This article traces the rise and decline of a grassroots community organisation in rural Senegal. It has three aims. First, it problematises the sometimes idealistic nature of the rhetoric and literature on community-based development. Second, it suggests three factors that contribute to the effectiveness of rural self-help organisations: educated and technocratically skilled leadership, unintentionally benevolent state neglect, and a willingness to syncretically recycle elements of ‘traditional' social order and culture in the service of contemporary development tasks. Finally, the demise of the community-based organisation examined here suggests a need to shift focus away from the institutionalisation of community-based or civil society organisations per se, and to consider instead the routinisation of the participatory, empowering, and deliberative socio-political conditions that make possible the regular emergence of new grassroots organisations across time within a given community. Recent events (since 2005) in the village in question support this shift, as a new generation of community leaders has begun to craft a new community organisation, explicitly built from the detritus of the older organisation described in this article.