Village Earth

History and Mission of Village Earth

Village Earth helps reconnect communities to the resources that promote human well-being by enhancing social and political empowerment, community self-reliance and self-determination. We do this by strengthening intermediate and grassroots organizations through fiscal sponsorship, networking, training, research and advocacy.


Village Earth (originally called the Consortium for Sustainable Village-Based Development or CSVBD) was born at The International Conference on Sustainable Village-Based Development hosted by Dr. Maurice Albertson and Dr. Edwin & Miriam Shinn and held from September 28 – October 2 , 1993 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Co. The conference was attended by over 250 delegates from 40 different countries who came together to discuss how to make aid more effective at reaching the grassroots. More than 200 papers were submitted forming five volumes of Proceedings. By the end of the week-long conference, the organizers were given the mandate by the participants to form the CSVBD to promote the strategies developed during the conference. The CSVBD was officially incorporated as a U.S. Federally recognized 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization in 1995 and later renamed Village Earth.

The conference, as well as the roots of the Village Earth approach, were heavily influenced by Agenda 21 which came out of the United Nations Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro on June 14, 1992. In particular, Village Earth drew from its recognition that poverty is not the problem, rather, lack of access to resources is the primary obstacle to building a better life for the majority of the world’s poor. As such, the the Village Earth Approach emphasizes the role of intermediary organizations who work to mobilize village leadership and planning and from that, develop linkages to resources institutions such as governments, single sector NGOs, universities and the private sector. This type of organization is commonly referred to as a Grassroots Support Organization or GSO.

Philosophy and Guiding Principles of Village Earth

Village Earth was founded on the belief that poverty is not the problem, but rather, merely a symptom of the larger problem of individuals and communities becoming disconnected from the resources that contribute to human well-being. We believe that the real challenge that we face as a global community is how everyone can have access to the resources needed to live well without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same. Defining the problem in this way refocuses it away from the so-called “third-world” and recognizes the international connections between the consumption of resources, inequality and poverty. To overcome this challenge, we believe that as a global community we must place greater emphasis on sustainable development and the sharing of power and resources with marginalized populations. We believe these two strategies must be interconnected to be truly effective and that we cannot rely on those who benefit from the current system to lead the way forward. Rather, marginalized communities must be empowered to lead the way for us all. Inspired by the concept that all humanity lives in a single global community or village, the Village Earth approach was designed as more holistic, just and equitable model of development that recognizes the right of ALL people to be active participants in that global community. The Approach works by “assisting disadvantaged individuals and groups gain greater control than they presently have over local and national decision-making and resources, and of their ability and right to define collective goals, make decisions and learn from experience” (Edwards & Hulme, 1992, p. 24). In the spirit of Ghandi’s philosophy of swaraj, Village Earth is focused on enhancing the control and management that marginalized communities have over their resources. Doing so not only contributes to their well-being but also increases their capacity for self-determination. This is especially relevant for indigenous communities whose culture is often intimately intertwined with their environment and who oftentimes define progress very differently from Western market-oriented societies.

We believe that the only way to empower grassroots organizations is to… well, empower grassroots organizations. That means creating structures and relationships that ensure that we and our allies are accountable downward and not disproportionately upward to funders. Some of the principles we follow to ensure this include:

Making a Long-term Personal Commitment to Communities

We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization. The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people-based organizations are empowerment of members of the community, decentralized decision making, context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making, which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities. Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community and a unique process grows out of that input.

Working as Allies vs. Project Managers

This starts with a genuine willingness to listen and learn from the people within the communities they are allied with. To take the time necessary to develop relationships based on trust, solidarity and mutual accountability, they suspend any preconceived notions they may have about what is needed and instead create a space for the community to develop and/or share their vision for the future and the strategies that might move them towards it. In the spirit of Freire, we believe that by working together as allies in praxis (an intentional cycle of planning, action and reflection) communities can identify and eliminate the objective sources of their oppression. But also, we as outsiders can learn how our own relative privilege is intertwined in that oppression. In this way, empowerment is a mutual process. The genuineness and reciprocal nature of this relationship is the basis for developing genuine trust and solidarity at the grassroots.

Focusing on the Community’s Long-term Vision vs. Band-aid Approaches that Just Address Symptoms

Instead of focusing on “problems” Village Earth’s and its allies facilitate communities in developing a long-term holistic vision for their region. Unlike focusing on problems, a holistic vision allows communities to imagine the world they would like to live in. You can deal with problems forever, yet never deal with the underlying contradictions behind poverty and powerlessness. Identifying a vision first makes it possible to identify and prioritize exactly what it is that is preventing you and your community from creating a better situation. The visioning process becomes the starting point for the ongoing praxis process described in the previous point and also forms the baseline for future assessment, monitoring and evaluation where individuals and communities come together to reflect on the progress of their various strategies and whether they are moving them towards their vision. But we have also found that through praxis, the vision becomes clearer and more broadly shared. Starting with a community’s vision also empowers communities to define progress on their own terms rather than having to adopt Western models and practices. This is why the Village Earth approach has been particularly successful with indigenous communities who may define progress is ways that are very different from Western donors and NGOs. To help ensure long-term sustainability, our model calls for the creation of both a short term (5-10 years) as well as a long-term (seven generations) vision. In this way, communities can reflect upon the impact that their decisions today will have on future generations.

Making a Long-term Personal Commitment to Communities

We believe the only way to ensure genuine accountability to the communities we are working with is by creating and maintaining organizational structures built around trust, solidarity and mutual accountability. Within this framework the concern is not just with the final outcome, but with how the outcome is reached and how the people within the framework contribute meaningfully to the organization. The people become actors working to build the system, instead of being subjected to it. Key features of people-based organizations are empowerment of members of the community, decentralized decision making, context specific practices and policies, and an emphasis on the importance of trust between the employees of the development agency and the people with whom they are partnering (Korten 1984). While people based organizations are certainly still concerned about desired outcomes, the process by which the outcome is reached is organic and can be changed as needed. Such organizations are more responsive to the places in which they work and location specific needs, as opposed to being bound by the ways in which they work and trying to replicate generic processes. A central feature of such organizations is a bottom-up flow of decision making, which enables the organizations to foster participatory development within communities. Projects and needs are met on an individual basis, evaluated with the input of the community and a unique process grows out of that input.

Training in Sustainable Community Development

One of the primary mandates for Village Earth when it was founded was to provide training in participatory community-based development and that has been one of its primary activities. In particular, the organization was and remains focused on an approach to development referred to today as grassroots support organizing. From shortly after it’s formation in 1993 to 2003 Village Earth hosted numerous short courses at Colorado State University and around the globe for various NGOs, Government’s and international organizations. The two-week training Participatory Practices for Sustainable Development was our flagship training which we used to host once or twice per year. In 2003 we started offering our curriculum online as a certificate program in partnership with Colorado State University. Over the years we have expanded this program to include 17 different courses. Click here to learn more about the Online Certificate Program in Sustainable Community Development. In 2006 Village Earth developed a 2-day short-course in Community Mobilization for chapters of Engineers Without Borders and have delivered that course to EWB chapters throughout the country.

Global Affiliate Program

Village Earth serves as a support structure for grassroots and intermediate organizations that foster the long-term empowerment of marginalized populations and communities. If you are interested in becoming an affiliate of Village Earth please contact Village Earth via email at [email protected] Below are the steps in the review and approval process for new affiliates.
Steps for Approval
  • Initial interest expressed by group
  • Village Earth replies with packet of responsibilities and guidelines of partnership
  • If the group is still interested, we arrange a conference call to assess compatibility of mission
  • If the mission is compatible and both parties are still interested, Village Earth requests that the
    organization/group submits a formal application
  • Projects committee reviews applications makes recommendation to boards of organizations to
    approve/disapprove
  • If approved, Village Earth representative is assigned to work with group to develop a Memorandum of
    Agreement that clarifies the roles and responsibilities for each party
  • Organize an orientation training to begin to utilize services offered by Village Earth.