June 24, 2022

New Bridgespan Report Looks at How Residents of Urban Informal Settlements in India and Africa Drive Their Own Change

The study identifies five mindsets and five pathways NGOs and donors can adopt to support communities aiming to solve their own socio-economic challenges.

MUMBAI—June 2, 2022. Over the past decade, there has been a growing recognition across the social sector that community-driven change increases the odds of achieving impact that lasts, not least because the community feels a sense of ownership, according to a new paper by The Bridgespan Group. So how might other NGOs and funders begin to lean into community-driven change and adopt the mindsets and pathways that can effect sustainable social change?

To learn more about how this kind of ground-up, community-driven change comes to life, a Bridgespan team spent several months researching and interviewing community-driven change NGOs that work in urban informal settlements in India and Africa. They focused on four NGOs: Mumbai-based CORO; Mumbai-based Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA); Kenya’s Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO); and, Ubuntu Pathways, which works in South Africa’s Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth) township.

According to Pritha Venkatachalam, a partner in Bridgespan’s Mumbai office and head of Market Impact, South Asia, “Community-driven change is incredibly hard to execute because it involves flipping power dynamics on their heads. Each of the four NGOs we studied has built a long track record of partnering effectively with residents in urban informal settlements so these communities drive and own their change.”

The report emphasizes that urban informal settlements possess significant assets and capabilities that make them ripe for community-driven change, even in the face of enormous health, housing, and crime challenges. It points out that people move to urban informal settlements to build better lives. They are entrepreneurs who have built cottage industries, who power micro-economies, and who typically possess the initiative to define and lead for themselves the improvements they seek in their lives, provided they have access to the right resources and support.  NGOs that take a community-driven approach provide those resources and support to the residents of urban informal settlements, and then get out of the way.
Among the key insights highlighted in the report are the similarities in the way community-driven organizations think. These shared mindsets include:
  • Local Assets Mindset: Community-driven organizations believe that “poor” communities possess a wealth of assets such as local knowledge, skills, lived experiences, motivation, and relationships, that can be tapped more effectively.
  • Dignity Mindset: They recognize that all people have the right to live with respect and without discrimination so they can fulfil their potential. Thus, they are better able to push back against the inclination to bypass those who some might consider to be especially “marginalized” or “vulnerable.”
  • Long-term Mindset: They summon patience and persistence to confront complex, vexing challenges. Even when they make some progress on issues such as providing early childhood education or preventing evictions, they know those systemic challenges will persist for many years.
  • Flexibility Mindset: They believe that when community members point to a better way, they need to quickly pivot from the established plan. When a crisis emerges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, they are quick to follow the community’s lead and support a new service or strategy.
  • “Scaling In” Mindset: They think about going deeper, not necessarily wider, to support people’s efforts to build better lives. They put a premium on holistic approaches to impacting individuals in a small number of communities as opposed to spreading out geographically to reach as many people as possible. 
The authors also identified five interrelated and interdependent pathways these organizations pursue to bring community-driven mindsets to life and offer real world examples of these pathways in action. The pathways include:
  • Helping communities become aware of their rights, so they are better equipped to advocate for change
  • Mobilizing communities around a shared goal and an agenda for achieving it
  • Nurturing people’s skills and capabilities (both technical and soft skills) so that they can design and implement social-change projects and hold government accountable
  • Fostering ground-up solutions through ongoing mentorship and technical assistance and sometimes co-creation of solutions with community leaders
  • Researching and advocating for change and helping build the case for collective, cross-sector action
Venkatachalam’s co-author and partner in Bridgespan’s Johannesburg office Jan Schwier said, “Our intent is not to lay out a blueprint for community-driven change or to make community-driven change appear easy to do. Rather, we want to present insights so that NGOs and funders—as well as other actors looking to participate or invest in community-driven change efforts—can make more informed decisions on what might work best for them. This report identifies some emerging and critical signposts that might guide, not direct, others’ efforts.”
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a global nonprofit that collaborates with social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors to make the world more equitable and just. Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting and advising, sourcing and diligence, and leadership team support. We take what we learn from this work and build on it with original research, identifying best practices and innovative ideas to share with the social sector. We work from locations in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, and Singapore.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.