Grassroots Scholarship Winner

Village Earth is proud to announce that we have selected a winner for our first VE Grassroots Scholarship to attend one of our online community-based development training courses. Grace Wairimu Ndungu is 36 years old and works in Kenya for an organization called Youth Action for Rural Development (YARD). As a project officer, she works on their orphans and vulnerable children project. With over six years of experience in community work, she holds a diploma in community development and several certificates in child-related courses and HIV management. Most of the beneficiaries she works with are either affected or infected by HIV. She focuses on children as the point of entry to working with the entire household. These beneficiaries are identified with the help of community members, teachers and leaders. You can read more about Grace’s organization here.

While working in the community, Grace has come across cases of gender disparity in development. For this reason, she has decided to attend Village Earth’s Gender Equity in Development to learn more about addressing some of these issues.

If you are interested in learning how to sponsor a grassroots community organizer or aid worker like Grace to attend a training course through the VE Grassroots Scholarship program, please contact Jamie Way at

Single Course Scholarship Competition Now Open!

Thanks to a generous donation by Audrey Faulkner, Village Earth is now offering a scholarship for one free online course. The scholarship is only open to potential participants that have no possibility of paying for their course on their own. With our limited resources, we would like to support the most innovative project work being done by someone with the most need. If you believe that you fit this description and are working on an exciting new project, please tell us more in the format below. (Note: Any applications exceeding the stated lengths or not following any of the stated rules will not be considered.)

1) In less than 175 words, describe the project you are working on. (Include who you work with, what your goal is, where your project is located, etc.) Please also include a web address if your project has some online presence.

2) In less than 100 words, tell us why you believe you and your project would benefit from a scholarship to one of our training courses. (Here you may include responses to questions like: How our training would help move your project forward? What challenges are you facing and how do you believe we could help?)

Please send applications to with the title “Scholarship Application” by November 30th. We will announce a winner in the following newsletter.

Living Roots Helps Communities Protect Unique Cultures

“Helping endangered cultures adapt and thrive in the modern world” is the noble goal of Living Roots, a social venture which has recently become a global affiliate of Village Earth.

A Disappearing Culture
Living Roots’ pilot project is in the sierra (mountains) of Baja California Sur, where approximately 7,000 isolated rancheros continue to use centuries-old traditional Spanish Colonial and indigenous techniques in everyday life. However, due to rising costs of Baja’s coastal development and the lack of economic opportunity, direct access to markets, and occupational prospects, as many as 9 in 10 rancheros are leaving the sierra. Without Living Roots’ help, ranchero culture, the “living roots” of the American cowboy, is likely to vanish in one-to-two generations, along with the critical wisdom of living in balance with Baja’s arid eco-system.

The Living Roots’ Plan
Since its incorporation a year ago, Living Roots has focused on proving that the unique culture of San Javier has economic value that can be captured and invested in the community to both help rancherofamilies realize the value of their culture and enable economically sustainable lifestyles. Toward this end, Living Roots has fostered a community-run marketing association which certifies products, as being authentic, hand-made and based in a traditional skill.

These artisanal products include, olive oil made from some of the oldest olive groves in the Americas, wine from heirloom grapevines originally brought to the new world by Jesuit missionaries, historically significant saddles and cowboy wear which continue to be handmade and tanned in the traditional style, and intricate embroidery, an activity enjoyed by women throughout the sierra.

Creating Community-Driven Infrastructure
Arising out of the San Javier “Envisioning Your Future Workshop” facilitated by Living roots, next month, in collaboration with the Municipality of Loreto, Living Roots and community members will begin to build a Cultural Center and Regional Marketplace. The center will create a direct connection to markets for regionally produced artisan crafts and food, a central communication hub for organizing tourism and community information, and an exhibition focal point for Baja ranchero history and lifestyle.

Rejuvenation of Historic Skills & Youth Empowerment
Also this fall, Living Roots is launching its educational programing through a series of workshops on organic agriculture and other heritage skills. After two successive years of drought, ranchers have begun to sell their livestock and look for alternative sources of income. Living Roots’ aim for the organics project is to help ranches return to self-sufficiency by providing food for families, helping them protect heirloom varieties of seeds, and increase their income through the sale of produce at the Sunday market in Loreto and eventually, at the newly-constructed Regional Marketplace in San Javier.

Living Roots has also developed other programs to rejuvenate rare and disappearing skills, including a generational transfer program known as “Youth as Stewards”, which empowers young children through teaching traditional skills and engages university-educated sierra-born youth in giving back to their communities through contributing business and professional skills.

The next step for Living Roots is to co-create an agro-tourism circuit offering hands-on cultural experiences to interested travelers. While Baja’s coastal regions host thousands of tourists each year, alternative or agro-tourism has yet to be developed in the remote mountain areas and presents an important opportunity to empower these mountain communities to direct their own livelihoods through managing and developing a unique, sustainable tourism program.

What Makes Living Roots Different
Mila Birnbaum, Living Roots’ co-founder and Community Development Director says, “What makes Living Roots different is our focus on a community-driven, co-created development strategy in the context of a market-based approach. This means the community decides what aspects of their culture are important to protect, as well as which skills are critical, and Living Roots helps them determine how best to preserve them – all the while building local capacity, empowering the next generation and creating sustainable lifestyles.”

Over the past year, the team has spent many weeks and months in the village of San Javier and the surrounding mountains, talking to individual ranchers and painstakingly putting together the infrastructure and human capital required for the venture.

The Team and its Roots
Living Roots was formed by three alumnae from CSU’s College of Business Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA Program. The venture has since been joined by a local team including Hugo Sanchez, Martha Drew and Diana Espinoza Meza, each of whom studied Alternative Tourism and is dedicated to the rejuvenation of the ranchero culture of Baja California Sur. Leading the community is a board of ten community leaders who represent regional clusters of ranches and make governing decisions regarding sales events, workshops and how to best serve the needs of the entire region.

McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots’ principal founder, Executive Director, and an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, discovered the ranchero culture in the remote ranching communities of Baja California Sur while working in the region. She was amazed by the hospitality, skills, and abilities of these unique people to sustain themselves in such a rugged and arid environment. She also found that community members were afraid that their culture was at risk of disappearing amidst development and the rising costs of living in Baja.

Colleen Lyon, Living Roots’ co-founder and Marketing and Funding Director, recalls, “From the moment McKenzie first presented her idea to form a business designed to help this culture survive, we knew it was more than just a project. Her passion and commitment was contagious and infused the entire management team. Everyone who became involved with Living Roots could sense it would continue beyond the GSSE program – in some way, shape or form – and felt confident that their efforts were contributing to the success of a going concern.”

How You Can Help
Consistent with the goals of sustainable social enterprise, Living Roots measures its success based on a combination of social impact, environmental sustainability, and financial returns — a triple bottom line. While helping to foster a community-driven enterprise that is economically self-sufficient from the sale of artisanal crafts, foods and agri-tourism, Living Roots needs grants and donations to fund its programming and develop local capacity.

To learn more about how Living Roots is working to preserve the ranchero culture or to make a donation, visit their website or read their blog here.

VE Helps Provide Specialized Training for Pakistani Students

What’s the best way to provide continuing education to Pakistani students undertaking community development and service projects in their home communities? Why a specialized online training of course! Village Earth has developed a specialized course for the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX)’s Global UGRAD – Pakistan program alumni. The course, Community Leadership and Service Fundamentals, will run for 5-weeks in an asynchronous format for 20 Pakistani students. The course will teach the students how to prepare for and begin a community service project, how to mobilize a community to develop appropriate tools and strategies, and also how to implement a monitoring and evaluation component to the project. Village Earth specializes in developing and facilitating online trainings in all areas of community development. For more information visit our Specialized Training page. To consult with Village Earth about your organization’s or group’s training needs, please contact Jamie Way at

Working for Change in Sierra Leone, Africa

The article below is introduction to one of our newest affiliates, Village Care Initiatives in Sierra Leone. We are very excited about their success so far and happy to welcome them to Village Earth’s affiliate program.

In 2007, the first phase of an action-research partnership with local grassroots groups and community-based organizations was initiated in Eastern Sierra Leone. The partnership initiated what they called the “Village Care” approach based on the principle that recognition of strengths, gifts and assets of individuals and the community stimulates positive action for change. When communities focus on what they have (rather than what they lack) to achieve goals, they are better able to advance their livelihoods in a sustainable and self-sufficient way. The project brings the community members together to identify and map the capacities of individuals, associations and institutions. This helps them to take stock of their strengths and design programs accordingly.

Once the community participates in a series of exercises, they generate action plans that utilize their assets in order to achieve a desired change. In general, the principle is based on the recognition that successful community driven activities are achieved through self-guided leadership with citizens at the center of the activity, rather than institutions. Village Care rests on and is perpetuated through feelings of confidence and capacity rather than a sense of dependence on external support.
Village Care has successfully started a number of projects by focusing on communities’ assets. They have worked in the area of education, women’s rights, infrastructure, leadership training, small-scale loans and agricultural projects. Agricultural groups have come together focused on postponing harvest until the need for food becomes critical. Stocks are then divided among members. Another group has set up a revolving loan fund. Members borrow money to purchase agricultural or fishing inputs or to do petty trading. Another group has set up an emergency loan fund to cover the expenses of members and their families needing medical services or to help cover school expenses for their children.

While many groups mobilized their assets and successfully cultivated community support, some have run into barriers that may require additional resources from outside to fulfill their goals. Village Care project groups have started looking for ways to connect with others that allow them to stay true to community goals. Village Care Initiatives and its local partners have established a revolving fund that groups could apply for on a competitive basis to utilize for community projects. This locally managed Community Leverage Fund’s main purpose is to offset financial shortages experienced by communities as they pursue their goals.

If you wish to support the important work that Village Care Initiatives is doing in addressing issues of hunger, women’s rights and access to loans, please read more or donate to Village Care Initiatives.

Earth Tipi Supports Sustainability on Pine Ridge Reservation

Shannon Freed was first invited to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the spring of 2006. That summer she witnessed abject poverty, but also saw opportunity and hope for change.

When Freed looked around, she was inspired by the many natural and potentially recyclable resources around her. She wanted to show people that a solid home could be made from these materials. She hoped that this might inspire others to see things around them in a new light. Freed “…wanted for people to look at  things around them that had been waste and start to see them as assets” she said.

Many projects for natural buildings had been tried and failed, but in 2008 she got her chance. She called Coenraad Rogmans of House Alive. He agreed to come build a house in the summer of 2010 if she first organized the building of the home’s foundation in 2009. At the time, it was just a family project. Gerald Weasel, Freed’s father in law, her husband Adam and brother in law Luke did most of the labor while she did the organizing. Freed found materials and had them brought to the site.

Their first success was in finding a pile of concrete from an old building that had long since been demolished. It was sourced just 2.5 miles from the build site and was delivered by a local construction crew free of charge. Freed used funds that had been donated to purchase three sledge hammers. The majority of the summer was spent crushing 25-year-old concrete by hand. By the end of the summer the foundation was complete. That fall she was invited by Bryan Deans of Oglala Lakota Cultural and Economic Revitalization Initiative to join their permaculture certification course. With her new found skill she was inspired to turn a family project into a grassroots organization. The group is now known as Earth Tipi, and is a Village Earth affiliate project.

The original home site is now being developed as a sustainable homestead model. Two large gardens, which highlight permaculture techniques, and will soon incorporate Lakota spiritual gardening practices, fed this summers volunteers as well as at least six local families. They have incorporated a beehive and hope to harvest honey next year. They were also able to build a home for another family this summer using shipping pallets through a collaboration with Texas Natural Builders. The home is still under construction due to some unanticipated set backs, however, it is well on its way to completion. Currently, just finish work remains, and it is scheduled to be completed by the end of October.

Earth Tipi is excited to announce their upcoming projects which include a hosting a Children’s Room in November at the Lakota Nakota Dakota Language Summit hosted by Tusweca Tiyospaye and a garden to table program for children made possible by a fellowship which was recently awarded through Together Green. The program will entail taking youth into the field to collect garden and wild foods then into the kitchen to learn how to prepare them into tasty meals. The project will also include a documentation aspect where the children will be given cameras to document the process and make cook books that can be shared digitally or printed to take home. There are currently discussions with GLOBIO to collaborate on the documentation aspect so that the children of Pine Ridge might provide and add content to their already extensive database of information for kids around the world. It is the goal of Earth Tipi to create profitable businesses that will support their projects so that they will be self-sustaining in every sense of the term, both growing their own food and using local resources to build houses, as well as generating a revenue stream to support all not-for-profit projects. Earth Tipi is seeking interns to help with project planning and implementation, if interested please contact Shannon Freed at You can also read more about this project and make donations here.


Village Earth’s board, staff and friends would like to congratulate our Executive Director, David Bartecchi, on his marriage to Antonette Guerra this past weekend. We wish you the best in your future together and welcome Antonette to the Village Earth family!

Best Wishes!Dave, Antonette and Chloe

Microfinance: Possibilities & Challenges

By Cortney Berry, M.A.

Photo: Kamala Parekh, Village Earth’s Microfinance Course Instructor

Twenty-two cents. That was the sum of money that Sufiya Begum lacked access to when Dr. Yunus interviewed her in 1976. To eke out a living, she bought material for bamboo stools on credit and then she sold the stools back to the very people who loaned her the money to purchase the materials in the first place. What profit did she make? After working all day, she earned only two cents. She was unable to borrow money from the moneylenders, because they charged up to ten percent per day. She was stuck with the middlemen, who kept her trapped in subsistence living conditions, constantly having to run but getting nowhere.

Dr. Yunus was dumbfounded by the situation—he was used to working with problems whose price tags soared into the millions, but Sufiya was living on the edge for want of a sum that most people lose in their couch (Yunus, 2003). It was this interaction that sparked the chain of events that eventually led to the creation of Grameen Bank, an institution which went on to win the Nobel Peace prize in 2006. Since its creation it has disbursed $11 billion dollars with an impressive recovery rate of almost 97%. In Bangladesh, a study concluded that more than half of the reduction in poverty was directly attributed to microfinance (McCarter 2006). Grameen Bank stands as one example among many of the impressive results microfinance can achieve. Today, microfinance is a mainstream development strategy which plays an integral role in the U.N. Development Goals and forms the backbone of many development plans large and small. Online, popular sites such as Kiva connect would-be-borrowers with lenders, many of whom are drawn by the sustainability of a model in which the same dollars flow from borrower-to-borrower as loans are repaid and disbursed, over-and-over again. The idea that a $100 loan could allow a woman to break out of a cycle of poverty is incredible and the ability to act as a lender and see a business succeed as a result is a powerful experience for donors.

The positive impacts of microfinance do vary, however, and much depends upon an understanding of the financial and business needs of a local culture so that program design can be carefully approached. It is certainly no panacea and like any development strategy it is best implemented in ways that would-be business owners and communities feel are culturally appropriate. The indiscriminate application of microfinance has at times yielded less than ideal results, proving once again that even the most effective programs cannot be generically implemented.

Loans and financial packages should be individualized as much as possible and lending groups should not merely provide collateral, but should be coached on how to increase knowledge and business savvy amongst their members (Mayoux 1998). Microfinance goes beyond simply disbursing a loan- successful programs include the community and make lending groups, which provide support and guidance. Within such a community-driven program, microfinance continues to be an impressive force for alleviating poverty. In the 35 years since microfinance hit the development world as an exciting new strategy, its popularity and prevalence continue to grow.

Whether online or in the field, the power of connecting lenders to borrowers and providing much needed capital proves again-and-again to be transformative in the lives of millions.

Village Earth offers a five-week online course on the topic of microfinance. If you are interested in participating in the session starting September 30th, please read more here.

Mayoux, Linda. 1998. Women’s Empowerment and Microfinance Programmes: Strategies for Increasing Impact. Development in Practice 8 (2): 235-241.

Yunus, Muhammad. 2003. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. New York: Public Affairs.

McCarter, Elissa. 2006. Women and Microfinance: Why We Should Do More. University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. 6 (2): 353-366.

4th Annual Albertson Medal Gala a Success

Each year, on the last Saturday in August Village Earth celebrates the legacy and birthday of one of its founders, the late Dr. Maurice Albertson by honoring a person who exemplifies Maury’s lifelong dedication to sustainability and social justice. This year, Village Earth’s Board of Directors awarded the honor to Judith Kimerling, for her defense of the Amazon rainforest and the human communities that depend on it for their culture and survival. Kimerling received the medal in front of an audience of Village Earth supporters, CSU administration and faculty, local businesses and a host of people from across the region interested in sustainable development. Entertainment included local African dance troupe “Fale” and a live auction featuring items from various locations around the world where Village Earth works. The dinner, prepared by Colorado State University catering service, featured delicious grassfed and field harvested buffalo ribeye steaks sourced from the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a grassroots affiliate of Village Earth. The highlight of the evening was slide show presentation given by Kimerling, tracing her 30 years of work in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the pressing issues that still remain to be addressed. All proceeds from the event will go to support Village Earth as it expands its Global Affiliate Program – a support network for grassroots organizations working on some of the most critical issues around the globe.

Abandoning Empowerment: Semantics or Reality?

By Jamie Way, M.A. (Way is Village Earth’s Training Director.)

While attending an activist conference recently, I heard a plenary speaker passionately declaring his hatred for a number of words used by non-profits. Among the list of usual suspects (sustainability, etc.) he seemed particularly angry with the word “empowerment”.

At first I dismissed his argument as just another rant so common among activists and academics that readily discredit or abandon a word. Over the following few days, I kept trying to figure out what it was that he disliked so much about “empowerment.” Was it the word’s co-optation or its real significance?

What is clear is that this speaker represents a growing debate amongst organizers over the use of a handful of terms. Have they been so over-used and abused that once sacred terms like “participation”, “sustainability” and “empowerment” that were used to distinguish our work only have any significance if they are comfortably positioned next to a table illustrating their levels in an academic journal? Perhaps. If this was the case, I was confident that we could stand up to reclaim these words, rather than counting them as another casualty before adopting the next set of politically correct vernacular.

What started to concern me more, however, was if the term “empowerment” had as much significance as I had once hoped.

As a student of Political Science, I have long championed the idea of “development as empowerment,” (a play on Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom.) After all, as a literature review will suggest (read a literature review here), empowerment has been utilized in academic discourse to refer to support for the process by which a community gains power over their own future and increases their freedom of choice.

Seeing empowerment as just increasing self-determination, however, fails to note the connotations of the word in everyday language. A quick dictionary search yields a revealing list of related terms: confer, grant, delegate, give or invest. All of these words are used to describe how a presumably more powerful party “gives” power to a less powerful group. Colloquially speaking, it is evident that the term at least connotes a transfer of power.

The recognition of a power differential is not necessarily negative. Solidarity activists have long utilized their position of power to support the grassroots movements of less powerful actors. The term, however, is seen as problematic by some, because there is an aspect that implies giving agency, as if it is “ours” to give, rather than “theirs” to take.

In its best form, the literature on empowerment sees it as a means of overcoming structural limitations. (At its most paternalistic it speaks of increasing a groups capacity for decision-making.) Solidarity work is particularly effective when agency is limited by structural impediments, removing obstacles to liberation. Due to positions of privilege, there are times when allies are able to overcome structural limitations or be granted access to otherwise off-limit locations. But empowerment (in the sense of conveying power) seems to go a step beyond acts of solidarity. It raises the question of if we can actually transfer some of our position of privilege to others. And, if we can transfer power, is this a true means of liberation, or merely another form of the privileged having pity on the oppressed?

Perhaps the speakers annoyance with “empowerment” was somewhat warranted, at least if we use the term in its colloquial sense. Without some clarification of what we mean when we use the term, it seems to miss the point of Freire’s mutual liberation through process of discovery. It instead sees power as concentrated in ones’ hands and something to be given through a charitable act, not claimed through a dignified action. While the grassroots can use solidarity and the support of those in places of privilege, organizers should be careful not to recognize their agency as our gift.

Village Earth to Announce Four New Courses

Village Earth is pleased to announce that we will be offering four new courses over the next four sessions! Next session, we will be offering Community-Based Forest Management for the first time. This course is a must-take for practitioners looking to utilize collaborative methods that allow communities to manage of their own resources.

In addition, Village Earth will soon be offering courses in the areas of mediation, resource management and social media utilization. Please check back often to learn the details of these exciting new courses!

Literature Review: Theories of Empowerment

By Heather Lausch 

Empowerment is a word that has been used so often and so widely that its definition has become blurred (1). Activist groups use the term to rally behind different issues, while academic circles frequently cite the word in scholarly articles. But what do they mean when they say “empowerment” and whom do they want to “empower?” I will discuss these questions by first starting with a brief history of the term.

In academic literature, the word empowerment first came onto the scene with regards to civil rights. One of the first articles was written in 1975 and called “Toward Black Political Empowerment – Can the System Be Transformed.” (2) This sparked multiple articles discussing empowering the black community, but it also ignited the use of the word in other circles. In 1978, the social work community utilized the word in an article entitled “From Service to Advocacy to Empowerment.” (3) Still other groups, from political entities to health organizations, latched on to the word citing it in articles such as “Grassroots Empowerment and Government Response” in Social Policy (4) and “Counseling for Health Empowerment.” (5)

The term really took off with literature discussing empowerment of marginalized peoples, such as women and the poor, and especially with regards to community development. For example, in 1983 the Women’s Studies International Forum discussed empowerment of women in “Power and Empowerment.” (6) From then until now, the literature has increasingly been focused on these issues. In 2010, articles were published entitled “Power and empowerment: Fostering effective collaboration in meeting the needs of orphans and vulnerable children” (7) and “Women empowerment through the SHG approach” (8) that demonstrate just a few ways how empowerment is being discussed in the academic community.

So while we can see that the word empowerment as been used by many different groups, how has it been used? What does the term mean? In a paper written by Solava Ibrahim and Sabina Alkire entitled “Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for internationally comparable indicators”, they document thirty-two different definitions of empowerment that are currently in use. (9) However, most of the definitions define empowerment in terms of agency, “an actor’s or group’s ability to make purposeful choices,” (10) and it is easy to see that these two terms are intricately linked. In fact, Ibrahim and Alkire define empowerment simply as the expansion of agency. Another source that views empowerment in this way is the article entitled “Well-being, Agency and Freedom” from The Journal of Philosophy.

The author characterizes empowerment as a person’s freedom to do and achieve the desired goals (11). This framework of empowerment focuses on the individual. Other authors take a slightly more narrowed approach, taking into consideration the institutional, social or political structures rules and norms within which the actors make and pursue their choices. This is how the World Bank measured empowerment in their World Development Report 2001; (12) by the existence of choice, the use of choice, and the achievement of choice.

In “Empowerment in Practice from Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, Bertelsen and Holland, they define empowerment as the process of enhancing an individual’s capacity to make choices and then transforming those choices into the sought after outcome (13). Similarly, in an article written in 2002 entitled “Empowerment and Poverty Reduction” by Narayan, the definition of empowerment is seen as increasing poor people’s freedom of choice and action to shape their own lives (14).

All these authors demonstrate their definition of empowerment as the relationship between agency and structure. What these authors can all agree upon are some overall themes of empowerment. First of all, empowerment is very multidimensional and it can be exercised on many different levels and domains (15). Empowerment can look different at the individual level versus the community level, and it can look different in the state versus the market. Empowerment is also relational, for it occurs in relation to whom a person interacts with. Authors like Narayan (16) and Mason (17) are quick to point out that empowerment is not a zero-sum game, but rather different types of power, such as power over, power to, power with, and power within. Finally, the literature stresses that empowerment is extremely culturally specific, and this can be seen in articles written by Malhotra and Mather (18), Mason (19) and Narayan (20).

Empowerment is related to the norms, values and beliefs of a society; therefore empowerment can be revealed differently in different societies. The term empowerment may have some general agreed upon qualities and definitions in the academic community, but how the word is used in organizations or among individuals may still vary.

  1. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development” by Malhotra et al from The World Bank (2002)
  2. “Toward Black Political Empowerment – Can System be Transformed” by Conyers, J. in Black Scholar 7:2 (1975).
  3. “From Service to Advocacy to Empowerment” by O’Connel, B in Social Casework 59:4 (1978).
  4. “Grassroots Empowerment and Government Response” by Perlman, J. in Social Policy 10:2 (1979). in Personnel and Guidance Journal.
  5. “Counseling for Health Empowerment” by Sternsrud, R.H. and Sternsrud, K. in Personnel and Guidance Journal 60:6 (1982).
  6. “Power and Empowerment” by Moglen, H in Women’s Studies International Forum 6:2 (1983).
  7. “Power and empowerment: Fostering effective collaboration in meeting the needs of orphans and vulnerable children” by Wallis A. in Global Public Health 5:5 (2010)
  8. “Women empowerment through the SHG approach” by Augustine D in Indian Journal of Social Work 71:4 (2010)
  9. “Agency and Empowerment: A proposal for internationally comparable indiciators” by Ibrahim, S and Alkire, S in Oxford Development Studies (2007) pg 6.
  10. “Agency and Empowerment: A review of concepts, indicators and empirical evidence” by Samman, E and Santos, M from Human Development Report (2009).
  11. “Well-being, Agency and Freedom” by Sen, A.K. in The Journal of Philosophy LXXXII (1985).
  12. World Development Report 2001: Attacking Poverty from the World Bank (2001)
  13. “Empowerment in Practice From Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M., and Holland, J. from World Bank (2006)
  14. “Empowerment and Poverty Reduction” by Narayan, D. from World Bank (2002)
  15. “Empowerment in Practice From Analysis to Implementation” by Alsop, R., Bertelsen, M., and Holland, J. from World Bank (2006) pg 19.
  16. “Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives” by Narayan, D. from The World Bank (2005).
  17. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment: Learning from Cross-National Research” by Mason, K.O in Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (2005)
  18. “Do Schooling and Work Empower Women in Developing Countries? Gender and Domestic Decisions in Sri Lanka” by Malhotra, A. and Mather, M. in Sociological Forum 12:4 (1997)
  19. “Measuring Women’s Empowerment: Learning from Cross-National Research” by Mason, K.O in Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (2005)
  20. “Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives” by Narayan, D. from The World Bank (2005).

The Trap (and Paradox) of Large Development Funding

Official development assistance in 2005 (Source: Wikipedia)

By George Stetson, Ph.D.

During the last decade many of the major development players (the World Bank, USAID, the Swedish International Development Corporation) have embraced participatory development as a critical part of any successful development endeavor. One might even say that “participation” is now an essential part of the mainstream development discourse. In many respects, this is a good thing and, undoubtedly, the result of the tireless work of grassroots advocates, local NGOs, and the many peoples throughout the world that have struggled against the exclusionary and unjust practices of dominant society (governments, cultures, corporations, etc.).

But is it enough for the grassroots to “participate” in the development process? Leaving aside the profound ethnocentric (and Eurocentric) connotations of the entire conceptualization of modern “development,” even in the best case scenarios I would argue that the way that large development is currently structured makes it incapable of delivering development from the bottom up; it is inherently a top down game where big development dictates, controls and decides the content of development. Why? One of the reasons (and there are many) is related to what I would describe as the “trap of large development funding.”

Most philanthropic development (this excludes military aid) is funded and delivered through large development agencies and NGOs that work as subcontractors for these same agencies. In general, these development agencies, in spite of their rhetoric about “participatory development,” are structured around a preconceived development agenda. Take the case of Latin America. According to a recent study on the “Main Philanthropy Trends in Latin America,” more than 45% of funding to the region came from large development agencies, followed by NGOs (30%), foundations (15%), and private companies (9%). USAID was the largest contributor in 2008 to Latin America and gave approximately $1.5 Billion in philanthropy to the region. On the USAID website they explicitly state that most of their funding is reserved for development priorities already established.”1 USAID makes it painstakingly clear that they will only accept applicants (or NGO partners) that “are focused on projects with clear objectives that fit within program priorities.” In other words, if NGOs want to obtain USAID funding, they must adhere to USAID’s development agenda, which as we know is based on the strategic interest of the US. Currently there are some 592 NGOs that are registered with USAID.

Moreover, most NGOs and PVOs are focused on single sector issues (environment, health, education, poverty, etc,) which, in a sense, structure development around the specific issues and concerns that these organizations have decided to embrace. Therefore, if grassroots practitioners coming from the “developing” world want any sort of financial assistance, they must somehow try to fit within the project scope of these NGOs.2 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, focuses on improving health, reducing extreme poverty in the development world and improving high school education in the United States. These are all worthy goals. However, think briefly about how this model is funded. A financially solvent foundation establishes what they consider to be the most pressing, urgent problems in the world, they market the foundation, and are even able to attract individuals to donate to what are no doubt worthy causes. If local people from the developing world want to be beneficiaries, they must become part of this model. First, they are forced to conceive of their project from the perspective of the foundation (or NGO, or development agency) and, second, they either must develop quite sophisticated grant-writing skills, be lucky enough to be chosen by project administrators or have excellent contacts with the foundation. In short, not only is it exceedingly difficult to get funding if you are a grassroots organization, but if you are lucky enough to get funding, you must adhere to the “program” or development agenda of the foundation, development agency or organization.

It is important to repeat that many NGOs (including NGOs that work through USAID and other development agencies) embrace participatory, bottom-up development approaches and conduct important work in the field of development. Moreover, NGOs, like Village Earth, clearly need funding to carry out their work. The trap, as we at VE see it, is that funding model is structurally conditioned so that development, even in the best cases, is conceived, organized and implemented from the top. That is, the structures that are currently in place produce a model in which the grassroots must somehow fit into the development scheme of large development agencies or NGOs that are subcontractors or NGOs that work on single sector issues.

The paradox is that the overwhelming majority of giving comes from individuals. According to Giving USA’s Annual Report on Philanthropy, in 2009, of the $304 billion in charitable giving in the US, 75% ($227 billion) came from individuals, followed by foundations (13%), bequests (8%), and corporations (4%).3 In other words, even though individuals are by far the largest contributors (at least in terms of philanthropy) to development, most development work is funneled through large development organizations. Again, this means that NGOs, foundations and development agencies, most based in the US, are the main orchestrators of philanthropic resources. This does not mean that all single sector development work is negative, nor should it imply that individuals should refrain from giving to philanthropic organizations located in the US. However, given the structural constraints of this funding model, we argue that it is important to re-think the issue of funding for development.

At Village Earth we are engaged in the creation of an alternative funding model that is designed to crack (and eventually break through) these existing barriers and structures. The overall objective is to create a model in which people from the grassroots are able to access funding in the US (or anywhere else), without having to depend on large donors, development agencies or somebody else’s development agenda. There are two fundamental aspects to our approach:

1) While we will always continue to support grassroots actors, we are actively developing relationships with what are often called “intermediary organizations.” These are organizations, usually located in the developing world (or Global South), that work directly with grassroots actors, have years of experience, and a wealth of knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, are fully immersed in the local context. Rather than “parachuting” NGOs into a foreign country, with plenty of funding (sometimes too much) but without a deep understanding of the local context, we would rather partner with intermediary organizations that often have everything but the resources to carry out their work.

2) We are developing a comprehensive support network designed to help grassroots and intermediary organizations access the critical resources needed to carry out their mission and vision. First, we are working to help these organizations build their own individual donor base, which offers more flexibility in terms of any sort of preconceived development agenda. At Village Earth, our work on Pine Ridge and in Peru has been successful precisely because of the individual donor bases that we have been able to create to support these projects. Second, we are helping these organizations establish the fiscal and legal status to obtain funds directly from philanthropic organizations and development NGOs. This includes establishing a “fiscal sponsorship” to provide the 501(c)(3) status to utilize funds from a grant or to provide a tax-free exemption for interested individual sponsors. Third, to promote their projects and ideas and enhance their image, we are providing these organizations with training on new social media and web-based technologies. Forth, we are assisting these organizations to locate key strategic allies in the US and abroad. This includes locating social and political advocates that support their cause and legal and political experts that provide critical information on relevant issues. It also includes connecting these organizations with organizations in the US that have similar experiences or compatible interests. For example, Latin American indigenous organization might develop alliances with Native American organizations in the US that have shared experiences of colonization and marginalization.

The overarching goal is to create a network of support such that grassroots and intermediate organizations are able to effectively pursue their own development agenda and to take the leading role in their own development process. The trap of large development funding is, in reality, the lack of mechanisms in place that allow intermediate organizations to access the vast amount of resources (both financial and non-financial) that exist in the US. In fact, by not directly supporting these organizations, we are wasting some of the most precious resources that already exist in the Global South. Paradoxically, the current model also prevents individual donors from having the freedom to choose from a vast array of capable organizations with a wealth of knowledge and experience in grassroots development.

1 “Guide to USAID’s Assistance Application Process and to Submitting Unsolicited Assistance Applications.” Go to

2 Indigenous peoples, for example, have had serious conflicts with environmental organizations when indigenous and conservation interests collide. See Mac Chapin, “A Challenge to Conservationists,” World Watch, November/December 2004.

3 “Giving USA 2010: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2009, Executive Summary,” Giving USA Foundation, The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Go to

Topics discussed in this post are also discussed in the following Village Earth online courses: Approaches to Community Development, & Development and the Politics of Empowerment

New Course on Challenges Facing Small Scale Farmers

In order to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the poverty alleviation programs for smallholder producers will have to be as effective as possible and attract the active participation of as many beneficiaries as possible. A new Village Earth course Challenges in Smallholder Agriculture will evaluate how this might be accomplished by looking at some of the subtle factors that can enhance or hinder the overall effectiveness of programs benefiting small scale agricultural producers. During this process, the course will challenge some of the fundamental premises upon which the development effort has been based. For example, it will investigate the caloric energy smallholders can access relative to what they are expected to exert. This may have a major impact on the number of hours they can be expected to work each day, as well as alter estimates for how many days it will take for them to complete tasks associated with implementing development programs. Finally the class will evaluate the mechanism through which assistance is funneled to smallholders and the role the community as a whole can play in the effort. To register for this or another Village Earth course, please visit our online training courses.

Expanding Our Support of Community-Based Conservation


In the protection and management of natural resources, it is widely agreed that human social, political, cultural and economic systems must be part of the equation. In recent years, community-based and collaborative conservation have been increasingly recognized as alternatives to the dominant paradigm of top-down, expert-driven management. However practitioners of collaborative and community-based conservation efforts must be cautious about moving forward too quickly, as community groups often have low levels of organizational capacity that may pose a challenge to rapidly managing complex natural systems. This is especially true in collaborative efforts that involve multiple stakeholders. In such efforts, taking into account relationships of power among stakeholders will help ensure greater equity as well as the promotion of local livelihoods and sustainability. The literature also suggest that special emphasis should be placed on empowerment at the community-level and especially with traditionally marginalized groups. According to Agrawal (1999) “local groups are usually the least powerful among the different parties interested in conservation. Community-based conservation requires, therefore, that its advocates make more strenuous efforts to channel greater authority and power toward local groups. Only then can such groups form effective checks against arbitrary actions by governments and other actors.”

If, as Agrawal suggest, empowerment at the local-level should be our priority, where do we start? Brown (2002) has identified a set of internal and external challenges that community-based organizations face. Externally, community-based organizations are challenged by a lack of legitimacy and accountability with the general public; relating with institutions of the state, such as government agencies; relating with institutions of the market, such as businesses; and relating with international actors, such as development agencies that provide funding support. However, efforts by governments and NGOs to build the capacity of community-based organizations without destroying what makes them so unique in the first place (e.g. local focus, their spirit of volunteerism and solidarity) is not easy (Powers, 2002; Brown, 1989). Powers et al offers the following advice: “We believe it may be most effective if INGOs go beyond decentralizing their operations and cease being operational in the field. This can be done by forging ties with autonomous local NGOs which have a proven commitment and track record in handing over controls in the development process to the communities where they are working. To the degree that terms for partnership can be negotiated equitably, the imperative for standardized and impersonal mass reproduction of one strategy, which ironically is often only magnified (rather than adapted) in the process of decentralization, can be significantly curtailed.”

Heeding to the advice of Powers and others, over the past 8 years, Village Earth has developed and refined, what we believe to be a viable approach to supporting local organizations. However, we face our own challenge in scaling-up. On Pine Ridge and in Peru we have had to develop numerous innovative strategies to catalyze the development of local voluntary organizations. In both cases, funding was not available from the outset.

Rather than seeking out large, all-encompassing grants which require specific predetermined outcomes and timelines, which oftentimes function to alienate local organizations from their founding mission,

we have sought to work together with community organizations to help them do their own fundraising for strategic sectors that they identify. Our “Adopt-A-Buffalo” program is a perfect example of this sort of grassroots fundraising where the idea and the model came from a local organization, and Village Earth simply helped them to implement it. In exchange for our help we are able to retain a percentage of the income raised. This not only created a sense of accomplishment amongst the local group, but also gave the them a sense of ownership and commitment to the success of the fundraising program.

We have found that one of the primary obstacles for community-based initiatives is the lack of organizational legitimacy and accountability needed by informal community groups to access resources. For example, in our projects on Pine Ridge and in Peru we have found that there exist many informal community groups who have great projects, but have not quite been able to access resources because they are not incorporated, they do not have a bank account, that they have not fully articulated a decision making process, etc. Village Earth has catalyzed the development of these groups by serving as a temporary fiscal sponsor, allowing them to “piggyback” on our organizational structure while we work together to build the capacity of theirs. As the flow of resources increase, we gradually help increase the organizational capacity of these groups to match the increased need for accountability, while avoiding structuring too fast. As a wise Lakota Elder said, “community groups are like pails of water, if you move too fast, the water sloshes out.”

Our vision, in the next few years, is to refine and expand our package of support services to dozens more local voluntary organizations around the world. Affiliated organizations would have access to a number of helpful services that would expand their capacity to reach their goals and receive funding.

We are currently starting discussions with potential partners in new regions and are working to develop a system for formalizing these relationships to expand our support of grassroots groups.

Village Earth Offers New Course in Community-Based Forest Management

In recent years, more prominence has been given to the potential of community-based use, management and conservation of natural resources as a way to sustainably use and conserve natural resources, while improving the livelihoods of rural people. Community-Based Forest Management has been hailed by advocates for its effectiveness in promoting conservation and maintaining traditional livelihoods, while simultaneously developing local economies. For these reasons, Village Earth has developed an online course on the topic, as we believe that it will help  development practitioners in applying this innovative and respectful approach to resource management.

In the past, forest policy was based on the notion that indigenous people using the forests were ignorant and destructive. However, many practitioners and experts are now realizing that these local communities are actually the most interested parties in the sustainable management of their forests, given that it is their source of life. Additionally, local communities are often top experts on the forest ecosystem. Using these concepts, community-based conservation (CBC) approaches aim to involve local people in the management of natural resources and to adjust management practices to their needs. This course will review the scope and significance of CBC, as well as the best practices in the support and establishment of such initiatives. If you are interested in joining GSLL 1520 Community-Based Forest Management (which will run for its first time starting June 24, 2011) please visit our website for more details. You can also review our other course offerings in our growing program.

Access All Village Earth Videos on YouTube for Free

After just over a week on YouTube, we are were already ranked 46th most viewed non-profit channel on the site!

Help us promote our videos on YouTube!

  • Watch and leave comments for each video
  • Rate the videos you like
  • Subscribe to Village Earths’ channel on YouTube and receive updates when new videos are added.

Below are some of the videos available.



“Por El Rio Tigre” is a community-based film workshop with Kichwa, Zapara, and Bora communities in the Rio Tigre region of Peru. The expedition took place over 5 weeks, November through December of 2006. The community-based film workshops, developed by Village Earth, allow entire communities to work together link past, present, and possible futures into a shared narrative with the express purpose of communicating with outsiders to raise awareness and support for their situation while attempting to mitigate the distortion or framing of issues by outsiders.



“Children of the Anaconda” A community-based film production facilitated by reflexive films and Village Earth. Paromea Ronin Bakebo (Shipibo for “the Children of the Anaconda) illustrates the visions and hopes of the Shipibo people of Peru’s Amazon Basin, who struggle to protect their way of life and natural resources against the threats from outside interests encroaching upon their traditional lands.



“Rezonomics” A documentary on the eclectic and inventive survival strategies of residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, navigates the seamless web of economic and social relations of the Oglala Lakota, challenging the Western European notion of economy, which separates the “rational” economic from the embedded moral, normative, and reciprocal relations at play in many indigenous and rural communities.

This film has been produced by the Department of Anthropology of Colorado State University, Village Earth, and Reflexive Films. Filmmakers: Ralf Kracke-Berndorff, Raúl Paz Pastrana, David Bartecchi

Festivals: DocsDF, Mexico City’s Documentary Film Festival, 2006 (; EthnoFilmFest, Völkerkundemuseum München, 2010

Village Earth Welcomes New Board Chair

On Saturday, November 13th Village Earth Board and Staff held our annual board retreat in Windsor, Colorado. During the meeting, we discussed a number of strategic directions we would like to pursue in the upcoming year. Importantly, we also elected a new chair of the board. Carl Hammerdorfer (pictured above) will replace Jerry Kennell as our board chair.
We are pleased to welcome Mr. Hammerdorfer to his new role, and given his experience in the world of development and education, we trust that he will play a key role as Village Earth embraces its next phase of growth and development. Mr. Hammerdorfer is currently the director of Colorado State University’s Bussiness School program Global Social and Sustainable Enterprises. Prior to his work at CSU, he acted as Bulgaria country director for Peace Corps and CEO of the Mainstreet Cooperative Group.

We would also like to take this opportunity to thank our out-going Board Chair Jerry Kennell. Mr. Kennell has used his expertise to help see Village Earth safely through our post-founder era. He has been intregal in the creation and execution of our Annual Maury Albertson Gala, honoring one of our late founders. Village Earth has greatly appreciated his work, and looks forward to Mr. Hammerdorfer’s leadership as he seeks to fill Mr. Kennell’s shoes.

Amongst the topics we discussed, we focused largely on setting the agenda for areas of improvement within Village Earth. We discussed how the environment and world systems have altered since our founding, and what we are doing and will do to address new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. We brainstormed at length about how we can improve our ability to support grassroots’ efforts through a variety of services.

We hope that our efforts, in conjunction with our new leadership, has laid the foundation for a productive and exciting year increasing our capacity to better serve the communities with which we are allied.

Village Earth Footage to Appear in Smithsonian Exhibit

Village Earth footage of our work with Shipibo communities in the Peruvian Amazon over the last six years is slotted to appear in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in an exhibit entitled Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

This exhibit is scheduled to be on view at the NMAI, George Gustav Heye Center, New York, New York, opening October 23, 2010 through 2020. Proceeds from the sale of the footage are going to support projects in Shipibo villages such as land demarcation and the Shipibo Radio Network. Village Earth is pleased to share our work with the Smithsonian NMAI, and we encourage you to check out the exhibit if you are in the New York City area.

Training Iraq’s Young Leaders

In late July, Village Earth provided two days of curriculum for college age students from Iraq. The diverse set of approximately 20 Iraqi students was selected from all over their country to take part in a summer exchange program.
Colorado State University was one of only two universities chosen to host students. The other was the University of Southern Indiana. The Colorado curriculum focused on civic engagement and social advocacy. Village Earth provided a four-day training on community mobilization and building support through proper framing of your message. The group used this training to generate their Facebook page, Iraqis Will.
Beside increasing cultural understanding within Iraq and between the US and Iraq, the leadership exchange program helped students design action plans for projects that they will implement upon their return to the country. This is the second year that Village Earth has provided training to young Iraqi leaders.