It’s smart to invest in women and girls—and rightly so. We know what women with agency can bring to their communities, and how empowering girls changes the world from the ground up.

Yet the global development community just can’t seem to start at that ground level. According to the OECD, just 14% of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) commitments targeted local civil society organizations in 2018—and that was a recent high.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how critical these organizations are for building local resilience, regional cooperation, and global development, we cannot keep overlooking them.

Specifically, for hundreds of thousands of girls worldwide, community-driven organizations (CDOs) may be their only opportunity for agency-building.

Even so, traditional philanthropy still tends to prefer one-size-fits-all ideas that prioritize hard metrics and ever-expanding operations over localized solutions that respond directly to unique community needs. We hear all the time that local organizations lack the ability to address critical issues in a scalable manner; scale and breadth are perceived as more valuable than depth and adaptability.

However well-intentioned, this system is simply biased towards a “bigger is better” mentality.

Our experience is in East Africa, but this same conundrum applies to any development conversation. What inner-city Bostonians need doesn’t fit the same mold as residents of Vancouver, Los Angeles, or London—and it seems obvious that locals know best where to look for solutions.

So why do we assume that life skills programming for a teenager in Nairobi should look the same as for her contemporaries in rural Rwanda?

That approach is easily explained to donors and easily packaged for program officers parachuting into the field. But this bias leaves smaller-yet-effective CDOs consistently under-resourced and under-valued, and it disregards their insights, perspectives, and solutions—especially in the growing global movement to build agency in adolescent girls.

Take the Nairobi nonprofit Usikimye. Working in the Soweto neighborhood, part of Africa’s largest urban slum,  Njeri wa Migwi-Mwangi and her team runs programs that rescue hundreds of people—from infants to teenagers to parents—annually from sexual and domestic violence, as well as offer life-skills programs for adolescent girls.

Usikimye enables everyone in its orbit to find a path toward something better, but it just can’t secure consistent funding—let alone a seat at the global development table.

The organization is seen as too small, lacking the profile, footprint, and impact measures of larger operations. Without major funders or recognition, they get dismissed and their deep work undervalued. The global community continues to believe that because Usikimye isn’t “at scale,” it somehow doesn’t do or deserve as much.

In fact, Njeri launched Usikimye with a plan for scaling it, but now she just wants to provide the best possible care for her community—rather than waste energy on adapting her successful response to Soweto’s needs to suit donors’ interests.

AMPLIFY Girls bridges gaps like this with our collective of 40 community-driven organizations including Usikimye.

Our idea of scale is bringing new partners into the fold to spur localized development and collaboration to invest in the agency of adolescent girls, and to stimulate gender equity in communities with research, advocacy, and direct service.

And together, we can make a lot more noise on behalf of the 60,000 girls our CDOs’ programs have reached in the five years since we launched. This network has already driven over three-quarters of a million dollars to our partner organizations delivering critical life skills programming to adolescent girls and we believe we can do much more. Our 2021 longitudinal study proved that our partners’ work increases girls’ agency across the board—even just since AMPLIFY Girls’ 2018 launch.

But our efficacy relies on finding, funding, and elevating proximate leaders. In other words, we have to rethink our ideas of scale and philanthropy to keep growing.

There are plenty of naysayers who would rather not fund community-level leaders, however proximate and personal the problems at hand are. INGOs and government agencies worry unduly about their capacity to distribute aid. Major foundations look for indicators and readouts that don’t exist. And, certainly for East African CDOs, structural racism and white saviorism inevitably come into play.

But these are excuses, not steps to improve the sector. After five years of working in partnership with local leaders, we know that new models allow us to create new pathways for them to drive change—rather than contorting their innovations into outdated molds.

We know powerful interventions lead to impact, but evaluation still matters, even as we want to honor the beautiful diversity of what CDOs do. That’s why AMPLIFY Girls built a cutting-edge monitoring and evaluation tool with our partners that accurately measures their unique impacts on girls’ agency—our ultimate shared goal. That data means organizations can focus on their own interventions and outcomes, while still learning how to improve from one another.

Looking ahead, the global development and philanthropy old guards must move away from this high-level need to track and control every element of good work.

Every community is different, and no one model or metric will work everywhere.

Proximate leaders, closest to both the thorniest problems and the most direct solutions, should be at the center of a new concept of scale, one that prioritizes localized solutions and recognizes their importance. Nowhere is this solution of collective work more imperative than for adolescent girls—which is why our collective is centered on CDOs that provide them with holistic support. More than 70% of CDOs report larger annual budgets after partnering with us, and nearly half of them actively collaborate with one another.

This approach works, and it’s emboldening. It’s how we dare to envision a world where global development is locally led and locally driven, and where every girl has agency and opportunity. We urge others to join us.

The Conversation

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