Where’s Waldo would have a hard time laying low in any country these days. Wireless interconnectivity has largely become the norm, providing opportunities to connect seven billion people to resources and organizations. The luxury of quickly accessing information and the ease of communication has facilitated the means for local communities to be equal partners in innovative projects being implemented by International Organizations (IOs). This has given rise to the grassroots innovator: someone who understands the local issues, culture, and context, and is a possible partner to innovators in Headquarters (HQ) tinkering behind their screens and unaware of the situational nuances that are vital to any endeavor.

Innovators, whether in the field or at HQ, cannot employ a one-size-fits-all- approach to address regional issues, which are now- more than ever- calling for stronger global and innovative responses. Coordination efforts, led by grassroots and IOs, on how to design and implement any project is a chance to combine first-hand knowledge of the local environment and HQ level resources. More importantly, it is also an opportunity to inculcate a management approach that best monitors and evaluates changes through a feedback loop. In this spirit, it may be worthwhile to employ a feedback loop incorporating a top-down and bottom-up approach, which can implement the innovative project/policy and heedfully respond to situations that can change quickly due to political or environmental factors.

What does grassroots mean? And how does it connect with international organizations?

Grassroots organizations are primarily made up of civilians advocating a cause to spur change at local, national, or international levels. Here are 15 examples of grassroot organizations working towards change across the globe. Bottom-up approaches allow for the citizens– sometimes through grassroots organizations– to define their own goals and how to achieve them. The opposite approach is called top-down, normally employed by IOs, governments, or corporations, that institute policies and regulations that affect the populations they serve. And while these are two distinctive management styles, a feedback loop of bottom up and top down approaches can help track and monitor an innovative project.

For example, in three districts in Malawi, an innovative project called Justice for Vulnerable Groups was launched to address gender-based violence (GBV) rates and provide training to properly identify and assist victims of GBV, especially children. The project was monitored by the non-profit Plan International (Malawi country office) and primarily implemented by the Malawian Police Service. Seed funding came from UNICEF and included stakeholders like the local government and civil society to address cultural issues and norms, as well as create community ownership of the innovation. The feedback loop helped identify a need, which UNFPA was able to fill by donating motorbikes to help officers respond to GBV calls more quickly.  The feedback loop between UNICEF (IO) and Plan International (a grassroots organization), and a local public institution (police service) created multi-stakeholder investment in the success of the project. The result was more school children directly reported cases of GBV to authorities and better-equipped police officers to properly handle victims and potential GBV related cases.

Grassroots initiatives are community-based approaches created to address localized problems. Projects backed by local organizations can quickly gain momentum on the local level because they are generally enacted by local actors. Moreover, larger organizations could benefit from local grassroots initiatives that are directly connected to the issues and the people living in need. These groups are the first responders to the crises and critical witnesses to which solutions are a better fit to context. Partnerships can prove to be fruitful when people (grassroots organizations) and resources (IOs) come together to address a need and context. Grassroots groups understand the multifaceted contexts and issues that could deter progress or stall innovative solutions, while also creating a sense of trust in a community by authenticating the potential benefits of an innovation, as well as identifying flaws, and iterations required

Bottom-up and top-down partnerships can help create temporary housing, improve responses to climate change, or simply support local initiatives working on sustainable development. Grassroots organizers are already immersed in communities and live in the country, which facilitates longer test runs and more in-depth partnerships with IOs on any pilot project. They can also help save money on pricey test runs and sending teams on lengthy missions. Working with partners on the ground can provide opportunities to test the transferability of an innovation, in short: duplicating or adapting an innovation to fit the needs of another country with a similar localized problem.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. Innovators from an IO and the private sector create Rosie the Robot that can be a teacher’s google assistant aide in the classroom for refugee children. The top-down approach could roughly entail:

  1. conceptualizing Rosie and achieving prototype consensus amongst organizations;
  2. building Rosie;
  3. beta testing Rosie;
  4. identifying which countries → cities →  and finally, schools to test Rosie;
  5. testing Rosie in the identified schools.

However, grassroots partners are ablest at identifying the problems on the ground and the solutions that could help implement a sustainable solution. Country teams are the closest to the affected people and as such, can share insight on what are the communities priority needs. Having a strong feedback loop on the ground can better identify and execute all the steps. Like steps 1 and 2, using first-hand experience to better conceptualize and build Rosie, to step 3, where organizations can provide a testing ground for Rosie, and/or  4 and 5 by providing HQ innovators with information on contexts, resources, and culture that would be better suited for research and development. Grassroots actors can also help leverage risk and promote the growth of an innovation’s core idea(s). For the purpose of this scenario: essentially, the bottom-up and top-down approaches link in the middle to share data and information on schools, so innovators and community leaders can make better decisions on which communities would benefit from testing Rosie in their classrooms.

There are multiple ways this can work, for instance, an IO could have an idea to pilot in different regions to assess an innovation’s potential impact. A grassroots organization has the advantage of knowing the people, culture, and political environment to take the innovation and better implement it on the ground. This could be in the Himalayas all the way to Main Street, USA. Grassroots organizations are the eyes and ears of HQ innovators on the ground, being able to provide feedback routinely and communicate how the situation is evolving on the ground. Working with responsible grassroots organizations can be a major asset to IOs, and even better for innovations and their innovators to get the best raw and accurate data on how to pilot to a project.

Why is it important that grassroots partners are involved with IO innovation teams?

Many equate the idea of innovation ultimately with tech. And that certainly can be true; however, innovation can also be getting a process or policy to work better. For example, you can improve a supply chain with tech or policy. An important variable in making an innovation stick is community ownership. One way some innovations are deemed fit for purpose is when it adequately responds to a need of the people affected. Innovations must be used, adapted, used again, and then improved. This all takes a good amount of patience, resilience, and sound communication skills to work with together. As long as support is being provided for a common goal.

A feedback loop incorporating grassroots and IOs can identify an innovation’s risks not previously outlined or other usages, as well as propose future improvements. Partners on the ground understand the cultural appropriation needed for some innovations, so the necessary tweaks will allow for a more smooth implementation into society. Thus, establishing a mechanism to best handle communication between the field and HQ is imperative. For instance, using the previous example of Rosie, without local or on the ground knowledge, an innovation team could opt to test Rosie in School B, based on the number of refugee children in the classes. Yet, School A was a better choice because it has almost as many refugee children and an after-school program run by a partnered grassroots organization who can record direct feedback for further research and development from the kids.    

Grassroots organizations are great drawing-board-allies for getting an idea from conception to implementation, and then back to the lab for improvements. Offices of Innovation or any venture team must be able to test and use their innovations to model improvements. They cannot be the porcelain dolls of any major international organization, merely there for show but not play. More importantly, they cannot be subjected to shame if they fail at certain projects. That is the point of an innovation effort: to try and fail and then try to fail better.

What should we continue doing?

True to the meaning of innovation, we have to keep adapting and sowing the seeds to produce better results, educate more people on the causes, and keep bridging the gap. Most importantly, innovators must adapt to walking this delicate line of full throttle innovating while not breaking normal bureaucratic protocol.

Innovations don’t have to be flashy or techy. They can be policies, educational modules, or anything that does something in a new way and creative. The bottom line is the core idea has to work. Allowing communities to flourish and take on their own adaptation of an innovation or an improvement to their own process is already a major milestone.

We should continue responding pragmatically to contexts: specific situations call for specific measures, and include local grassroots organizations whenever possible. This will ease implementation plans and the mining of data for future reflection/innovation. Most importantly, it a grassroots/IO partnership can help identify which healthy balance of top-down or bottom-approach is needed. Some contexts may require more IO or direct involvement, like using frontier technologies to test drone immunization drops or blockchain/smart contracts to release funds to NGOs working with affected people on the ground. Other contexts may just require assistance in improving a supply chain with guidance from IOs. Regardless, we need to understand which contexts call for improvement and/or which contexts are out with the old-and-in with the new! And local ownership and partnership is an important variable for long-term sustainability of an innovation.

One thing is for certain when I visit a new country, I ask a local when I need directions. Why wouldn’t I do the same when I’m testing and adapting my new innovation?



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