as they will need to develop faith and confidence through being worthy of trust in all that they have to do; so honesty, openness, and integrity are very fundamental for positive advancement.
Many organizations or communities have negative experiences of outsiders and, despite the warmth they might display towards these foreigners, the grassroots may find it very difficult to open up to them (foreigners).
COFAPRI is basically the first organization for those we serve, as in villages there are no other organizations, and this is what makes us different from other national and international NGO: we follow them where they are in order to discuss issues with them and help them.
A very few members have attempted to join other NGOs in the past, but it did not work.
One member shared:
“We love COFAPRI as it brings us together as a family where each listens and learns from another. We need our development and COFAPRI is there for that.
Some of us were in other NGOs, but they did not teach us as you are doing now.
Our younger daughters tried, but it was negative; they were only asking us money for contribution and we gained nothing."
Being completely honest about what you can and can’t offer may require courage and frankness. Being transparent about your own self-doubts can equally encourage a new degree of honesty in others.
Sometimes, when some outsiders meet the grassroots suffering from deprivation, they bring high expectations, in them and in us.
Expectations and Reality
For COFAPRI, the grassroots need to build strong relationships among themselves and their neighbours.
In order to build strong interaction with grassroots organizations, these abilities, attitudes, and qualities need to build on difference.
In most cases, grassroots organizations are under-resourced and under-recognized.
This makes their supporters face immense challenges in providing support to vulnerable families at the local level; yet those supporters who are outsiders often convey disappointment or intolerance if an organization does not appear to be responding, progressing, or developing to their expectations.
The sponsors’ own agendas, prejudices, biases, stereotypes, and projections can all impede their own skills to distinguish what really matters, or improve what is exactly happening.
Rather, these donors will concentrate what is not in the minds of the grassroots.
Thus it becomes necessary for donors to assess the contributing power and competence that each grassroots organisation brings to the immense and complex work of helping people.
Developing a Sincere Curiosity to Know and Understand People
Besides this, people must develop curiosity: being curious means that a mind is often open to how individuals, organizations, communities, and partnerships are all complex and deeply fascinating.
If we choose to see them as such, then to what extent do we have a real and genuine interest, a deep curiosity in getting to know real people?
The more curious we are, the more potential we have to see and reveal what is really happening with grassroots initiatives on the ground.
Positive curiosity and genuine interest seems to be more preferable compared to appearing intrusive.
In fact, every individual is curious to know what interests their neighbour and what matters to them; individuals have an intention of learning from their neighbour, individually or in a group. Authentic, genuine and reverent curiosity is communicable indeed, and this is also interesting for the grassroots all over the world.
However, this cannot achieved if the grassroots are not keen on self-reflection.
Self-Awareness is Essential for a Solid Foundation
Personal consciousness and understanding are fundamental factors that enable the grassroots to relate to others from a centre of force [where the grassroots are].
In other words, if an individual does not develop the sense of having a positive relationship with oneself, there won’t be any good foundation for strong relationships with other grassroots who belong to their circle.
If grassroots feel good about themselves, then it becomes much easier to see the good in other people around them on the same team or in different teams – and thus, treat each other with respect.
If the grassroots lack such consideration, they will always be commonly projecting this on to others, finding problems with them.
Good intentions, without a necessary level of self-awareness, can easily distort grassroots’ power in their relationships with themselves or with others around them.
A COFAPRI member best expressed the important consequences of self-awareness:
"We are a big family now thanks to COFAPRI, a family that is united; no discrimination, [between] our leaders and us, no difference – because we share the same ideas and problems.
We live peacefully with our neighbours, friends, family members, and the whole community because this is necessary for our development.
Before, we were not united as we are today; we thank COFAPI for teaching us how to be united and work together men, women, and children."
Patience is Needed
The other element is making time a good and close friend.
Forming and maintaining trusting relationships with grassroots is time-consuming and certainly, it requires quality time.
Thus, people have to be very patient about the time it takes to establish and maintain the quality of relationship desired among the grassroots. Most importantly, we need to accept that the time needed for behavioral and social changes does not fit as soon as we want it to be.
It is not a quick fix.
The Grassroots are Living Systems
Grassroots should be considered and seen as not dead systems, but rather as living ones.
If we think grassroots organizations are conscious or unconscious machines, then we will focus more only on the obvious things that exist in their group, such as their organization, their governance and procedures of decision-making, the formal policies, and their work plans.
These are more visible characteristics that seem equally important, but if we want to really understand the mark of a grassroots union, these characteristics must be extensively exploited.
Active preparation is necessary; i.e. not only do we want to check on what the grassroots’ plan says, but also study the real activities on their agenda and the deep thinking that follows their actions.
The culture, traditions, morals, and main beliefs of the grassroots remain a strong pillar in whatever they do – and are very necessary to anybody who needs to work with them.
These are fundamental factors that must not be neglected since they guide their behaviors and activities in their respective communities.
The grassroots relationships among the different people included in their units and between their organization and the outside world are very helpful for their advancement in any work they are committed to carry out. The development of any grassroots’ organization will always be influenced by the way the team responds, reacts, learns, grows, and changes along with time.
Change over time is an important factor in this context and this change can be positive or negative, all depending on the grassroots’ personal efforts.
Being Sensitive to Cultural and Language Differences
Once working with the grassroots, it is very important to consider both their language and cultural differences. Local knowledge is vital. Interaction can be hindered or broken if there are minute misunderstandings due to cross-cultural factors as those enumerated above.
This allows others to check for various meanings for the same words in different cultures, different notions of body language and personal space, and ultimately, the way in which things are done.
In many strongly traditional cultures, for example, if you don’t go through extended greetings, people will not be very open to your questions or suggestions.
Don’t be afraid to admit it or ask for feedback when you’ve flubbed up. It is obvious that this happens when interacting with the grassroots.
So once it occurs, you can simply laugh at yourself and give permission to others to laugh at you because this is another way of becoming and even feeling more human when working with people from various cultures.
A Touch, a Smile, a Kind Word Goes a Long Way...
The grassroots need to be encouraged in whatever they have started and in what they have planned to start.
In most cases, they are discouraged half way if they are underestimated.
A touch, a smile, a kind word and a listening ear have non- negligible power that cannot be looked down upon if we want perfect collaboration with the grassroots. Moreover, the grassroots will feel they are supported if they are given an honest compliment or any small act of caring – all of which have the potential to turn their lives around.
This means that encouragement can come from the grassroots themselves or it can come from outside, i.e., those who want to collaborate with them (the grassroots).
However, COFAPRI confirms that the process of bettering the lives of the grassroots in their respective communities often meets some hindrances. Not only does this make the work become difficult, but it also slows down the movement of activities, which is heartbreaking for the group.
To illustrate this, in the DRC, there are no road infrastructures in remote villages.
Reaching these areas has become difficult and risky because of wars; the local population has deserted their villages due to wars. The warfare situation has discouraged the people; they need peace as a way of encouraging them toward hard and assured work for moving toward the improvement of the population’s welfare.
The grassroots need encouragement since this is a way of refurbishing their dedication and obligation of caring for the team in general – and for themselves individually, in particular.
Eventually, the grassroots just want more credit, respect, or even recognition for the good work that they do.
This is to say that when working with the grassroots, we need to find different ways to demonstrate that we respect, appreciate, honor, and support the remarkable work that the grassroots units are doing on daily basis.
Feeling encouraged and recognized gives more courage, devotion, and more efforts to the person whose actions are acknowledged.
Real Contact Leads to Real Insight and Trust
All things considered, COFAPRI is convinced that working with the grassroots is like fetching water from a well in order to get pure and useful water.
Being the source of information for their personal and community development, they play an influential role in providing constructive opinions since they are on the ground and they actually know what they need and what they do not need for their development.
Consulting them in their natural environment can reveal more things than we could otherwise know if we only sat in offices waiting for news from people other than the grassroots themselves..
Being in touch with them on their land makes them understand we care about them and we are for their welfare.
This also tells them we are touched by the situation in which they endure and that we are committed to lift them because we perfectly understand what they need.
Furthermore, face-to-face contact with them on their motherland infers we have seen, have understood, and have lived – though not permanently, their real situation and that we do not discriminate against them because of what they are or where they live.
In this way, one has got the real and wider picture of the grassroots’ lives and endeavors to develop.
Having seen, lived, and understood the grassroots’ worries and problems, and that one has grasped totally their opinions, it becomes easier and better to raise awareness of the heavy burden of their plights.
Field Partners: at the Root of Change
COFAPRI concludes that many large international organisations cannot directly reach the grassroots in this way, and for this reason, some of them have gone out of their way with a different approach: they are eager to fetch raw information from the original source and so, they have set up wonderful strategies.
To illustrate this, Safe World for Women has thought deeper on this issue because they are very much interested in what happens exactly in remote villages all over the world.
They have adopted a wonderful strategy of giving a platform to even the remote village grassroots where other international organizations have failed to reach.
They did this because they understand well how remote village people are neglected, suffer, and are discriminated against all over the world.
Field Partners, whom Safe World calls their grassroots partners, are hard-working and integrative members of Safe World for Womoen. They are the ears and eyes who hear and see for both the grassroots and this organization.
Safe World for Women has many Field Partners throughout the world; all of them are based in their respective countries where they are in regular contact with the local populations. Field Partnes work with the grassroots and they share different opinions regarding development; they help Safe World for Women to avoid the top-bottom policy: Safe World for Women does not impose upon the Field Partners on what to do, but rather it is the latter who inform Safe World for Women about the situation in different countries.
This does not mean that Safe World for Womens sit back and wait for Field Partner news; no, it is not that.
All of them work hand-in-hand.
Safe World for Women also gets in touch with different people and other organizations in order to have more and various information. Both Safe World for Womoen and the Field Partners based among the grassroots work hand-in-hand, each on their side.