Written by, Edward Maferano, Programme Specialist – Ecosystems

One question that NGOs often receive from local government when introducing a new project into a district is “How much of that money will reach the communities?” It’s a question that NGOs often evade with corporate-speak or with the dance-like footwork of Muhammed Ali in his prime. It’s a question laden with suspicion, skepticism and mistrust built over years of development interventionism that demanded transparency from others without its advocates, usually NGOs, exemplifying it themselves; a phenomenon that is as much global as it is local. When we were confronted with this same question, particularly from the community of Jordani, I saw a story in the narrowed eyes of the attentive crowd.  

I saw a mistrust in their eyes when we told them that, after capping the artesian well together with University of Strathclyde, the Climate Justice Innovation Fund (CJIF) project would build the community’s capacity to manage funds, directly, for the sustainable agriculture activities to follow. The message in the community’s eyes, and in the shaking heads of the village skeptics, was clear:

We have heard this before. We don’t believe you!

That’s why 24th July is an important date for the CJIF work – it’s the day when the Project Management Committee (PMC), the temporary structure set up to  interface between the project implementers and the wider community, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with BASEflow to implement key sustainable agriculture activities, i.e. fish farming, pond construction, tree nurseries and crop production (See feature image). As part of this MOU, the PMC would also  receive commensurate funds, through a new bank account, of over MWK 12 million (GBP12300) to implement these activities.

But behind this great news has been months of training (and retraining), managing expectations, navigating village politics and building relationships that no project report could adequately capture, and should be experienced to be appreciated. At one point, we had to reshape our entire training plan, exercise patience and move at the pace of the community to ensure that the desired training outcomes were internalised. What seemed elemenatry to any green-behind-the-ears development practitioner, e.g. procurement, budgetting and planning, required simplifications and contextualizations that we initially deemed unnecessarily. Don’t get us started on the slog of getting the budget finalized! It slowed down momentum, but it was necessary and it paid off.

Community training in progress.

From the first day we introduced the project, the scowls of mistrust gradually smoothened into savannahs of elation whenever we visit the community. The firm handshakes are now slaps on the backs and the formal tones of Malawian conversation are now bursts of familarity synonymous with friendship. One particular highlight was recently when the PMC, after weeks and weeks (and weeks) of training, presented their activity plans and budget to the wider community for their scrutiny, feedback and input. On top of the obvious anxiety of being held accountable by their peers, we informed the PMC that we (BASEflow and local government extension workers) would only be spectators and they would have to justify their plans and budget to the community on their own. After gaining community approval of their plans and budget, the PMC escorted the community on a transect walk during which time one of the female PMC members, 23-year-old Joyce Luka, explained, with utmost confidence, the layout of the planned irrigation scheme. One of the community members even exclaimed, “I didn’t know she was this confident!”

Hearing such sentiments, and watching the PMC confidently handle questions, made the time and effort invested in training and retraining the PMC worth it, many times over. This payoff was even more so as the wider community, with looks of curiosity and excitement plastered on their faces, watched their peers own a ‘space’, physically and figuratively, that would have traditionally been occupied by an NGO worker. 

One thing Muthi, BASEflow’s Team Leader, kept insistently saying after capping the artesian well was: Now is the hard part. I understand why: building trust precedes empowerment; and empowerment is delicate and complex.

Working in such a decentralised and participatory way requires patience, empathy and an immediate realisation that any well-laid out plan could be become obsolete at any time; the very essence of innovation. Moving at the pace of the community is not just sound pedagogy, it is one way of demonstrating that they are at the centre of the work – that we are not leaving them behind. Ever.

Muthi and his questions!

During his opening remarks on the first day of community training, in front of 22 participants from Jordani village, Muthi asked the following question:

“What do you think success for this project looks like?”

After a few seconds of puzzled stares, he replied:

“The moment you no longer need or depend on us or any other NGO, that’s when I’ll know the project is a success.”

In other words, success to us is the community moving forward and leaving us behind. As we move on from PMC trainings into the next phase of constructions, i.e. irrigation scheme and water kiosk, and community project implementation, empowerment remains central to the success of this project; and now we have laid a strong foundation of trust from which to build.

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