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.