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As special-interest associations, community-based organisations fill an institutional vacuum, providing basic services to ensure a robust response to crises of poverty. It is at this local level that people, however limited their incomes or their assets, tend to reveal their true wealth: the ingenuity that they need to solve their own problems and those of their communities.

UN summits, or world conferences, are convened to deal with specific issues, thus bringing to the fore the challenges and concerns that link people globally. For many years, most of these issues, which include human rights, children, population and the environment, had been taken for granted and it was only when they became the focus of attention at UN summits that concerted international efforts were mounted to tackle them. Above all, there was agreement that the action plans for implementation would be a responsibility shared across all nations and all levels of society. Specifically, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) of 1992, known as the Earth Summit, among others, emphasized that other actors were essential to the implementation of Agenda 21 (the outcome document of the Earth Summit) and the follow-up to other United Nations conferences. In its chapter 26, Agenda 21 argues that all other actors, in particular civil society, are essential not only in implementing Agenda 21 but also in supporting sustainable development. As such, it calls for greater recognition and strengthening of the role of local communities in the development process: this is the backdrop against which the present article focuses on the role of community-based organizations (CBOs).

CBOs, also known as grassroots organizations, may be defined as locally based membership organizations that work to provide services to their own communities. They have emerged in response to the need for collective social action. Their main characteristic is the importance that they attach to self-help, based on the principle of traditional communal values, reciprocity and interdependence. CBOs include groups of many different types, such as sports organizations, residents’ associations or societies, savings and credit groups, childcare groups, advocacy groups and others. They may exist informally or officially; to be classified as CBOs, the organizations must be non-profit-making. While some CBOs depend entirely on voluntary labour and financial contributions to sustain their activities, most interact at some level with outside support organizations. The rapid growth of CBOs has been evident for several decades.

As special-interest associations, CBOs have filled an institutional vacuum, providing basic services such as communal kitchens, milk for children, income-earning schemes and cooperatives, to ensure a robust response to crises of poverty. It is at this local level that people, however limited their incomes or their assets, tend to reveal their true wealth: the ingenuity that they need to solve their own problems and those of their communities. Their needs for assistance vary in scope, scale and kind, but the ideas for solutions come overwhelmingly from the people themselves.

Below we shall consider some examples of successful community-based initiatives from parts of Africa, which may be relevant in this regard.

Burial societies in Lesotho

A key feature of the social landscape in Lesotho is the burial society. Every member of the population belongs to associations of this type, which were established to provide material and non-material support for the burial of their deceased members and other associated expenses. All members contribute to the society's resources, and it is both a social and familial obligation to return any money borrowed. This has the effect of promoting honesty, transparency and commitment in the societies’ financial activities and loan recovery rates are over 90 per cent.

Having explored the way in which the burial association functioned, the United Nations Development Programme undertook a study in 1995 to determine if these same organizations could take on the responsibility for providing microcredit for income-generating activities. The findings of the study were extremely positive and encouraging. By providing emergency financial and non-financial support, burial societies find practical ways to minimize social tensions and reduce animosity between individuals, family and kin. The process of providing relief through the burial society represents a nuanced cultural process that redefines kinship and family social relations.

Tontines in Cameroon

Small and informal savings and loan associations in Cameroon, known as tontines, are proving to be the main grassroots financing system, accounting for some 90 per cent of the financial transactions conducted by the population. Typically, people who get together in these savings and loan associations feel bound to one another in some way. There are family and neighbourhood tontines, and others among craftspeople and farmers. For the majority of the people, who have no access to the formal banking system, the tontines' savings and loan functions are a necessary alternative. They provide a large section of the population with financial services, and their members can better manage their own cash flow. In addition, because the tontines are self-administered they can be adjusted at any time to meet the changing needs of individual members. Against a background of great economic and social insecurity, this flexibility is very important and certainly one of the factors behind the success of the tontines.

Another positive feature of the tontines is their high repayment rate. The network of social relationships is structured in such a way that their members depend on one another’s help and the solidarity of all members. So it is in every member's interest to pay in the fixed repayment sums regularly and to repay loans on time. If they do not, they risk exclusion not only from their own tontine but also from the whole system which is something that none can afford.

Coffee cooperatives in Kenya and Ethiopia

Between the 1960s and 1990s, coffee cooperative societies were organized throughout Kenya to ensure a fair distribution of market opportunities within the coffee industry. At the head of each society was an elected chair, entrusted to represent and negotiate for the members, to ensure that they received optimal proceeds from the sale of their coffee by the Kenya Planters Cooperative Union (KPCU), a Nairobi-based operation owned by farmers. The KPCU helped the farmers with, among other things, milling, polishing, farm education and marketing. The earnings that the cooperative societies obtained from the sale of coffee by KPCU to external markets were used by their members for purposes such as paying their children’s school fees, but also to start and operate small local businesses.

What particularly distinguished these associations was their ownership by their members: each member had a voice and all members were part and parcel of the decision-making process. In short, there were immediate and visible benefits to becoming a member. The advantages of these initiatives were many. They fostered strong cultural and traditional ties for the purpose of mutual assistance. They harnessed the capacity and initiatives of the local communities themselves and they provided marginalized populations with tools to enable them to envisage possibilities for change. They promoted community integration and discipline, and fostered principles of democracy and good governance.

Some studies, such the one by Leonard Baka, have noted that over the past two decades KPCU has faced increasing problems, namely mismanagement, corruption, nepotism and political interference, and was even placed under receivership, but it continues to fight to remain in operation. This state of affairs has discouraged coffee farmers and many of them have abandoned growing coffee altogether.

Another example is from Ethiopia, where the Oroma coffee farmers organized themselves into a cooperative union known as the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU). After going through difficulties similar to those faced by coffee farmers in Kenya, the OCFCU has been allowed by the Ethiopian government to sell produce directly to international buyers without passing through intermediaries. In this way the Union has increased the value of its exports. According to the OCFCU Senior Technical Advisor, the Union has not only ensured better financial rewards for its members, but has also instilled a culture of progressive and sustainable farming practices.


In conclusion, CBOs can serve as a channel through which African governments can facilitate development at the grassroots level. While the CBOs need capacity-building to strengthen their skills in areas such as bookkeeping and accounts, experience indicates that the related needs assessments should be carried out jointly with coffee farmers. In addition, lessons learned from the experience of burial societies and tontines demonstrate that transparency and accountability are essential ingredients for community-focused activities, just as they are for community activities at other levels. The example of the coffee societies in Kenya and Ethiopia demonstrates how an issue can become highly politicized, resulting in negative outcomes arising from corruption because of cartels. African governments should assist poor farmers to sell their cash crops or products directly to buyers without going through intermediaries.

Examples reveal that there is considerable grassroots enthusiasm for decentralization within communities and that this can be mobilized by winning the confidence and trust of local and traditional communities and their leaders. If not, then community-focused efforts will be in jeopardy. CBOs provide the basis for the type of bottom-up approach that is essential to meaningful and realistic national development. Moreover, CBOs are indispensable stakeholders not only in the fight against social exclusion but also in the overall national decision-making process. This is in line with not only the spirit of Agenda 21 but also the position taken by the World Commission on Culture and Development, which, in its 1995 report, noted that development divorced from its human or cultural context was growth without a soul. The report stresses that economic development in its full flowering is part of a people's culture.

In line with the convictions espoused by the World Commission on Culture and Development, it is manifestly clear that CBOs and the creative initiatives which they engender are essential to successful sustainable development and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets outlined in the global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

* Ambassador Dr. John O. Kakonge is a Sustainable Development Consultant and Advisor.



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