When evaluating the prospects of success for a grassroots initiative in society, the classical dilemma between “Bottom-Up” or “Top-Down” seems a bit old fashioned. The issue decisive for success is nowadays increasingly recognized in the ways the two approaches interact and complement each other. This is, however, easier said than done, as in reality, we are faced with two tendencies, which are not so easy to reconcile. It has been noticed that, while people wish to communicate their ideas to the decision-makers, as directly as possible, the networks of institutionalized intermediaries attempt to remain in their classical positions as firmly as ever, if not even stronger.

For most grassroot initiatives it is most important that the proposals and requests actually correspond to the genuine, objective needs of society, and that they are presented with clear and credible arguments, easily recognizable by the public.

Looking at prosperous democracies, there is little doubt that the possibilities for “people” to succeed with their initiatives are actually growing. More than ever people are not necessarily relying only on institutionalized communication channels (like political parties, professional and business associations, and established NGOs). This is the consequence of:

  • more educated population (in OECD countries 30-40% of 29-34 years olds have university diplomas);
  • the ease of communication in the digital era;
  • frequently lack of openness and dynamism of the existing institutional frameworks - facing complexity and speed of changes requiring their response.

As a result, we can observe the real mushrooming of grassroots initiatives and local action groups – pushing for reforms and important changes. This has actually become an important feature of present-day urban, as well as rural political reality – from local, to international level. We shall look at this phenomenon particularly in the context of the European Union, whose institutions are welcoming and proactively supporting these trends.

Sources of demanded changes

There are basically two essential changes in modern society, generating requests for never-ending adjustments in the socio-economic system:

  • unprecedented dynamism of technological changes – affecting how we work and live;
  • expectation of people to be able to influence the nature and intensity of changes in society – fulfilling their genuine needs.

Actually, the strength of democracy is to a large extent recognized and classified by its effectiveness of expression and articulation of interests evolving from the grassroots, and often finishing in legitimate changes of legislation and policies.

The growing institutionalization of modern societies have a double impact on these processes: on one hand, it facilitates the efforts of identifying an adequate organization that will accept a given initiative, while on the other, some leaders of relevant organizations – perhaps not being initially invited to join the initiative, may feel offended and could on that basis even take a negative position against such an initiative.

From where do most of these initiatives usually come from? There is no clear, easily recognizable pattern, and the picture differs from country to country, and from culture to culture. In some environments, the tradition of “societal verticalism” is still rather strong – particularly in young democracies – while in others the grassroots initiative is very strong, but there is even a feeling that “well organized vested interests are running the country” (particularly in the USA).

An important feature of modern political systems is the process of “secularization” or “de-ideologisation” of political parties, and – as a consequence – understandably, an increased role of party leadership. The impact of this process is at least double: the more pragmatic political party programmes should leave more space for membership initiatives, and people should use political parties more often for the promotion and defense of their interests. To what extent is this actually happening? There is no single answer, but the general tendency seems to be that parties are mostly used as mobilizing mechanisms for attracting voters. Behaving accordingly, political parties have lost in public lots of prestige, and therefore their capacity to mobilize people for needed changes is rather limited.

Principal challenges

With a more educated population than ever in history, members of societies are expecting their legitimate interests to be properly taken into account. However, political scientists and sociologists generally agree that this is only partly being realized, leaving the electorate disappointed or even disillusioned.

The serious global challenges – linked also to economic uncertainties, lack of responsibility of most governments in the domains of environmental, economic and social sustainability – are gradually being realized by a bigger share of people. We are slowly realizing that humanity is facing a crisis that requires immediate and serious focus. Unless we shall undertake in the next 5-10 years some fundamental changes (as adopted in UN SDGS 2030 Strategy), humanity faces very grim prospects in practically every domain of public life: starting from food production and consumption, safe and environmentally energy generation, health management, education and training, sustainable production and use of products and services, and last but certainly not least, the whole attitude towards the environment.

When the questions are posed how come so little is done, the sad reality is that a large majority of people are simply not aware of the seriousness of the situation. Only a minority is actually aware, but still not ready to do anything serious to change, and only a fraction of this minority is determined to undertake whatever it takes to prevent the obvious global catastrophe.

Why the political parties and many other organisations are doing so little? Obviously, the majority of their members do not realize the dramatic extent of the problems, while some leaders do not want to admit having been aware of the problems, but did not put these issues on the agenda. Their behavior is obviously linked to their interest to avoid personal responsibility for lack of needed action.

Unfortunately, the tendency to avoid facing unpleasant truth, when accepting responsibility, is a part of human nature, but when we are looking at elected representatives and people in positions of power, this is definitely not acceptable and should not be tolerated. Transparency is the first rule of democratic government.

What makes civil society action groups effective in the modern political environment? In order to be well perceived and accepted in their socio-political environment, these groups need to fulfill the following criteria:

  • issue: addressing relevant, sufficiently practical problems (like garbage management, eliminating trouble spots in urban circulation, introducing urban green surfaces, etc.) – with a clear focus and priority;
  • leadership: capable and credible leadership, characterized by relevant expertise, openness, good communication skills and personal integrity;
  • policy aspects: action programmes to be “political” only to the extent of taking into account the real political environment in which they operate – in other words, they should be operational and pragmatic;
  • quality of argumentation: offering simple and direct argumentation – easily penetrable to people’s mind-set, with well formulated answers to anticipated opponent views;
  • research base: collaboration with recognized research organisations from academia and elsewhere;
  • access: to relevant organisations and institutions, responsible for preparing and adopting legislation in the specific domain;
  • networked with like-minded, potential partner organisations, locally and at international level.

Features of urban action groups

Challenges experienced in the modern urban context – which various grassroots action groups, in various levels and forms of associations address – are numerous. They cover, among others, primarily the following thematic domains:

  • environment protection – particularly clean air and garbage management;
  • effective circulation and mobility;
  • energy supply;
  • proper integration of business activities into the local environment;
  • quality of drinking water;
  • greening of cities;
  • protection of cultural heritage;
  • provision of basic services to all urban inhabitants;
  • equal rights for all ethnic groups.

Not unexpectedly, many urban action groups are making systematic efforts to link, associate and network with similar groups at regional, national and international levels. This is particularly important, as it allows them to exchange information on problems faced, as well as on relevant experiences and achievements. They often even act together – gaining better access to relevant knowledge and expertise, increasing their influence, as well as improving their chances for productive results of their efforts.

Through these processes, the action groups – particularly through their international associations – are developing bigger impact also at the international level, so it is not surprising that the European Commission is funding several of these associations at the EU level.

This fits into EU general approach of trying to encourage local partnerships for area development work through a specific and structured governance mechanism. In the Leader Programme these groups are referred to as the Local Action Groups (LAG). Involvement in such partnerships means that the people who were previously the passive 'beneficiaries' of a policy, become active partners and drivers of their area's development. In the EU framework of program documents, this is a defining characteristic of Community-Led Local Development.

The well-known Leader Program (links between the rural economy and development actions) has addressed with Cohesion resources initially local rural developments, supported National Rural Networks, and the European Network for Rural Development with technical support.

Since 2014-2020, funding period Leader has expanded to include also fisheries and urban areas. Within Leader/CLLD now there are over 3,000 local action groups, covering over 60% of the total EU rural population.

Another interesting service is also the Evaluation Knowledge Bank, which has covered by end of 2021 even 61 outputs and 25 projects and initiatives.

Some of the EU programmes supporting local initiatives and partnerships are the following:

  • Urbact is the European Territorial Cooperation Program (est. in 15 years old) –using Cohesion and Regional Development funding facilities of EU; in Leipzig, a data bank of urban development experiences has been created;
  • Community Led Local Development CLLD Urban Network, created in 2015 in Lisbon, bringing together over 150 associations – (for example the Slovenian Chapter consists of 37 groups, during 2014-2020 received 96.3 mil. € );
  • Far Net - fishing local action groups network(300 LAGs in 21 EU member states);
  • Ergo Network – focusing on Quality Audits of Roma Communities.

Closing Thoughts

Local action groups – relying on grassroots initiatives – are certainly a valuable instrument of democracy, as they mobilize and connect socially concerned and often highly knowledgeable, motivated and experienced individuals and institutions. They are active in developing responses to issues of conditions of life, which political parties, government institutions and other establishment actors are not sufficiently aware of, or hesitate to introduce them into the public debate.

The European Commission is right to recognize the contribution of the local urban and rural action groups. It is financially supporting also their associations and projects proposed by their members, particularly through Cohesion funding, the European Social Fund, as well as the resources of the European Territorial Cooperation Programme. The volume of financial support should be essentially bigger, as these projects undoubtedly reflect the real needs and interests of European citizens. On the other hand, the same cannot always be claimed for the projects selected by the governments of member states - as they sometimes serve the electoral interests of the respective ruling parties.

Networking among local action groups is very important, as it spreads the good practice across Europe and beyond, and deserves all possible support, from all available sources – including national, and EU programmes.

National governments and regional authorities should also be more open to supporting and interacting with grassroots initiatives, which sometimes fail due to a lack of some modest funding. This is a real irony since we are talking of a few percent of the resources to be created or saved by the proposed projects – a clear case of wasted opportunities.

Finally, these groups should pay more attention to the quality and convincing power of their communication – which is essential for the success of any grassroots initiative. Often it is worthwhile engaging some communication specialists because their professional touch will make lots of difference, sometimes even saving the project from being ignored or rejected. Surely this is a matter of expenses, but among their supporters, the groups would normally also have one or more communication specialists – ready to help on a voluntary basis.

Sources used and further reading

Walled Urban Economies, Five Critical Steps toward Integrating Lagging and Leading Areas in the Middle East and North Africa.
Climate Center, A greener future for the world’s cities: low-cost urban action for community volunteers.
Edwards, W.J. Goodwin, M. Pemberton, S. and Woods, M. (2001). Partnerships, power, and scale in rural governance. Environment and Planning C, 19(2): 289-310.
European Commission (2010). A European strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
European Committee of the Regions (2019). The CoR’s contribution to the renewed Territorial Agenda, with special emphasis on community-led local development, Brussels 7-9 October 2019.