A few years ago, a Guatemalan organization called the Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez (AFEDES), an International Development Exchange (IDEX) grant partner since 2005, discovered something troubling: Its programs were not making much of an impact.
Comprised of 31 women’s groups in Guatemala with nearly 1,000 members, AFEDES was founded by a group of indigenous women seeking to improve their economic opportunities through microcredit, financial management, income-generating skills building, and more. AFEDES began to see that some women were deeper in debt than at the start of the economic program. Women were not participating as actively outside their homes as AFEDES had hoped. Inside their homes, nutrition levels were not improving.
Although micro-credit at the time was seen by many in the aid community as a magic bullet to eradicate poverty, the women of AFEDES looked deeper and came to an important conclusion: Women’s oppression could not be solved by credit alone. The organization started a new, 18-week program to empower indigenous women by educating and informing them about the legal and social mechanisms that exist to protect them from injustice. Today, AFEDES is training women to become community organizers and advocating for a rural women’s shelter specifically for indigenous women in the region, a policy victory they intend to realize this year.
“When we started our work,” Amarillis Guamuch, AFEDES’ fearless leader, told me upon my recent visit to Guatemala, “we knew it would change families, communities and our country for good. We knew that patriarchy would be challenged; so would the church and the economic system. We knew that, together, women would recuperate not only the soil and seeds on our land, but in fact, the soul of our society.”
Yet, the story of AFEDES is not just the story of what can happen when we invest in women. It is also about what can happen when we invest in the local leaders and organizations in our world’s most marginalized communities. Like AFEDES, these leaders have the best understanding of the culture, history, and conditions of their own communities, and are in the best positions to address the root causes of poverty, injustice, and inequality.
The problem is that this is not the way most international philanthropy is currently practiced. Instead, large-scale development efforts are initiated and led by people and organizations external to the communities directly impacted by poverty and injustice. These efforts fail to take into account the knowledge and experience that already exists in these communities, and don’t have a deep understanding of the efforts that will be most effective in the long run. The results are often limited and short-lived, and groups on the frontlines, like AFEDES, don’t get access to the funding they so desperately need to thrive and grow.
At IDEX, we believe that we still have much work to do to turn this largely broken model of philanthropy on its head. We pioneered and continue to champion a partnership-based grantmaking model in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that powers social change from the ground up. We provide flexible, long-term grants directly to grassroots groups that have the trust of their neighbors and the knowledge of what is needed in their own communities.
Recently, we commissioned an evaluation report because we wanted to hear directly from our partners as to whether our model works. According to the findings, nearly 100 percent of our grant partners found our model effective and nearly 90 percent stated they have been able to develop local, community-based solutions.
My visit with groups like AFEDES in Guatemala left me humbled by the courage of these community leaders to move forward in their quests for justice despite tremendous obstacles and to work toward dismantling systems of oppression for good. It left me more convinced than ever that we must put power back in the hands of marginalized communities by supporting local solutions, honoring grassroots leadership, and relying on local knowledge. When matched with the vision, resolve, and ingenuity of communities all over the world, this model is a proven formula for lasting change.
Rajasvini Bhansali is executive director of San Francisco-based International Development Exchange.