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International Development: lessons learned from ‘Women of Kireka’ project


My encounter with Amos last December offered me an opportunity to take a critical look at how development projects affect communities. I discovered that there’s always going to be someone left out in the cold, sitting outside the fringes of your project’s target audience. It’s not done on purpose, and it’s most certainly not done out of malice. Siena Anstis—who originally introduced PD to the Women of Kireka back in September of last year—simplified it for me when I told her how frustrating this realization was for me, “you can’t help everybody, but if you can, help someone.”

As much as I’d like it not to be true, it is. Amos fell outside the scope of our project with the women. If PD is going to be successful and get our project(s) off the ground, we have to be content with those limitations, however cruel they may seem. I took a look at the projects currently under PD’s portfolio, and lo if there are not lessons to be learned. Below, I have listed some things you’ll need to consider while starting your own development project. Keep in mind, all project needs vary and may indeed require adherence to these, none, or additional considerations; this is what we here at PD have learned so far.

  1. Ask
    There’s nothing worse than starting a project that doesn’t need to be started at all. What you think is missing, might not be of material concern to the development of the community. It is important to have a dialog with the intended recipients of your good will. The simple act of asking—”what is it that you need, what is it that will make this community and your lives better?”—can go a long way to building good will and community buy-in for your project.  If you build something that benefits everyone, there’s a chance it will succeed and become self-sustaining. Make sure that those you mean to help understand the way to use what you are providing them. Do they know what a given tool does and what need it addresses. Is it a need that they want solved? Does it create value for them rather than cost them? Is it more valuable for them to keep or more valuable to sell? A simple conversation can help you determine if the project is sustainable. Furthermore, before you build a development project make sure there is not another group on the ground working successfully to do the same thing. Leverage their success for the good of those you are trying to help rather than starting from scratch.
  2. Choose a narrow area of focus
    Choose a focused, specific area, or sector where you think you can make the most impact. The smaller, the better. Think of it as giving yourself a chance to get things right. The small size also allows you to work out the operational kinks. The bigger the project; the bigger the budget, constraints and responsibilities. If you are just starting out, don’t bite off more than you can chew, even if your heart is screaming for you to help everybody and their mother.
  3. Kind-hearted development noob? Know thyself
    If you don’t speak Mandarin or know anything about Chinese culture and customs, your water project—however well-intended—will be headed for EPIC FAIL. If you are still determined to forge ahead, then spend a little extra time on step one above. If you to feel that you have walked in their shoes, and have no reservations about your project, then you are ready. Knowing thyself also requires knowing your limitations. Take it from our very own Siena Anstis, “DON’T START A DEVELOPMENT PROJECT ALONE IF YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”
  4. Have a specific goal you want to accomplish with your project
    Make sure it’s something measurable and can be accomplished in a specific amount of time. For example: dig a well, in XYZ village, within three months. That way, at the end of three months, anyone with vested interest in your project can easily verify if the goal was accomplished or not.
  5. Give yourself a realistic timeline
    You are probably going to spend more time fund-raising, than you are building the water project. Consider the logistics of your projects and how that affects its completion. How long will it take you to finish appropriate paperwork, if any? Are you going to need a team of people for this project, and how long will it take for you to recruit them, train them and bring them up to speed? What other priorities do you have in your life? Does the project timeline coincide with your travel schedule?
  6. Have a manageable budget
    If your water project costs, say, a million dollars, chances are slim that you’ll be able to raise that amount in three months (unless of course, you already had the funds in your sofa, or you are related to the Gates family). It’s one thing to have step 1-5 planned out, but without a budget, your project most likely isn’t going to flow. Also, make sure it’s a budget that’s easily attainable — either through traditional fund-raising, investments, personal funds, or a combination of the above. If steps 1-5 are planned appropriately, by the time you get to step six, you will find that the budget required for the project is well within reach.
  7. Use local capacity
    The use of local capacity means making every effort to utilize all available local resources (i.e., materials, labor, management, etc.). Unless you are a member of that community’s Diaspora, chances are you won’t be spending your whole life on this project, nor are you living in the same community. Consider what will happen when you leave. Who will take ownership of the project? Who is going to fix the well when it breaks down? Better yet, who knows how to fix it when it’s broken. Make sure the parts and supplies can be created or sourced locally; that includes local fix-it people. Don’t pull a Chinese and import your crew of consultants, technicians, and day laborers whose only task is pounding nails. Do make an effort to train willing individuals in areas where they may be lacking. Knowledge transfer is not only huge, but critical if your project is going to be sustainable over a long period of time.
  8. Manage Expectations
    There’s nothing worse than promising Evian water, but delivering puddle water. Consider that the people you are helping are already in a desperate situation. If things were great, you wouldn’t be thinking of doing a project for them. All things considered, it’s better to be realistic with what it is that you can deliver. Do this in step one, and at every encounter with your recipients. Do be honest with them not only about the benefits, but the challenges you will face in bringing your project to fruition. If the project fails to come to fruition, at least they know you didn’t just abandon them. They will have information on the trials and tribulation of bringing that particular project, in that community, to fruition. This way, if someone else more capable comes along at a later point, they’ll hear all about it if they start at step one.
  9. It’s OK to say no
    It’s inevitable that in the middle of your project you are going to identify cracks in the cement within your target community. And you are going to want to help. Here’s a hint. Don’t. Yes, it’s cruel. The reality being that if you help them too, what about everybody else? If you are already there doing a project, chances are, there are a lot more problems in that community, many beyond your reach or expertise and certainly outside the scope of your project. If it doesn’t conform to steps 1-5 on this list, let someone else do it. You have your hands full already. As in step eight, be honest with yourself and those you are helping. You are there to do a specific project within a specified amount of time, with a specific budget. There’s always going to be a subset of people that are beyond the scope and reach of any particular project. And that’s not your responsibility.
  10. Don’t be afraid to bend the above rules
    Okay this sounds hypocritical, I know, but think about it. When has any recipe for success ever been followed to the letter? Every sauce requires adjustments, likewise, every project is a different monster with it’s own complexities and exceptions. If our Women of Kireka project can make an exception by considering the merits of helping Amos, perhaps there’s someone on the fringe that can benefit from you bending your rules a little. Just remember to consult step three carefully before you embark on any rule-bending.

So there you have it. A short guide to getting your very-own International Development project under way. It’s not the ultimate guide, but we hope with your input, it’ll grow up to be the über-guide to ID projects. And if it all seems too daunting and discouraging; take a deep breath, relax, and approach it one step at a time.

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