Having worked with numerous NGOs ranging from the smallest (of only one or two volunteers) to one of largest (with thousands of full time staff), I have grown to question the strategies with which development projects are initiated. Over time I grew frustrated that so much of the initiative rested with the donor or service provider – and communities dissolved into simple recipients.
At the small end, projects are often begin through international friendships. These are either through expats in the west seeking funding opportunities for their village back home, or someone in the tourism industry that befriends a traveler. These friendships spawn a non-profit that is often dedicated to a single community or project. While work gets done and progress is sometimes made, the individuals who initiate the project and those who fund it often do not have the expertise needed to make strategic decisions that foster further discussion, development and progress.
On the other end of the spectrum, the largest NGOs have only the best and informed goals in mind. With a well organized staff of individuals that have dedicated their lives to such work, these organizations have the resources and ability to target projects that contribute to larger macro-solutions. However, with massive budgets and constrained timelines, these expansive initiatives must often focus more on numbers of affected beneficiaries and dollars spent per month than on the diversity of challenges posed by each different community. This translates most simply to: get started, get building, get spending. As a result, the selection process of communities can be done while looking over a large map – hardly enough information to understand a community’s needs and capacity for development.
I reached a point last year where I was ready to quit working for these “others” whose strategies I did not agree with. I was ready to start something of my own: an organization that takes the time needed to do things right, allocates significant budgets (with flexible timelines) to important initiatives, and – most importantly – provides services and programs for which a community group would have to apply. Such an application process would force communities to self reflect, substantiate their needs, and propose self-authored solutions. I outlined many of these thoughts in an article published in 2010 on Engineering For Change titled “How to Write a Proposal For Work in Your Community”.
It was right at this time that I found myself in an interview with Kounkuey Design Initiative. KDI seemed to be developing a strategy that merged all of my proposed strategies and were working to perfect many of them. I signed on, and just this past week finalized my first call for project proposals throughout Kibera, the largest urban slum in East Africa.
This is how development projects should start.
The process begins with hundreds of posters distributed throughout the targeted area. These are at first concentrated around high profile (chief’s offices, district commissioner compounds) and high traffic areas (neighborhood entrances and markets). Posters are then placed around sites with development potential, and finally in quieter, residential zones. Care must be taken to publish the information in all languages (in this case English and Kiswahili), and to post the fliers in all neighborhoods. This ensures that all residents have equal opportunity to apply. The posters themselves (right) advertise information sessions that are held on different days in large public spaces. During these events, questions are answered and applications distributed.
The application itself seeks to reveal the potential of the proposed project as well as any flaws. It begins with basic questions about the Community Based Organization (CBO) such as “How many members do you have” or “Who controls the site referenced in your proposal”. These questions provide valuable information as to the capacity of the group and the feasibility of the project. The following questions ask the authoring group to reflect upon the organization’s history of community and NGO engagement. What lessons has the community group learned? (What has it not learned?) Finally, the group has to articulate its vision for the proposed project. With no restrictions as to what the project could be, the community is free to propose a sanitation facility, flood water control, an urban garden, an Internet cafe – anything. These questions and answers provide our team with the needed data and valuable perspective as we move into the selection process.
After the one month window for submissions has closed, our team reviews each submission independently (the last RFP solicited over 30 applications). This then graduates to community site visits, interviews, and meetings with area residents and chiefs. This interview and selection process can last anywhere from one to three months. It is only when site boundaries are confirmed, and the CBO, area residents and local leaders are all consulted, that an MOU is signed and design meetings begin.
This kind of competitive process is one of the best ways that and NGO can ensure that whatever project it begins is in line with community needs and desires; while also contributing to the larger macro goals of the NGO. It also ensures that if the project’s program evolves throughout the design process, solid leadership and management exist within the CBO to organize and refocus the strengths of the community. Moreover, such an application process moves a community group from beneficiaries to active participants in – and authors of – the entire initiative.
The deadline for this round of submissions is the 24th of February at 5pm. I’m looking forward to posting an update once the selection process is complete!