Organizing and the Dependency Cycle: A case from Kenya

On the 18th of December, 20 Leading Change Members joined to discuss how community organizing can impact the dependency circle that current aid culture enforces.  Our objectives were to, share our individual experiences, discuss actions we could take to change this dynamic in our work and determine collective actions we could take to address the dependency challenge. We tackled these objectives through looking at four case studies based on my experience at Tatua Kenya (case studies can be found online here), asking ourselves: What historical power imbalances are evident in this case? What organizing practices could be used to address these imbalances?

I’d love to report that we learned so much that we’ve come up with the perfect formula for developing initiatives that focus on local power rather than solely focusing on the desires of the outsider, however, as you have likely heard, “this is a framework, not a formula.” What I can share though, is that we identified these best practices for developing a campaign focused on the interests of the community:

  • Spend Time Building Relationships: Ayla, from Resonate in Rwanda says, “Often times we are working in such an entrenched framework of outsiders taking charge, there is a lot of undoing of those assumptions necessary before people feel able/excited/acknowledged for taking on those roles themselves.” Don’t let the urgency of the work prevent building relationships that can overcome power dynamics!
  • Focus on Identifying and Developing Leadership – Keep the long-term vision in mind, are you developing leaders who can carry on the mission? Erin, from Rhize in India says, “Not the traditional leaders but the “sparks” or positive deviants who are willing to approach things differently.”  Then, coaching, coaching and more coaching!
  • Provide the space, not the solution. –  As organizers it is not our job to develop the solution to the challenge, rather, we must create a structure in which the local community can create the strategy and solution. One of the key learnings was the term, “pressure cooker,” coined by Dr. Ronal Heifetz, which refers to our responsibility to simultaneously challenge and support the community to address the challenge they are facing, holding them in the “pressure cooker.” Nisreen, from Al Haj in Jordan notes that this role involves easing the fear of the community, as it’s hard to face the challenge with sustained energy.

In addition to paying attention to how we structure our own actions, we also discussed the need to work with outside influencers as well. A key practice of effective organizing is identifying the shared interest you hold with another person and making that the focal point of your relationship. Instead of creating an “us vs. them” situation, Kim from Los Altos asks, “How can donors be made part of the community being organized? Can we listen to and question them so they think differently about their relation to the situation being addressed, so they see it as something they are part of and not an object for which they are funding a solution?

Repairing this relationship was one of the ways we identified we could address this challenge using the power of our resources as organizers. Other collective actions we identified were:

  • Demonstrate the Need for Change:  Brian, from Oxfam, notes, “For changing donor mindset, it helps to have concrete examples of how external ‘solutions’ have gone wrong over time … of good intentions gone bad.”
  • Prove Our Impact: Work together to create a universal system of measuring and evaluating the impact we are making. What real facts and figures can we offer that encourage a shift to a community based model?
  • Leverage Our Weight as Tax Payers: Noor, from Kansas Citysays, “This is pushing me to think how our tax dollars are being used in recipient countries. There is a foreign aid transparency act (not sure if it passed) I think it was promoted by activists in Kenya and OXFAM.” How can we ensure that these measures truly support recipients of our money?

Finally, we all agreed that we need to continue to have this conversation. This opened up our eyes to how many people are wrestling with this dynamic – in both the developing and developed world – we are committed to creating a space where we can have this discussion together and furthermore, moving forward together to end the aid cycle. We hope you will join us.

If you are interested in joining future conversations on how organizing can end dependency contact Natalie Elaine Finstad

For more information about Tatua Kenya, see or


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