Advising on change for or with the grassroots level?

GIZ development workers are involved primarily at the local and regional level. They play a key role in ensuring that conditions at the grassroots level are conducive to change processes that are triggered at a higher level. Pro-development conditions created in a legislative or structural context at the national level need a suitable framework at the regional level along with appropriate supports, structures and actors for channelling changes to the local level. This is where advisory services by development workers come into play.

The "multilevel approach" taken by German development cooperation offers a comparative advantage over that of other actors involved in international cooperation. Institutions and actors in partner countries receive advisory services and support at the national, regional and local level that aim to build their capacities. This enables them to set in motion or become actively involved in economic, political and social processes to improve living conditions, particularly for disadvantaged population groups.

For example, national water utilities will only be able to supply water to the public if pumps at the local level actually work, water kiosks have been established, wells maintained and people have reliable access to safe drinking water. Development workers advise and train municipalities and districts responsible for carrying out these tasks in order to enable them to fulfil their responsibilities in the areas of drinking water supply and sanitation. Water user groups also receive advice on how to maintain wells and pumps and how they themselves can ensure that users have a regulated, sustainable supply of water.

The results of advisory services provided by GIZ development workers are not just confined to the local level. As development workers are incorporated into the overall structure of German and international development cooperation, the experience gained and the results achieved at the local level can be directly transferred back to cooperation structures at the national level, facilitating the required adjustments there too. For example, the ministry of urban planning in Malawi is using the experience gained on the ground when drafting its manual on the application of planning regulations. In Kenya, development workers provided advisory services at the municipal level to support the implementation of a computerised financial management system. This helped identify what was working and what wasn't and channel the feedback back to the national level. Checking how things are working out 'on the ground' helps ensure sustainability and motivates the stakeholders involved in the project.

Strengthening partners' capacities

The advice provided by development workers aims to build the capacities of partner organisations at the local and regional level. It enables them to shape and support processes and puts the emphasis on the target groups – the people that should ultimately benefit from development cooperation. Naturally enough, ownership by the partner, and the adoption of a participatory approach throughout all stages of the development measures, have always been key elements of the work development workers do. Partner organisations are enabled to use their scope for action, which is constantly changing, in order to (help) shape political, economic and social change processes. For example, associations, chambers of commerce and pro-business interest groups receive advice on establishing and developing their organisation to improve the professionalism of the advisory services they in turn provided to small and medium-sized enterprises, enabling them to better represent the interests of their members at policy level.

In an international context, advisory services have a lot to offer in scenarios where the aim is to optimise scope for action in order to actively shape change processes. Getting an outside perspective, questioning daily routines and needing to have them explained makes it possible to analyse situations that are often assumed to be self-explanatory and in some cases creates additional scope for action.

Communications and linguistic skills are key

Development workers are involved at the grassroots level, which poses particular challenges. Most of the people working in GIZ's partner organisations at the local level have never studied or worked in Europe or North America. Their knowledge of European culture and attitudes is usually less well developed than at the managerial level of the finance ministry in the partner country. The advisory process must take this fact into account from the outset, particularly if target groups are not only intended to benefit from the process but also be involved in it.

Development workers are based on site. This means that they can support partner organisations in carrying out activities for and with the target groups in a specific district or village if necessary and provide direct and constructive feedback. GIZ's wide range of methodological expertise comes in useful when implementing target-group-oriented activities and change processes at – and together with – the grassroots level. In order to build on this expertise, the majority of development workers grasp the opportunity to attend a training course to enhance their advisory skills and knowledge of participatory methods during their preparatory course or when on leave.

Participatory approaches and methods that can help actively involve partners who lack negotiation skills or have difficulty communicating play a key role in this context. Active listening is a vital skill. So too is verbal communication – a daily challenge in countries where more exotic languages are spoken. Development workers often feel that providing advice via an interpreter hampers the flow of communication, and many therefore prefer to learn languages such as Khmer or Creole during their preparatory course in Germany or in the partner country. Cooperating and sharing tasks with local experts in the advisory process is also a very effective way of building bridges with the grassroots level, which benefits all concerned.

In other words, one of the quality criteria of German development cooperation is that development workers' skills, ideas, methods, experience and expertise in providing grassroots-oriented advice to partner organisations are part and parcel of the capacity development process and help achieve broad-based results, using a multi-level approach that is consistently implemented together with the partner side.

Andrea Winter, former GIZ development worker

Additional information