Many African projects head for doom before they start. With over 8,500 NGOs, Kenya should be doing better in terms of community level impact. This is barely the case. If they are to eradicate poverty, diseases and improve human condition, these NGOs need to refocus their strategies. At the community level, lies the strength of a project. Here are important areas to consider in strengthening community based projects’ impact;
#1. Relationships: in Mali, a project worth $300 million to grow irrigated cotton and rice was resisted by uncooperative farmers. It achieved 6% of their target in 50 years. Some NGOs have no proper relationships with the local community. They merely form groups and start transferring their technology. Most group oriented projects are marked with politics and the beneficiaries do not feel directly responsible for the success of the project. To build proper relationships, it is important to liaise with the local government and people of influence first. These are the trusted people in the community and through them you could be accepted.
#2. People’s project: Mahtma Ghadhi said, “Whatever you do for me, but without me, is against me.” At a cost of $22 million, Lake Turkana fish processing plant became a ‘white elephant’. Turkana people are nomads with no fishing culture hence the shut down after a few days of operations. Community participation cannot be ignored. It is easy to assume that a community needs help and address it without asking for their consent. These self-imposed projects are bound to fail. People love being consulted and involved. When involved, the community owns the project and shares their indigenous knowledge. I once saw a well dug in a small town for the community by a certain NGO. Nobody used it because they were not consulted when it was dug.
Sensitive projects such as forest conservation need proper community involvement. A World Bank funded project was accused of failing to protect the rights of Sengwer forest indigenous community by forcefully evicting them in year 2007-2013.
#3. Focus: Tom Flynn said, “Be sure to positively identify your target before you pull the trigger.” Focus is important in terms of the target group and idea. Once you start a project, you see plenty of problems to be addressed and it is easy to get enthusiastic. This only shifts focus and reduces productivity. It helps to identify a manageable area and focus your resources on it. Sometimes all you need is to impact few people and others will follow suit.
#4. Freebies: the old saying applies here “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a whole lifetime.” Free goods address the effects and not the cause of a problem. A hungry farmer issued with free seeds will plant and eat for one season and continue being hungry. Most of these handouts also end up being misused. Some farmers receive free goods, sell them and address other problems. It is important for farmers to labour for their own freedom. Handouts give people a sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility. I once came across an idle piece of land which was a free gift to a poor farmer by an NGO; the farmer was too lazy to cultivate it. Another farmer refused to plant free seeds because they did not come with free fertilizer.
#5. Realistic: realistically manage both your expectations and that of the community. Permanent impact takes time, you need patience in transforming a community. The community also needs to know that it is through hard work and resilience that they can reap benefits. Projects that seek to economically empower a community need to be realistic with their business plans.
#6. Training: introduction of new technologies without proper training is harmful. It is important to invest in knowledge through training the beneficiaries. During training, allow discussions which lead to sharing of information. Sometimes the solution to a community lies within them and they rarely know it.
#7. Monitoring: when I was doing monitoring, I often received compliments from farmers who said that ‘other people come then abandon them.’ Farmers see projects as a relationship which grows with constant monitoring. They also feel safe that you did not introduce a technology and run away to avoid addressing any negative effects. It is important to listen to their concerns and address them. Monitoring ensures that you identify project weaknesses and strengths and use them going forward.
That being said, working with communities could be hard or easy depending on your approach.