Cover image courtesy of The Green Belt Movement.
Written by Daniel Jackson, The University of Oklahoma
This article dives into how grassroots organizations are limited in providing the most effective aid that they can by examining the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization based in Kenya.
The definition of a grassroots organization is an organization that employs the local community to provide aid . These organizations can be involved in a wide variety of issues around the world. The Green Belt Movement, an organization based in Kenya, is a prime example of a grassroots organization. Dr. Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement, which is an environmental organization, in Nairobi, Kenya in 1977, which has since grown to have offices all over the world. This organization works with the local community, specifically, the women of these communities, to improve the environment surrounding them and also improve their livelihoods . The local environment that supplies these communities with basic resources like firewood, food, and water, is suffering, causing the women in these communities to have to work harder and harder to gather necessities. To combat this problem, the Green Belt Movement gave local women the resources to grow seedlings and plant them to help bind the soil and provide firewood. These women were also paid for their work. Dr. Maathai was a Kenyan native-born in 1940. She came to the United States and obtained a master’s degree before returning to Nairobi to get a Ph.D. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree . Maathai was a member of the National Council of Women, and in 1976, she proposed the idea of planting trees as a community-based aid program. Dr. Maathai became world-renowned, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. The Nobel Committee noted that Maathai “stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic, and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.” This quote shows that Maathai not only had the goal of planting more trees around Kenya but also had the goal of helping the local people further help themselves by giving them the encouragement and resources to do so, which she did through creating the Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement’s vision statement, “A values-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner world” , and their focus on improving “environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point” , and on empowering women reflects Maathai’s ideals. Grassroots organizations like the Green Belt Movement have several limitations that inhibit them from providing the most efficient amount of aid because they have a lack of workers that have professional knowledge on the issues they deal with, can be seriously affected by political agendas that their stakeholders have, lack the ability to properly develop the communities they are trying to help and can be more focused on fulfilling the desires of the people who are funding them and distracted from giving the most efficient aid.
This organization has four different broad categories of activity that they participate in. These categories include tree planting and water harvesting, climate change, mainstream advocacy, and gender livelihood and advocacy. The following paragraphs expand on each of these categories, starting with the first one.
The first category that the Green Belt Movement is involved in is tree planting and water harvesting. To guide their tree planting, the Green Belt Movement takes a watershed-based approach, which looks past political boundaries. This approach focuses on how the natural land is laid out and how the water naturally flows. The Green Belt Movement makes their decisions on where they plant trees based on these natural water flows. This approach works towards conserving the biodiversity of the environments around these local communities. There are over four thousand communities that the Green Belt Movement utilizes to construct this watershed-based approach . By employing the local communities, the Green Belt Movement tries to instill a sense of pride in the environment, hoping that the community will help preserve it in the future.
The second category that the Green Belt Movement is involved in is climate change. The Green Belt Movement tries to educate the rural communities on what climate change is and what exactly they can do to fight against it. The Green Belt Movement also wants to show how impactful the local community level can be on the overall national levels of climate change issues. The need for intervention in climate issues in Kenya is very large. Forest cover has fallen from twelve percent in the 1960s to two percent today, which is a large drop . Because women are the ones most in charge of the domestic and livelihood aspects of the families, they are more vulnerable to the effects that climate change has on these villages. Most of their time is spent looking for food and resources, which keeps getting harder and harder due to the scarcity of trees and water. This is why the Green Belt Movement employs local women to directly combat the scarcity of resources by planting trees and improving water sources.
The third category that the Green Belt Movement is involved in is mainstream advocacy. The Green Belt movement advocates for political accountability and the growth of the democratic space in Kenya. They also fight for the end of land grabbing, deforestation, and corruption . The person behind the Green Belt Movement’s push for advocacy was Dr. Maathai herself. She became internationally known for her fight for advocacy, working with groups like the ePeace tent Initiative. She also was known for fighting for the protection of several forests, including Uhuru Park, Karura Forest, and Jeevanjee Gardens, all of which are forests in Kenya that were being threatened with deforestation . For example, the Green Belt Movement was successful at getting the Government of Kenya to cancel its proposed plans to build a massive skyscraper in the middle of Uhuru Park in Nairobi . The Green Belt Movement has been able to successfully implement community-based projects around Kenya to increase public support and to grow their advocacy work.
The fourth category that the Green Belt Movement works with is gender livelihood and advocacy. They do this by combining their grassroots approach with their international advocacy. By empowering the local communities in Africa to protect and improve their environment, there has been an impact seen across the continent of Africa. These impacts are seen in the food security and water harvesting adaptations throughout the continent, along with the implementation of the proper techniques for planting trees in the most efficient places. Internationally, the Green Belt Movement fights to ensure that the forests in sub-Saharan Africa are protected . The Green Belt Movement uses a program called the Community Empowerment and Education program to educate the local community members in how their activities affect their environment. This gives the locals the knowledge to change their activities to best support the environment that produces the resources they need. This also allows for the community members to be better connected to their environment, making them better able to fight for the environment and stand up for their rights . This organization’s experience shows that when the local community is educated on the environmental issues present in their communities, they are more likely to spend their efforts in protecting them. While doing this, the Green Belt Movement puts women in decision-making positions to promote gender equality and equity, which is a problem that reduces the productivity of the area.
The National Council of Women of Kenya, which is the organization that Maathai partnered with to create the Green Belt Movement, has the goal of promoting a positive image of women through the Green Belt Movement. They do this by involving women in roles that allow them to participate in and develop the Green Belts, which also creates a model for other women to follow that shows significant achievement from women. This involvement allows women to assist in the reforestation of the environment and to generate a source of income for themselves, something that is not common in these local communities . The Green belt Movement provides these opportunities to these women by purchasing seedlings and then redistributing them to the local communities for no cost.
The Green Belt Movement also employs disable persons in order to give them a sense of belonging to their communities. The employment of disabled people benefits them the same way as employing women benefits them. It gives them a better understanding to advocate for the protection of their environment. Giving these people a sense of connection with their community through their environment reduces the amount of them that leave to move to more urban areas . Disabled persons move to more urban areas to look for work that is more suitable for them or to pursue charity. By giving them work in their own community, the Green Belt Movement is reducing the number of disabled persons that leave their homes and strengthening the communities.
Now that the background and goals of the Green Belt Movement have been established and analyzed, we will analyze why a grassroots organization like the Green Belt Movement is limited in what they can do and also does not always efficiently provide the aid they are providing.
First, according to several articles and scholars, there are some limits to having an organization that uses grassroots techniques to provide aid ; . One of the limits that grassroots organizations have, including the Green Belt Movement, is the lack of professional workers. A lot of issues that these organizations work with require a certain level of expertise that these organizations lack. Specifically, in employing local community members, there is a very limited amount of work that can be done. Grassroots organizations “offer relatively limited managerial skills and technical expertise at the local level; and they have limited technical capacity for complex projects and limited ability to sustain projects after foreign funds are withdrawn” . Local community members have limited education and no expertise on the issues that these organizations go in to fix. By employing these uneducated people, these organizations can only have them do things that they know how to do. In the example with the Green Belt Movement, there is a lack of expertise on how water flows naturally in the environment and also on how to take care of the trees. The organization has a very rigorous process before they give any community trees to plant, which includes minimal education about how to take care of the plants. These locals are expected to keep these trees alive and know what to do if something goes wrong with the trees. The Green Belt Movement occasionally sends around a member to check to see if the local communities are properly taking care of the trees and offer advice on how to fix issues that arise. This is limited though because they can only offer the advice, they cannot ensure that the locals will follow it or ensure that the locals completely understand how to fix the issues. Another example of this is with a village with a single irrigation system. There is a certain requirement of knowledge of how to set up and design the system. There is also the need for expertise to maintain and fix a system that is not taken care of. These examples show how using local members of communities can limit the work that grassroots organizations can offer and actually do, no matter the goals of the organization.
Another limitation that grassroots organizations have is that these organizations can be seriously compromised by political agendas. Political agendas can seriously hinder the value of a grassroots organization as an agent of change and development. Grassroots organizations have been used by developing governments to establish control over the locals. These organizations are used as vehicles for the governments to establish top-down political control over the local people involved rather than aiding in fixing poverty issues and other issues at hand. Grassroots organizations “exist chiefly as a mechanism for appropriating aid resources to channel them to non-development ends” . While this quote may be a little harsh on the existence of these organizations, it does bring some light to how grassroots organizations can sometimes be used to push political agendas and control instead of providing aid. The Green Belt Movement is no exception to this limitation. In 1989, the government of Kenya announced that they were planning to build a skyscraper valued at $200 million in the middle of Uhuru Park . This park is located in downtown Nairobi and is one of the only places for many Kenyans to take a break from city life and enjoy nature. The Green Belt Movement was one of the leading oppositionists to this building being built because “the proposed complex would encroach on the park and diminish its usefulness as a public recreation site” . The Green Belt Movement found trouble in gathering support for its opposition. Maathai made requests to the court and the Attorney General to support her opposition but was denied. The President of Kenya, President Moi, addressed Maathai, saying “she had no right to criticize the government because African tradition requires women to respect men” . Maathai continued to fight against this construction and was always met with criticism from the government. Eventually, the government ended the proposed construction of the building, but the Green Belt Movement suffered from the journey it took to get that outcome. The Green Belt Movement lost the few connections it had with the government that allowed them to be as successful as they were. The organization also lost members because they feared that being involved in the Green Belt Movement would have negative political consequences for them . This situation in the Green Belt Movement’s history shows how political aspects can drastically affect and limit the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.
The third limit that grassroots organizations have is that they do not necessarily have the ability to actually develop the people that they are providing aid to. A quote from an article that unpacks the politics of the development that these organizations try to provide says, “Poor people’s ability to affect power on their own terms is not necessarily transformative, nor does it have to lead to the improvement of people’s lives. The outcome of participatory processes at the local level may not critically engage broader processes of development” . The author then goes on to say that these organizations should not be romanticized because of their inability to cause actual development. Here, it is shown that grassroots organizations sometimes aim towards improving the livelihoods of the people that they are helping, but fail to actually cause the people to develop into a more independent community able to rely more on itself than anything else. It takes more than just grassroots organizations to develop a community and provide an actual long-lasting change. In the Green Belt Movement, this limitation can be tied to the lack of professional knowledge in the local community. Local communities are tied to the Green Belt Movement after they receive the seedlings because the locals do not always know how to take care of the Green Belts being established. The organization sends out professional workers to monitor the seedlings and make sure that they are being taken care of. These workers also instruct the locals on how to fix any issues and complications that may arise in the process of growing these trees. By doing this, the Green Belt Movement is causing these local communities to rely on it for their Green Belts to be successful.
The last limitation that grassroots organizations have is that their goals and aid are swayed by the people who fund them. The people that fund organizations all have their own agendas and what they would like to see done, and organizations that receive large monetary donations can feel obligated to support or further the agendas of the donors in order to keep the funding for the future. This can directly affect the effectiveness of the organization’s aid. Organizations are pressured by their donors to become professional and efficient. Becoming professional means that the activists should be engaged or qualified in the profession and the donors want to see these activists approach their rights aid as a profession. Becoming efficient means “performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort” . This is elaborating toward being able to effectively write reports and reach targets and then submitting them to the donors on time. Becoming efficient can have a drastically negative effect on being effective because “being effective is about doing the right things while being efficient is about doing things right, no matter how far you have moved away from human rights “activism” to be part of an efficient management team” . Aid organizations should only be worried about being as effective as they can be at providing the aid that they provide, but the donors can pressure these organizations into becoming more worried about hitting goals and making reports look good. Becoming professional completely changes the way activists are able to conduct themselves. It establishes a lot of policies that were not in place before, creating a limiting environment that the activists are required to follow and conduct themselves by. The activists tend to become more worried about these policies than being able to effectively provide aid, which limits the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. This issue is increased the more the funding of the organization is increased. “The increasing funding of NGOs by official donor agencies thrusts the question of legitimacy into center stage, for if NGOs are becoming more responsive to external concerns, are substituting for government and are growing larger on the basis of foreign funding, what is happening to the links – to their values and mission, and to their relationships with ‘the poor,’ supporters and others – through which they derive their right to intervene in development” ? The answer to this question is that it weakens the links with these groups of people because the focus is taken away from these groups. When the focus of the organizations is shifted from the groups of people being helped to the groups of people funding the organization, the connections that these organizations have with the communities receiving aid become severed. The Green Belt Movement has a long list of corporate partners listed on its website . Each of these partners has expectations of the Green belt Movement that have an effect on the effectiveness of the organization. These corporations need reports that the Green Belt Movement provides. As shown above, these reports can have an impact on and shift the focus of this organization.
To finish, there are several limitations that grassroots organizations have that prevent them from providing the most effective aid that they are capable of providing, including that they lack professional workers to provide the proper aid, can be overtaken by political agendas, sometimes lack the ability to develop the local communities they are trying to develop, and are pushed to do more efficient instead of effective by their donors. Grassroots organizations have a limit to the aid they can give because the local people they employ are only capable of doing so much with their limited knowledge. Political agendas can overrun an organization and make it into something to control locals instead of aid them. These organizations sometimes lack the ability to actually develop the local communities to be independent. Donors take the goals of the organization off of the locals and more towards their desires. By examining the goals of the Green Belt Movement, we can see how the limitations of grassroots organizations directly limit a lot of the aims of these organizations.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
Cockram, Rebekah. Agents of Rights-based Justice: Wangari Maathai and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. 2017. https://doi.org/10.17615/z6ww-et95.
Cstraight Media. “Climate Change.” Climate Change | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/climate-change.
Cstraight Media. “Corporate Giving.” Corporate Giving | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/corporate-giving.
Cstraight Media. “Gender Livelihood and Advocacy.” Gender Livelihood and Advocacy | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/gender-livelihood-and-advocacy.
Cstraight Media. “Mainstream Advocacy.” Mainstream Advocacy | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/mainstream-advocacy.
Cstraight Media. “Wangari Maathai.” Wangari Maathai | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai.
Cstraight Media. “What We Do.” What We Do | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/what-we-do.
Cstraight Media. “Who We Are.” Who We Are | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are.
Edwards, Michael, and David Hulme. “Too Close for Comfort? the Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations.” World Development, Pergamon, 23 Feb. 1999, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0305750X96000198.
“Goals of the Green Belt Movement.” The Green Belt Movement, blogs.uoregon.edu/thegreenbeltmovement/goals-of-the-green-belt-movement/.
Grassroots. (n.d.). Retrieved May 04, 2021, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grassroots.
Greenbelt Movement, www.womenaid.org/press/info/development/greenbeltproject.html.
Pant, Sunil Babu. “Why Grassroots Activists Should Resist Being ‘Professionalised’ into an NGO.” TheGuardian.com, The Guardian, 2017, www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jul/07/why-grassroots-activists-should-resist-being-professionalised-into-an-ngo.
Sinwell, Luke. “Transformative Left-Wing Parties’ and Grassroots Organizations: Unpacking the Politics of ‘Top-down’ and ‘Bottom-up’ Development.” Geoforum, Pergamon, 23 Dec. 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016718511001990.
Taylor, Bron. (2013). Kenya’s Green Belt Movement: Contributions, Conflict, Contradictions, and Complications in a Prominent ENGO.
Thiesenhusen, William C. Difficulties and Tensions in Institutionalizing Grassroots and Other Civil Society Organizations during the Transformation and Post-Reform Periods, www.fao.org/3/Y8999T/y8999t03.htm.
 Grassroots. (n.d.). Retrieved May 04, 2021, from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/grassroots.
 Cstraight Media. “Who We Are.” Who We Are | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are.
 Cstraight Media. “Wangari Maathai.” Wangari Maathai | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai.
 Cstraight Media. “What We Do.” What We Do | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/what-we-do.
 Cstraight Media. “Climate Change.” Climate Change | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/climate-change.
 Cstraight Media. “Mainstream Advocacy.” Mainstream Advocacy | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/mainstream-advocacy.
 Cockram, Rebekah. Agents of Rights-based Justice: Wangari Maathai and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. 2017. https://doi.org/10.17615/z6ww-et95.
 Cstraight Media. “Gender Livelihood and Advocacy.” Gender Livelihood and Advocacy | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/gender-livelihood-and-advocacy.
 Greenbelt Movement, www.womenaid.org/press/info/development/greenbeltproject.html.
 “Goals of the Green Belt Movement.” The Green Belt Movement, blogs.uoregon.edu/thegreenbeltmovement/goals-of-the-green-belt-movement/.
 Thiesenhusen, William C. Difficulties and Tensions in Institutionalizing Grassroots and Other Civil Society Organizations during the Transformation and Post-Reform Periods, www.fao.org/3/Y8999T/y8999t03.htm.
 Sinwell, Luke. “Transformative Left-Wing Parties’ and Grassroots Organizations: Unpacking the Politics of ‘Top-down’ and ‘Bottom-up’ Development.” Geoforum, Pergamon, 23 Dec. 2011, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016718511001990.
 Pant, Sunil Babu. “Why Grassroots Activists Should Resist Being ‘Professionalised’ into an NGO.” TheGuardian.com, The Guardian, 2017, www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jul/07/why-grassroots-activists-should-resist-being-professionalised-into-an-ngo.
 Cstraight Media. “Corporate Giving.” Corporate Giving | The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/corporate-giving.
 Edwards, Michael, and David Hulme. “Too Close for Comfort? the Impact of Official Aid on Nongovernmental Organizations.” World Development, Pergamon, 23 Feb. 1999, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0305750X96000198.