Last week, CFP co-hosted the virtual event, Governance that Centers Communities: Lessons from Afghanistan and Sierra Leone with partners at the International Peace Institute and Institute for State Effectiveness and co-sponsored by the Government of Sierra Leone, and the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations. Encapsulating why centering community in governance matters, Rasoul Rasouli, Former Director General, Citizens’ Charter in Afghanistan said, “Community is the heart of the society, and if the heart of the society beats well, the rest of the society will enjoy its healthy condition.” Similarly, Libby Hoffman, CFP’s President said, “Whole and healthy communities help us be whole people and without whole people and whole communities we can’t have a system that is whole and healthy.”
On a global level, the examples of Afghanistan and Sierra Leone started to coalesce in a vision for a very different way of doing governance – a model that invites an organized and engaged citizenry and local governance structures to work in partnership with national government and international bodies in ways that support strong, healthy communities.
Ambassador Adela Raz from Afghanistan shared what she noted about successful government programs. In her opening remarks, she said “Community led initiatives are an effective alternative to the classical top-down models of development… the success of community led initiatives teaches us that government programs are most effective when working directly with citizens.” Clare Lockhart, the Director of the Institute for State Effectiveness built on why community-centered approaches are so important and timely. “In a time when trust for people and their institutions is not always at its strongest… one of my reflections of why these programs are so important is that to earn trust you have to give trust. Through these programs, citizens are entrusted to make their own decisions.”
Adding to the strengths of collaboration and trust a community-centered approach creates, John Caulker, Director of Fambul Tok spoke about the assets and answers already in communities, “We don’t say bottom-up, we say inside-out. Because we believe the people shouldn’t be seen as the bottom. People have their answers to their problems. In this regard, we don’t go to communities to solve their problems, we go to accompany their process direction.”
Noting a shift required to support a community-centered approach, Jimena Leava Roesch, IPI Senior Fellow and moderator said “ You are proposing a new approach….It’s truly a unique model and we want this to become the mainstream model for many development agencies. We feel the impact will be tremendous if we all shift to this mindset, which is very much aligned with the mindset as the 2030 agenda, thinking of holistic nature rather than silos.”
As speakers offered this new orientation to centering communities rather than seeing them on the bottom of a top down model, I couldn’t help but note the similarities between how governments have traditionally treated local community members and how international donors treat governments they are “helping.” All of these sectors need to shift and start building trust and healthy partnerships. The presentations demonstrated how this shift has been happening in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, which could inspire relationships in other contexts.
On a personal level, the event was powerful because it was a space that was centering the knowledge of those in the countries with the direct, lived experience recognizing that in countries that have struggles, there is valuable wisdom and experience. As Min. Alghali, the Minister of State of Sierra Leone said at the end of her opening remarks, after sharing about the framework that was centering communities in planning and development, “…we hope other countries will emulate this good example.”
As an US American introduced to peacebuilding efforts from the perspective of US Americans having something to teach other countries in the world and not being in a position to learn from other countries, it felt much better to be part of a global learning space recognizing that we all have so much to learn from each other. And it’s the people who are in the context who can come up with the most appropriate answers and solutions. This is part of mindset shift needed to align our larger systems and center communities.