A Key Question for Sustainable Change: Who is the owner?


Questions are powerful since they reveal underlying assumptions and levels of understanding.  A key question for any community change process is, “Who is the owner?”  The knee-jerk (and right) answer should be “the community”.  Unfortunately, this often is not the case in reality.

What is most common is a community that follows an outside organization’s programs.  In other words, the organization is the real owner. The community is simply agreeing to the strategy, policies, resources and time-lines of the organization in exchange for benefits of the program.

A so-called best practice in community development is “participation”.  In other words, the organization, donors, government, and community all have a participatory voice in the design and evaluation of projects.   This is usually a sincere attempt to build local buy-in to projects, but community participation and community ownership are not the same.  It is very important for outside organizations to realize that they are the participants, not the community. The community must be the owner, outsiders are servants.  And the community’s ownership ideally begins from day one.  It is very risky to transfer ownership from an organization to the community later down the road.

Some important and closely-related questions are, “What will happen when outside experts and resources leave?” Will the project continue? Will it be sustainable?  In VOCF’s experience, if the community is not the real owner, most projects collapse.