Community Four’s CEO Gavin Ackerly uncovers the systemic structures that are stifling social advancement in our communities, and lays out the path his organisation is taking to unlock the enormous potential our communities hold to make their world a much better place.  

It is no secret that established social assistance models are failing to address the structures that cause chronic disadvantage within our communities. This is no more true than in the humanitarian field where long term poverty and disenfranchisement of displaced communities are widely accepted as a fact of life. It seems that everyone from CEOs of large NFPs to front-end staff of grassroots organisations are aware that their sector’s mission has somehow changed from trying to solve systemic problems, to trying to live with, and even benefit from them.

If you think I sound a bit cynical, here’s a quote from T. Alexander Aleinikoff, when he was UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in 2014: “We have created, and many of us in this room have benefited, from establishing a regime, an industry, a culture of dependency where humanitarian relief becomes long term assistance.”

In 2015 as part of my Churchill Fellowship, I traveled abroad to develop new thinking on how to change the paradigm Aleinikoff was describing. One of the most enlightening moments came from a conversation I had with an executive from a large refugee agency. Like many conversations on that journey, it inspired me to see the root causes of seemingly intractable problems in a completely different light.

It was late morning and I’d traveled a great distance to be sitting across the desk from a tall, middle aged American guy. He had his chin resting on his knuckles, looking at me with much disinterest and, I felt sure, contempt. We were in the offices a large multinational refugee agency and the interview for my research fellowship was ending before it had really begun.

15 minutes earlier, I had introduced myself and asked Greg* about his work. He had told me that he was a veteran in the humanitarian aid field. He’d spent the last two decades in Africa running development projects.

I’d told him about the focus of my research, that I had created a community based model of assistance whilst working with people seeking asylum in Australia. And to help me progress the model further, I wanted to discover how other organisations were undertaking community led work. I’d said that my visit to his organisation was a last-minute suggestion from a contact.

However, Greg seemed completely disinterested in what I had to say.  The conversation went downhill quickly and he soon made it clear that he felt this meeting was a waste of his time. Eventually, I got tired of trying to make things work and stood to leave.

‘Hang on,’ Greg said in his drawl. ‘Let’s go grab some lunch.’

I reluctantly agreed.

On the way out, he took me on a tour of the agency building. It looked the same as all the other settlement agencies I had ever visited or worked at. People from a wide range of cultural and geographic backgrounds, sitting and waiting for someone or something. They all seemed to have that same disassociated look on their faces, the same look that Greg had had when I was speaking to him. I’m sure they too were probably wishing they were somewhere else. But unlike Greg, they smiled during my interaction with them. Maybe they felt they had to, or maybe they were happy that someone had noticed they were there.

Then it struck me how surreal this all was. These people, with all their extraordinary histories and experiences, stuck hidden in these winding, paint chipped corridors, just waiting. To be honest, it made me feel frustrated and, coupled with my disappointing interview, made me want to get the hell out of that place.

Outside the building, Greg led me across a carpark and we eventually sat down in a restaurant. It was at that point, he said these words, ‘If I see another un needed water treatment plant being dumped into another African village that doesn’t need or want it, I’m going to throw up”.  

The words dropped into a momentary silence. I was shocked that Greg had opened up in such a candid way. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had heard what I had just heard. After a moment, I asked how this could still be happening. Community development principles of giving the community what it needs, not what you think it needs, had been around for decades. How could it be that this type of practice was still being used by the aid sector?

‘I’ll tell you why,’ Greg said. ‘It’s the funding chain.’

He went on to explain:

Someone somewhere decides there should be a water treatment plant in some town in Africa. It could be a government, an agency or an individual. They put a tender out.

An executive in an aid agency looks at the tender. They think, ‘We’ve never done water treatment before, but we’ve got 20 staff we’re going to have to put off unless we get some funding.’ So they put together a submission. And because they don’t know what they’re doing, they undercut all the other agencies. They are eventually awarded the contract from a donor who is seeking value for money.

The ‘winning’ aid agency soon realises that there isn’t enough money to do the project properly. There’s no time or resources to consult with the community or to use local skills and labour. For expediency, external contractors are called in to do all the work.

The first the recipient community knows of the project is when the contractors arrive and ask where they want the water treatment plant. Many of the communities already have fresh water or don’t see the benefit of having the plant. Many of them are used to things happening without consultation, some of them get sick of saying no. Eventually, they all just go along with it.

After the plant is installed the problems begin. Because the community has never been consulted, the questions were never asked: Who will pay for the fuel and maintenance? If people have to pay for the water, what about those who can’t? And most importantly, do they even want or need a water treatment plant? And so a new plant soon becomes an unused plant and is ultimately left to rust.

But a discarded water treatment plant is not the biggest problem. The conservative culture of the aid sector compounds an already futile situation. In every industry, mistakes get made, but in the aid sector people see failure as something unnatural, something to be hidden. This failure adverse culture means the water treatment plant contractor doesn’t want to go back to the aid agency and say they put in a plant that no one wanted. The aid agency doesn’t want to go back to the donor and say they got it wrong because they didn’t know what they were doing. And the donor doesn’t want to go back to the trustees, or the public, and say they just wasted a whole heap of money. And the only people who really know what failure looks like are the recipient community, and no one has the resources or the desire to speak to them.

Some time passes and then the next tender is opened for more water treatment plants in Africa.

I don’t know if I caught Greg on a bad day. Maybe he was exaggerating. But in my experience, all he said rang true. After that meeting, I traveled to many other organisations in the UK, US, Europe and Africa. I researched over a dozen cutting edge organisations in the global community led movement. I saw the best of what humanity can achieve. And I learnt a lot.

One of the most important lessons is that size really does matter. The people who are really making a difference in the world today, who are achieving that rare beast of program innovation in long term challenges are in small organisations who work closely and in equality with the community. People like Latino Health Access in the US, Migrants Organise in the UK, and COBERWAS in Uganda. These organisations are breaking bold new ground, because they work day in and day out alongside the people who know what works and what doesn’t, the community. And this doesn’t mean simply having volunteers or staff from the community working in their organisations. I mean the organisation operates under a completely different paradigm. One where the community has true ownership within the organisation. One where there is no us and them, but simply collaborative and interdependent community members – all working toward a shared purpose.

I also learnt that large organisations are nearly always too self-focussed to really want to disrupt the status quo. They are satisfied with the self-perpetuating nature of their work, because the distance (both physical and experiential) between their decision makers and the actual community is so wide and so full of middlemen that the status quo is too easily palatable, and even desired.

I eventually returned home to Australia, a man on a mission!

I began intensely exploring the ideas: what if we took the ‘small and connected’ notion to the next logical step? What if, instead of running programs within the bricks and mortar of an agency, we ran them within, and on the terms of, the community? What if eventually we had the individuals in that community designing and running the programs instead of outsiders? What if donors funded these communities directly and the community members themselves were able to choose the level and mode of agency involvement. And, ultimately, what if the next wave of humanitarian assistance came from the very people that receive or have received humanitarian assistance, and through their experience of disadvantage we worked together to create advantage? Could we actually build a model where disadvantage begins to undermine itself?

Last year, I co-founded Community Four with my friend Baqir Khan. And together, with a growing number of brave explorers, we embarked upon a journey to find the answers to these complex questions, all through the lens of Symbiotic Innovation, the model that I scratched out 4 years ago.

Our first big step began last week with a young man, Redeer Omar. A person who came to Australia as a refugee and is now turning the tables and bringing self-empowerment to the refugees in his country of origin. He has an exciting and intelligent plan to build a large greenhouse in a refugee camp in Duhok, Northern Iraq. His plan was created through his collaboration with the people of the refugee camps and his own native knowledge and networks in the local economy.

You realise when you see Redeer’s story, that this is what long term humanitarian assistance should be about; not large and complex organisational structures, but people who have lived through a tough experience guiding others to do the same. It’s a model that relies on individuals like you and me to provide support and funding directly to people like Redeer, rather than to big brand agencies. It is a decentralised approach that removes much of the bureaucracy and middlemen that typically undermine the process of people helping each other. It is a model that puts the human back into humanitarian aid.

For us at Community Four, it’s the only logical way that the chain which binds millions of displaced people to eternal disempowerment can be broken.

To learn more about Community Four visit:

Please visit Redeer’s Project at: