PARTICIPATION BY ALL:
The Key To Sustainability of CRS/ Niger’s Food Security Project
Valuing Voices is delighted to share our sustainability evaluation of Catholic Relief Service Niger’s PROSAN project . This project that ran from 2006-2012 in Niger and was implemented by three NGOs: CRS, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), and Helen Keller International (HKI) under the direction of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Food for Peace (FFP) as a multi-year assistance program (MYAP) to support food security activities in the Dosso, Tahoua, and Zinder regions. PROSAN focused on increasing agricultural production and agro-enterprise, improving household health and nutrition status, reinforcing the capacities of health agents, and enhancing community resiliency.
Here are the highlights from the report which itself is an excerpt from a longer analysis we did. Also please note one Annex highlights the similarlties/ differences we found to USAID/ FFP’s 4 elements of sustainability:
AIM, METHODS, AND RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The aim of this sustainability evaluation was to explore perceptions of sustainability from Nigeriens involved in PROSAN, former CRS staff and donors. It focused on evaluating participants’ adherence to project outcomes and their creation of new innovations. It also evaluated partners’ involvement in sustaining project outcomes.
This evaluation used qualitative and quantitative methods including community mapping, focus group discussions, beneficiary interviews, and key stakeholder interviews. The evaluation was carried out in six communities in the Dosso region, with more than 500 interviewees, focusing on the following research questions:
- Sustainability of activities and groups: Are the communities sustaining the activities three to five years after the end of the project? What can we learn from the communities and their post-project implementation partners?
- Spread and unexpected outcomes: If the project was considered a success in the eyes of the community, how well did it spread?
- Fostering Sustainability: What are the long-term prospects for continued sustainability?
Three years after PROSAN’s conclusion, the project was considered a success by community members, national partners, the implementer (CRS), and donor (USAID) staff. The main findings include:
1. SUSTAINABILITY OF ACTIVITIES AND GROUPS
Eighty percent (80%)[*] of all activities were reported to have become self-sustained and community innovations have emerged:
- On average, households reported moving from being food secure for 3-6 months per year during PROSAN to 8-12 months at the time of this evaluation, which is a remarkable impact .
- Women reported greater income through the increase in sales of food that was produced and processed due to the grain mills .
- Respondents also reported improved household health, hygiene, and nutrition, with 91% of survey respondents indicating that their health and sense of well being had improved, especially through the efforts of the health posts and clinics that CRS helped build and the government of Niger’s efforts in sustaining them with resources and staff .
Community groups/committees have continued and are well-supported by NGO partners:
- 81% of the committees set up by PROSAN were functioning at the time of this evaluation, with many participants discussing ways to sustain best practices within their communities, and members still receiving regular trainings or updates .
- Several new and refresher trainings come through national partners, NGOs, and new channels such as radio programs .
- Some new NGOs and international organizations have built upon PROSAN’s success, for instance, by using land previously managed by PROSAN for a new vegetable gardening training program, building hygiene programs on past health awareness efforts, or extending agricultural credit for further inputs .
Twenty percent (20%) of implemented activities were not sustained or have stagnated:
- While hygiene practices were sustained by households and there was widespread latrine construction, sanitation was poor in the villages, and most latrines had fallen into disrepair .
- Fewer than 50% of women reported practicing exclusive breastfeeding for children less than six months of age .
- While almost half of all health committees no longer exist, new health clinics staff have replaced some of the work of the committees with health and agricultural promotion messages now being sent via radio, television, and cell phones .
- Literacy training and theater groups have completely ceased .
- With the exception of the Système Communautaire d’Alerte Précoce-Réponses aux Urgences’ (SCAP-RU) SCAP-RU early warning system which has expanded, other resilience activities such as roadwork and caring for the environment are a lesser priority due in part to the lack of food and cash-incentives to continue doing them .
2. SPREAD AND UNEXPECTED OUTCOMES
New innovations and ceased activities reflected the project’s legacy:
- Community innovations have emerged such as collective funds paying for cleaners of the new health center, community-imposed sanctions for births occurring outside of the health centers, and the monitoring of savings from well water sales.
- National partners have praised the project, with many lamenting its withdrawal. One non-PROSAN village told an Agriculture Ministry staff and potential NGO partner that “No one should bring a program here unless it is like PROSAN.”
- PROSAN-trained masons, well repair technicians, and village youth have learned land recuperation techniques (zai holes, bunds and demi-lunes) that helped generate income beyond project communities.
- Project activities that received free inputs have largely stopped being implemented once the incentives were withdrawn such as Food for Training (FFT), Food for Work (FFW), or Cash for Work (CFW) (e.g. literacy, seedlings, latrines, theater etc.); nonetheless the inputs were highly valued and have continued to support agriculture and health (carts, bicycles).
3. FOSTERING SUSTAINABILITY
The following areas were identified as potential barriers to sustainability that could be systematically explored in other projects:
- Although most committees are still functioning, there are no processes in place to engage and train youth and new inhabitants of the villages.
- While village communities have been maintained, there is an increasing lack of ministry resources (e.g., staff, transportation, and communications) to take the place of NGOs like CRS after a program ends.
- There is little management of knowledge around project data, which is further exacerbated by staff changes in NGOs, government ministries, and donors. Project data (proposal content, monitoring data, evaluation results, participant lists, partner names, and exit agreements) must be managed ethically, locally and be held online, accessible for future projects to use and for villages to conduct self-evaluations.
The full report is available here:
 Cekan, J., PhD, Kagendo, R., & Towns, A. (2016). Participation by All: The Keys to Sustainability of a CRS Food Security Project in Niger. Retrieved from https://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/research-publications/participation-all
[*] Percentages were calculated as a combination of the number of activities that had been continued and the percentage of participants which continued them.
What’s likely to ‘stand’ after we go? A new consideration in project design and evaluation
This spring I had the opportunity to not only evaluate a food security project but also to use the knowledge gleaned for the follow-on project design. This Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS) project “Building Resilient Community: Integrated Food Security Project to Build the Capacity of Dedba, Dergajen & Shibta Vulnerable People to Food Insecurity” (with Federation and Swedish Red Cross support) was targeted to 2,259 households in Dedba, Dergajen and Shibta through provision of crossbreed cows, ox fattening, sheep/goats, beehives and poultry which were to be repaid in cash over time as well water and agriculture/ seedlings for environmental resilience. ERCS had been working with the Ethiopian government to provide credit for these food security inputs to households in Tigray which were to be repaid in cash over time. During this evaluation, we met with 168 respondents (8% of total project participants).
Not only were we looking for food consumption impacts (which were very good), and income impacts (good), we also probed for self-sustainability of activities. My evaluation team and I asked 52 of these participants more in-depth questions on income and self-sustainability preferences. In Tigray, Ethiopia, we used participatory methods to learn what they felt they could most sustain themselves after they repaid the credit and the project moved on to new participants and communities.
We also asked the to rank what input provided the greatest source of income. The largest income (above 30,000 birr or $1,500) was earned from dairy and oxen fattening, while a range of dairy, oxen, shoats and beehives provided over half of our respondents (40 people) smaller amounts between 1,000-10,000 birr ($50 to $500).
And even while 87% of total loans were for ox fattening, dairy cows (and beehives) which brought in farm more income, and only 11% of loans were sheep/goats (shoats) and 2% for poultry, the self-sustainability feedback was clear. In the chart below, poultry and shoats (and to a lesser degree, ox fattening) were what men and women felt they could self-sustain. In descending order, the vast majority of participants prioritized these activities:
To learn more about how we discussed that Ethiopian participants can self-monitor, see blog.
So how can such a listening and learning approach feed program success and sustainability? We need to sit with communities to discuss the project’s objectives during design plus manage our/ our donors’ impact expectations:
1) If raising income in the short-term is the goal, the project could only have offered dairy and ox fattening to the communities as their incomes gained the most. Note, fewer took this risk as the credit for these assets was costly.
2) If they took a longer view, investing in what communities felt they could self-sustain, then poultry and sheep/goats were the activities to promote. This is because more people (especially women, who preferred poultry 15:1 and shoats 2:1 compared to men ) could afford these smaller amounts of credit as well as the feed to sustain them.
3) In order to learn about true impacts we must return post-project close to confirm the extent to which income increases continued, as well as the degree to which communities were truly able to self-sustain the activities the project enabled them to launch. How do our goals fit with the communities’?
What is important is seeing community actors, our participants as the experts. It is their lives and livelihoods, and not one of us in international development is living there except them…
What are your questions and thoughts? Have you seen such tradeoffs? We long to know…
[*NB: There were other inputs (water, health, natural resource conservation) which are separate from this discussion.]
Reposted from Feedback Labs: http://feedbacklabs.org/see-how-it-turned-out-feedback-loops-for-implementation-and-sustainability/
When I met Aminata in a central Malian village, she asked me whether I was with the people with the yellow trucks or the white trucks. That was her way of differentiating between development projects. I explained to her I was doing (PhD) research, with neither. She asked me whether they (the trucks) would come back. I couldn’t answer, and therein lies the problem. “Country-led development” begins with communities being involved at every stage of a project. Ongoing community input during project design, implementation, and monitoring is needed for impact, local community ownership and sustainability. Developing “feedback loops” that facilitate two-way communication are key for building cultures of collaboration, adaptation and learning into international development programs. Valuing Voices sees data as another resource to deliver development, beyond serving the needs of donors and international non-profits.
The distance between our intentions and our reality
Too often, data is extracted from communities by development organizations, in order to evaluate how well they fulfilled the project, rather than communitiesevaluating how well international development projects supported community needs. The best projects co-design interventions and monitoring with communities. Too often communities have no mechanism to learn how their feedback during implementation or during evaluations led to real changes. Such feedback leads to community buy-in, as there is proof that their voices matter and that they are co-driving development. Outside of submitting a format report in a PDF to a donor, the development field has consistently inadequately retained the data from projects once they close, much less leave it in-country, and rarely return afterwards for follow-up evaluations. This further reinforces the idea that these communities are being exploited for resources or development experimentation, with no thought to long-term capacity, learning or sustainability.
Ever farther from this vision of collaborative partnership in project conceptualization, design, and monitoring is what happens once these short and long term projects are closed out. Due to budget restrictions and bureaucratic habits, too often the task of sustaining these projects is handed over to local partners, without funding, staff or data continuity. Cursed with “pilot-itis”, development initiatives too often lose sight of achieving scalability and sustainability. ‘Sustainability’ is often incorrectly defined only as whether the specific project got follow-on funding, rather than by asking communities what activities they were able to continue long after the project ends. Communities provide feedback only 1% of the time, missing great learning opportunities to be had from returning to assess these same projects 1-10 years later to see what was expected, unexpected and what could be sustained. We therefore never truly learn what had the greatest prospect for replicability and scaling elsewhere.
How do we really show that we Value Voices?
At Valuing Voices, we believe that community members are our true clients. We have identified two kinds of feedback loops that are needed to make international development far more effective.
Country-Led Project Implementation Feedback Loops: Valuing Voices wants to create standardized methodologies and data collection processes that can be integrated into most international development projects to create feedback loops that continue working long after projects close. Valuing Voices believes key elements to developing collaborative feedback loops are:
Identification of different feedback loop methodologies. Based on what is appropriate for the population, Valuing Voices identifies different methodologies to create these loops through a mix of traditional and digital tools. This means explicitly targeting the building, capturing and sharing of feedback during a specific project, to test and document different methodologies and create standard processes and infrastructure. This includes participatory methodologies and studies such as Empowerment Evaluation and “Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics, as well as ways of evaluating qualitativeStorytelling. We must of course protect our respondents as well.
Use of a franchise approach to replicate and scale. The identified methodologies can be taught to local and in-country evaluators and development experts who can then “sell” those services to governments, local NGOs, international donors, and the private sector. Valuing Voices is a catalyst for this country-based franchise approach which strengthens national evaluation, capture and learning. It also allows for feedback loops to exist within a program as local evaluators provide feedback on impact and lessons for improvement. This leads to local empowerment, sustainability and aid transparency.
Use of digital tools- capture once, share forever. Following evaluations on the local level, Valuing Voices then rolls up national evaluations by sector, analyzes them for what’s most sustained, and shares that learning around the world, influencing project design, implementation, funding and empowerment. In addition to generating feedback loops, this valuable feedback is entered into a curated database of findings for comparison across projects such as agriculture, livelihoods, credit, natural resources, health and education. By using structured data analysis, we can compare feedback data and actual behavior. We will look at whether we are capturing the right associated metadata (date, location, project) to contextualize feedback and bring forth lessons our partners can learn from, analyzing similarities and learning from them to improve program quality, organizational learning (of all partners) and sustainability prospects.
Post-Project evaluation Feedback Loops: The eagerly awaited Local Systems: A Framework for Supporting Sustainable Development was published by USAID in May:
“More ‘ex-post’ evaluations — which are meant to determine the impact of a project after it is completed, sometimes years later… are needed to design and implement projects.”
This is great news, as in the last 24 years, USAID has not published a single post-project evaluation, and the World Bank has only published one. This could indicate that none were written, or none were seen as ‘publishable’.
Post-project (ex-post) evaluations should look at:
The resilience of expected impacts of the project two, five, and ten years after close-out;
The communities’ and NGOs’ ability to self-sustain those activities;
Positive and negative unintended impacts of the project, both immediately in in the long term;
Which activities the community and NGOs felt were successes which could not be maintained without further funding;
Lessons for other projects on what interventions were most resilient which communities valued enough to continue themselves or for which NGOs valued enough to obtain additional funding, as well as what was not resilient.
These evaluations are rarer than snow in Sri Lanka. Feedback loops post-implementation are key to understanding the sustainability of projects and to improve transparency, efficacy and learning. Valuing Voices has a handful of examples of ex-post (post-project) evaluation done by organizations such as Mercy Corps and Plan International as well as bilateral JICA, but shockingly 99.9% of all development projects just don’t go back and check.
Voices to be valued
These are just a few examples of areas where we can value the voices of our communities, to be more effective and impactful with our efforts, and show our respect and value of communities’ input.
The time is ripe for growth, for these voices to be heard more loudly, telling us what they want development to be. Join us in advocating for funding for such feedback, join us as partners in our field sites, as partners in ICT database creation, as voices for communities.
Communities want their voices heard. Sustained development depends on it.
Jindra Cekan, PhD is the founder of Valuing Voices at Cekan Consulting LLC. She has worked in international development for 25 years in participatory design, monitoring & evaluation and knowledge management in over 20 countries. Her PhD was in Mali, “Listening to One’s Clients” and she consults to non-profit, public (USAID), foundation and private sectors.
Siobhan Green, MA is the founder of Sonjara, Inc, and a member of ValuingVoices. She has worked in international development since 1992, and specializes in ICTs for development, knowledge management, and technology for monitoring and evaluation. Her master’s thesis was on “The Internet in Africa: Policy Perspectives and Approaches” in 1997, and she works with USAID and other USG clients, non-profits, and for-profit partners.
Youth Series Part I: Factors Hindering Youth Participation in Development
My most recent research has been focused on global youth and their capacity (or incapacity) to be integrally involved in their own development process. With such huge youth cohorts in developing countries, collectively referred to under the term “youth bulge”, there is no doubt about whether the power of this demographic should be harnessed to achieve development goals, but rather how. This first installation of youth blogging will thus focus on the question: what are some of the key factors that hinder youth advancement and participation in their societies? In other words, what is holding youth in development back?
Here are some key facts:
- Roughly 85 percent of global youth live in developing countries, with half living in low-income countries.
- Around 238 million of these youth are living in positions of extreme poverty, surviving on less than one dollar a day . No where is poverty felt more extremely than in Africa, because despite a sharp reduction in global poverty over the past thirty years, this percentage has not significantly fallen in Africa, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where, “over 40% of people…[still] live in absolute poverty” .
- North Africa especially, has the highest (exceeding 25 per cent) youth unemployment in the world — significantly higher than the 17.3 per cent of the OECD area. Indeed, North Africa (with the Middle East) is the only region where youth unemployment exceeds 20 per cent globally, showing that unemployment is particularly acute among the youth (15–24 years) .
The overall absorptive capacity of African economies is weak, which has heavy costs for the increasingly desperate youth cohorts who are unable to find suitable work.
- In Tanzania, about 800,000 people enter the labor market each year,” yet the government is only able to absorb 40,000 or only about 5 percent of the newly available workforce.
- In places like Egypt, the majority of new jobs being created are either poor-quality or low productive waged jobs . This is very discouraging for the youth there who have the highest levels of educational attainment as compared to all the past generations.
- Even among some of the fasted growing economies in Africa, such as Ethiopia, which has annual growth averaging above 10% the youth demographic in particular faces formidable employment prospects especially in urban areas where it is estimated to be 20.6%.
Across the entire continent of Africa, “youth are faced with bleaker life prospects and are disenchanted with policies and established institutions for failing to provide them with opportunities to fully reach their potential and to live in dignity” . The result of this disenchantment has dismal repercussions, such as in Zimbabwe, where, “young people are losing interest in being educated because wages and salaries are low an unattractive” and jobs are so hard to find . The consequences of youth choosing not to receive an education, because even if they do they can’t even acquire a good job in today’s market, poses a threat to the ongoing social development and poverty reduction of nations.
Further, the scarcity of quality job opportunities for youth is credited to the lack of preparedness for youth transitioning from school into the workplace. “In Zambia and Tanzania, young people attributed the skills mismatch currently faced in the labor market to the poor flow of information regarding skills demanded by potential employers” . In other words, without a system in place to facilitate in-demand skills training that takes into account what employers are actually seeking, youth are unable to adequately prepare themselves for the realities of the job market they wish to enter by getting relevant skills training. This is due to the systematic lack of communication between the key institutions that youth interact with, including universities, vocational schools and skills development/training institutions, because “schools and universities [in Africa] provide mass education rather than quality service. There is a general deterioration of infrastructure, and a lack of collaboration between the educational system and potential employers, as well as poor accessibility of training services, in many countries in the region” . Without competitive, up-to-date skills training, these institutions are perpetuating the existing challenges that the un/underemployed youth face, making their levels of preparedness insufficient for the market and further contributing to the circumstances of poverty that keep youth disenfranchised and unable to participate to their fullest potential in the socioeconomic development of the region.
International development needs to align itself with the issues that developing youths most directly face – lack of skills and jobs, disempowerment and disillusionment. With this basis in understanding about the inhibiting factors that disempower youth in developing countries, stay tuned for Part II of this analysis to see which factors actually serve to enable youth participation, and what some potential solutions could be.
 Advocates for Youth. (2005). Youth and the State of the World. Retrieved from https://www.advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/storage//advfy/documents/fsstateworld.pdf
 Our Africa. (n.d.). Poverty. Retrieved February 6, 2014, from https://web.archive.org/web/20140206110858/www.our-africa.org/poverty
 Anyanwu, J. C. (2013). Characteristics and Macroeconomic Determinants of Youth Employment in Africa. African Development Review, 25(2). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8268.2013.12019.x
 Barsoum, G., Ramadan, M., & Mostafa, M. (2014, June). Labour market transitions of young women and men in Egypt. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/employment/areas/youth-employment/work-for-youth/publications/national-reports/WCMS_247596
 International Labour Organization (ILO). (2012, June). Africa’s Response to the Youth Employment Crisis. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/africa/WCMS_184325/lang–en/index.htm
Stepping up community self-sustainability, one [Ethiopian] step at a time
Having just come back from evaluation and design fieldwork for an Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS)/ Swedish Red Cross/ Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent project, the power of communities is still palpable in my mind. They know what great impact looks like. They know what activities they can best sustain themselves. It’s up to us to ask, listen and learn from them and support their own monitoring/ evaluating/ reporting. It’s up to us to share such learning with others and to act on it everywhere.
There are a myriad of possible sustainability indicators, and the outcome indicators below, suggested by 116 rural participants from Tigray, Ethiopia seem to fall into two categories of expected changes: Assets and Life Quality (Table 1). As the food security/ livelihood project extended credit for animal purchases, it is logical that tracking increased income, savings, assets, and home investments plus expenditures on food and electricity appeared.
We gleaned this from discussions with participants, asking them “what can we track together that would show that we had impact”? Our question led to a spirited discussion of not only what was traceable, but also what could be publicly posted and ‘ground-truthed’ by the community. Discussing indicators led to even deeper conversations about the causes of food insecurity which were illuminating to staff. What was surprising, for instance, was the extent to which families saw changing seasonal child-field labor practices in favor of 100% child-school attendance as great indicators. School attendance (or lack thereof) was dependent on families’ need for children’s seasonal labor in the fields. Community members said they knew who sent their children or not, which no only ‘cleaned’ the publicly posted data but triangulated implementer surveys and opened room for discussions of vulnerability.
Not only is this exciting for the project’s outcome tracking but even more importantly, our team proposed to create a community self-monitoring system, suggested in by Causemann/Gohl in an IIED PLA Notes article– “Tools for measuring change: self-assessment by communities” used in Africa and Asia. This learning, management and reporting process will fill a gaping need as current “monitoring systems serve only for donor accountability, but neither add value for poor people nor for the implementing NGOs because they do not improve effectiveness on the ground.” The authors found that not only “participatory data collection produces higher quality data in some fields than standard extractive methodologies [as] understanding the context leads to a higher accuracy of data and learning processes [which] increase the level of accountability… “ but also that such shared collaboration builds mutual learning and bridge-building.” While our community members may have offered to track this publicly to make this partner happy, men and women discussed this excitedly and embraced the idea of self-monitoring happily. ERCS will be discussing with communities to either track data monthly in notebooks or on a large chart hung in the woreda office for transparency. Data (Chart 1) would include these asset and quality of life indicators as well as loan repayments (tracked vertically) while households (tracked horizontally) could see who was meeting the goal (checked boxes), not meeting it fully (dashed boxes) or not meeting it at all yet (blank boxes). Community members corrected each other as they devised the indicators during our participatory research and this openness reassures us that the public monitoring will be quite transparent as well.
Further, what was especially satisfying was getting feedback from across the three tibias (sub-regions) on what activities they felt they could sustain themselves irrespective of the project’s continuation. Table 2 shows us which activities communities felt were most self-sustainable by households; these could form the core of the follow on project. Sheet/goats, poultry and oxen for fattening were highly prioritized by both women and men, in addition to a few choosing improved dairy cows. The convergence of similar responses was gratifying and somewhat unexpected, as there were several other project activities. The communities’ own priorities need to be seriously considered as currently they get only one loan per family and thus self-sustainable activities are key.
There is more to incorporate in future project planning by NGOs like Ethiopia’s ERCS. The NGO-IDEAs concept mentioned above also includes involving project participants in setting goals and targets themselves, differentiating between who achieved them and why, and brainstorming who/what contributes to it and what they should do next. Peer groups, development agencies and any actors could collect and learn from the data. Imagine the empowerment were communities to design, monitor and evaluate and tell us as their audience!
And they must, according to ODI UK’s Watkins, who has a clear vision on how to achieve a global equity agenda for the post-2015 MDG goals. He suggests converting the principle of ‘leave no one behind’ into measurable targets. He argues that, by introducing a series of ‘stepping stone’ benchmarks, the world can set ambitious goals on equity by 2030. He writes, wisely, that “narrowing these equity deficits is not just an ethical imperative but a condition for accelerated progress towards the ambitious 2030 targets. There are no policy blueprints. However, the toolkit for governments actively seeking to narrow disparities …has to include some key elements [such as] identifying who is being left behind and why is an obvious starting point. That’s why improvements to the quality of data available to policy-makers is an equity issue in its own right”. Valuing Voices believes who creates that data is an equally compelling equity issue.
So how will we reach these ambitious targets by 2030? By putting in stepping stone targets, returning project design functions to the ultimate clients – the communities themselves- and matching their wants with what we long to transfer to them. In this way we will be Valuing their Voices so much that they evaluate our projects jointly and we can respond. That’s how it should always have been.
What are your thoughts on this? We long to know.
 Ashley, H., Kenton, N., & Milligan, A. (Eds.). (2013). Tools for supporting sustainable natural resource management and livelihoods. Participatory Learning and Action, (66). Retrieved from https://pubs.iied.org/14620IIED/
 Watkins, K. (2013, October 17). Leaving no-one behind: An equity agenda for the post- 2015 goals. Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/blogs/7924-leaving-no-one-behind-equity-agenda-post-2015-goals
Aminata and I both want to be proud…
I met Aminata in Mali in 1990 during my doctoral research. She was a Bambara farmer and an impressive woman, with pride in her community. She was a helpful informant during my research on how communities cope with famine, and how famine early-warning systems could support them to do so more effectively (Note: 'early' warning is often far too late to prevent anything, I found, as donors don't want to intervene until far too late).
She's stayed in my mind these 24 years, and I want her to be proud of our international development work. I too want to be proud of what we accomplish to alleviate poverty and ill health by improving lives and livelihoods. We do so much in agriculture/ natural resource management, health and nutrition, education, etc. Yet do we start with communities' burning needs? End with their evaluating us? Or do we mostly use them to implement our ideas?
I've been part of the problem, part of the development 'industry' for 25 years. While I've used participatory methods such as PRA/ RRA and Appreciative Inquiry, I've mainly been focused on answering donor questions as to how successful we were, rather than helping communities ask the questions they want to answer and get the resources to succeed. I am no longer as proud of that work. We've left African Aminatas, Asian Aainas, Latina Adrienna's and millions like them behind in our rush to implement, to get more funds, to succeed, win more, 'develop' more…..
In founding ValuingVoices I put myself in their shoes, seeing projects come, projects go, temporary changes coming, some unintended results coming, some building on projects coming, but mostly going. It's never hard to celebrate local capacity when surrounded by vibrant voices, teaching us about their communities and their needs. What is hard is when so much of those decisions are not in their hands, but are at the mercy of donors who often decided not to support them (after our fieldwork showing both need and great capacity was presented): 'this region was not a priority' or 'we are now working on a new sectoral focus or a new initiative and this is no longer in our priorities.'
I am that much more deeply encouraged by a recent article on nutrition that points the way toward building these women’s pride as well as my own by starting with their voices and with donors being willing to listen. Nutrition research in Rwanda suggests that scaling up community-based solutions is the way forward. They decreased (stunting) malnutrition by 18% in five years which is very fast by "'setting up an almost universal community-based health insurance scheme… with the help of [each village determining its own way to tackle malnutrition… and not packaged interventions provided by donors" said Fidele Ngabo, director of Maternal Child Health. The article says "the Rwandan model could be used in other African countries, where foreign donor-driven initiatives tend to focus on treatment and technical solutions…. Change will only come when nutrition research is led by Africa, and interventions are designed to meet a country’s priorities, according to the findings of a two-year European Union-funded SUNRAY (SUstainable Nutrition Research for Africa in the Years to come)."
(a future Aminata?)
This groundbreaking research highlights the issue so many of us encounter. "Researchers from developed countries search for African partners for joint research, based on funding and research priorities defined outside Africa… so, despite enormous amounts of money spent on nutrition research and interventions, malnutrition rates have not fallen [in Benin]. Instead, the research agenda should be based on needs identified within the continent. Calls for research proposals of donors should match this agenda… [and prioritize] the locally identified needs and priorities." That sounds almost heretical in some circles.
In Benin, "researchers and policymakers wait for 'the dictate of donors before taking action. Hence, donor-funded programmes aren’t sustainable. As soon as they end, all activities are stopped, and acquired benefits and good practices are lost,' said Eunice Nago Koukoubou of the Université d'Abomey-Calavi in Benin, an author of the published findings." Yet the crux of the problem is that donor funding is filling a gap not filled by national governments. It isn't even so much that they are unwilling, rather in the case of Benin, “the government is trying to raise funds for the [strategic plan where nutrition should be central in development]", which also needs technical capacity building, a means of carrying on data retention and learning and a means of sharing findings with each other. What is needed is a "partnership between African researchers, 'who have more credibility and knowledge of the context', and Western researchers with the resources and opportunities (e.g. the African Economic Research Consortium).
Until we get to national partnership, let's improve our local ones. Let's really listen to participants in co-designing activities in projects we still think are best. Let's build on and share SUNRAY's approach of starting with what Aminantas, Aainas, Adriennas want and get Rwanda's great results. Let's partner in the truest sense of the world. After all, this excellent article underscores that "ultimately it is about political will…. [some] who feel they lack resources to tackle their long-standing battle with chronic malnutrition have to realize that “your children are not the donors' children, they are yours." They are our children, at least we need to treat them with respect as if they were.