Supporting Grassroots Initiatives from a Distance

Emma Gray, with art by Tina Smaile

The ‘Middle East’ is a diverse group of states with greatly differing GDP per capita between places within. Particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, the geographic region was hit with difficulties accessing healthcare for some and economic struggles because of companies shutting down production. Alongside this there is also historical and ongoing conflict in places like Syria and Palestine which negatively impacts the ability for people to access healthcare and sustainable living solutions. Thus, the international community has been trying to produce ways to get involved in development in the area, without overly intervening and leading the projects themselves i.e., supporting grassroots initiatives. Grassroots projects refers to initiatives that have been founded by local actors who are actively aware of the needs of the community through lived experience. The Refugee Entrepreneurial Fund (REF) was set up under the University of St Andrews’ Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies to support grassroots development projects in the ‘Middle East.’  Over the past year, the REF has supported these projects with a team of mentors and a student board who have been documenting the progress made by these initiatives and where their awarded funding has been spent. These projects cover a wide range of areas including sustainable local food production, mental health awareness and safer drinking water – thus making the fund strongly in favour of supporting sustainability efforts where financial support and mentorship can help speed up the process of making sustainable living solutions a reality faster. Additionally, by remaining remote from the projects, the REF can positively reduce its impact on the environment by regulating project directives to reduce travel costs and CO2 production. 

In accordance with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, these initiatives focus on improving access to resources such as food, water, and increased wellbeing in order to improve general living conditions. As such, it is fair to presume that by aiding one goal, others will follow directly.  

For example, Shatha al-Azza’s rooftop garden in the UN Aida Refugee Camp is primarily about increasing access to food; however, it also encourages increased wellbeing through community involvement whilst also providing training to local youth. In producing seasonal vegetables and creating space for Palestinian communities to come together, particularly amid recent Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Shatha’s project has experienced much success. The funding the REF has provided helped pay for raw supplies and although mentorship was included as part of the award. The team have been carefully attempting to provide guidance from a distance without interfering in the desired direction of the projects. In another project supported by the REF, Saleh El Sadi’s ‘Blue Filter’ initiative in the Gaza Strip has tried to tackle clean water accessibility issues in an area that has been known to have poor water. Not only is the initiative designed to provide clean irrigation water to the local communities, but the chemicals used to create this filter can be recycled to become fertilisers for local farmers, making this an incredibly sustainable project. Saleh El Sadi reports that the project is well on track to having a long-term positive impact on the environment, having used the REF’s funding to pay for training delivery and the purchase of raw materials. As such, the REF has provided support at a distance for this local sustainable start-up without intervening in the direction of the project. 

The REF’s support of successful grassroots projects in the ‘Middle East’ signifies the importance of supporting local development initiatives from a distance as it provides resources to the people who are likely to be most aware of where in their community needs assistance. This is in juxtaposition to an external international organisation with little groundwork in the area who may assume what will best benefit the community based on their own subjective opinions where they live. Supporting the entrepreneurs who have first-hand experience with local issues is beneficial because it prevents Western led efforts to derail the support that has been carefully planned to target where the entrepreneur feels it is most needed. This is common with some NGOs and governments feeling they are helping to encourage development but inadvertently implementing their own ideologies on other cultures. For example, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been accused of pushing their own agenda at the harm of local residents in Africa and Asia. In 2020, an independent report revealed that there were known human rights abuses by WWF staff against indigenous communities within the conservation areas the organization alleged to protect in their global agenda in preventing species extinctions. Despite the UN asserting that these indigenous groups were allowed to live on the land, some WWF staff saw this as a threat to animal conservation in the areas they worked in. Although this is a much wider scale problem compared to the funding and guidance the REF is trying to provide, it reveals how some international organisations fail to consider the needs of local communities by focusing on their own development plans.

As such, the Refugee Entrepreneurial Fund has proven that it can pay for Western organisations and directives to support grassroots initiatives from a distance rather than intervening and pushing forward their own agenda. Successful projects like the hydroponic rooftop garden and the irrigation water filter (see above for links) have revealed how supporting local development plans can create highly sustainable resources for local communities. The REF supports initiatives that focus on sharing medical knowledge in communities that lack healthcare access, increasing local food production and making water suitable for farmers. These projects are in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (see above) because by increasing local community access to necessary supplies like water and food, they can maintain better wellbeing which in turn increases their likelihood of getting education and later a job. Therefore, benefitting one UN goal is likely to lead to the successful attainment of many more. In addition, these projects have proven that outside funders serve as better support mechanisms from a distance to make a positive impact. This is because by maintaining a distance from the projects themselves, the REF has been able to help fund the project start-ups without overly inputting suggestions from non-locals who may be unaware of the best way to help.

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