Judith-Ann Walker is increasing the ability of community-based groups to understand, monitor and evaluate development interventions, and providing donor agencies a platform for community dialogue as well as effective project management support, thereby making development aid more responsive to the needs of communities and improving the quality of development initiatives in Nigeria.
The New Idea
Judith-Ann is changing the nature of development practice in Muslim-dominated Northern Nigeria, where most aid to the poor is driven by the Muslim practice of alms-giving. Judith and her associates help communities form development associations, training and mentoring these development associations over a minimum three year period. She helps to source funding and bridge the communications gap between donors and recipients. The process makes communities more effective at both accessing funding and demanding greater participation in development programs.
Judith is also building a forum for open communication between donor organizations and recipient communities to assess each other’s needs and work in an honest, mutually respectful and ongoing way. She organizes meetings between aid agencies and these community-based organizations and opinion leaders to ensure that the agencies are aware of the real needs of communities and reflect the opinions of the communities in designing projects for them.
With the forum in place, recipient communities are then able to help design and evaluate development projects otherwise executed without their consultation; and rather than being presented a sugar-coated snapshot of progress, donors see a true picture of what is going on and are able to work with communities to adjust projects as needed. These forums have the potential to change the habits of both community organizations and donor agencies, redefine relationships between these two groups, and create permanence in development projects in Nigeria and beyond.
In Muslim dominated Northern Nigeria, the citizen sector is very weak due to the emphasis on alms-giving as the main strategy for providing assistance to the poor. As a result, even the traditional charity organizations which abound in the South of Nigeria hardly exist except for a few Christian mission charities that are viewed with great suspicion. The North also does not have a traditional culture of self-help groups as are found in the East of Nigeria and as such many communities are heavily reliant on government for the provision of basic necessities, which the government hardly ever provides. The result is that the North of Nigeria is extremely poor and lags behind in almost all spheres of development.
With the return to civilian rule in 1999, Nigeria has seen a steady inflow of international donor organizations. Millions of dollars pour into Nigeria every year for reproductive health, sustainable livelihoods, poverty alleviation, women’s empowerment and other areas of social change. Yet progress has remained painfully slow. The development arena in the north of Nigeria suffers from a two-pronged problem: the absence of strong community organizations and ineffectual donor agencies that operate without intimate knowledge of local problems.
Accountability, transparency and grassroots participation has been the mantra of the development field for several years, but is largely non-existent in Nigeria’s northern states. In this region, strong community organizations are at nascent stages and have little say in the planning or outcomes of projects, relying heavily on donor support. This reliance often leaves groups without a sense of ownership or input in the conception and implementation of development initiatives. Created without the insight of key community voices, these projects tend to be misguided, shortsighted and lacking in critical cultural and contextual sensitivities. Many donors enter areas without in-depth knowledge of the community, and as a result, projects are done ‘for’ the community instead of ‘with’ them. While most funding agencies profess to practice participatory development and many do consult local communities during project design, a lack of continuing interaction throughout the program cycle lessens impact at best and at worst, breeds failure. Many projects in northern Nigeria supported by international development agencies are unsustainable due to lack of legitimacy in the community. Additionally, many community groups end up withdrawing from government programs and perceive larger development NGOs as missionaries with their own agenda. They often do not apply for grants from foundations, which to them are big organizations representing foreign interests.
On the donor side, funding organizations are ill-equipped to assess the success of projects, and often feel forced to exaggerate outcomes. Driven by donor support and yet unsuccessful, many projects end up faltering due to lack of sustainability and longevity. No proper setting for dialogue exists between the few active community organizations and funders, which maintains an imbalance of power in the development “machine”.
Many other organizations have done capacity building in northern Nigeria, but without much success. Most employ a workshop methodology in which groups are brought together for a day of training and then sent away to incorporate what they have learned into their own work. Short workshops do not provide adequate time or space for the long-term engagement necessary to rectify the imbalanced situation. Although there have been attempts to promote interaction between donors and communities, and most donors strive for this on their own, the approach is generally limited to consultation during the design stage, rather than a genuine strategy of participation and information exchange at every stage of the project. There is a critical need to develop new patterns of interaction among donors and community leaders.
Judith’s strategies are anchored in building communities and transforming the attitudes and practices of funding institutions. She begins with helping communities mobilise for development by assisting them in setting up community based organisations and through these implementing projects necessary for community survival and development. For a period of three years, she nurtures these organisations by providing them with hands-on capacity building and problem solving training to become more effective social change agents. Within this nurturing period, in addition to helping them implement their own projects and engage in local resource mobilisation, she exposes them to international development agencies interested in projects within their communities and helps initiate dialogue between the organisations and the international agencies. This support combined with education on the development projects taking place in their communities provides solid footing for these organizations to then demand greater involvement in project design and implementation.
A good example of the effectiveness of Judith’s strategy is observed in the example of a project on reproductive health. An international agency had been interested in providing reproductive health education in the north of Nigeria with the aim or reducing maternal mortality. They initial idea was to train nurses and midwives in standard hospitals, but meetings with the communities engineered by Judith later convinced them that by training only nurses and midwives in standard hospitals they would only be reaching about 5% of pregnant women since majority of the women in the north use traditional birth attendants. The second component of Judith’s strategy is thus to create a forum through which communities and donors can dialogue in a manner that results in effective and efficient programmes. Her organization, the dRPC (development Research and Projects Centre) has a small “d” to represent development “software,” as opposed to the big “D” development hardware that has failed Nigeria’s people.
For the last two years, Judith has created and nurtured over forty CSOs in northern Nigeria. Unlike standard trainings, their model focuses on long-term targeted mentoring and assistance. It involves two to three-day meetings a few times a year and ongoing practical support that strengthens the groups as they go about their work. For example, many community groups are quick to criticize the government, so at one meeting Judith challenged them to confront the government, suggesting they start with a community needs assessment. A group of veterinarians from a Fulani nomadic tribe had come with their own ideas of the problems of their community, but upon doing an assessment were surprised to discover that the biggest concern was cattle thieves and the police who do not respond to the theft, or are involved in it themselves. The veterinarians thus had to direct their efforts in a completely new direction and learn advocacy to address the problem.
In addition to increasing the capacity of CSOs, Judith knows she must increase donor accountability to communities. The first step of this part of their strategy is to facilitate the “unpacking” and understanding of development project information among associations of beneficiaries and community stakeholders. They help community development groups, farmer associations, women’s groups and self-help groups decipher the cost, partner roles and responsibilities, goals, duration, coverage, primary and secondary target groups, objectives, activities, and monitoring and evaluation plan for the projects taking place in their communities. This support gives CSOs and their communities the foundation on which they can begin to dialogue with donor institutions. She also organizes periodic meetings between the CSOs and donor agencies and serves as an initial contact for some donor organizations looking for CSOs in the communities they are targeting and as a mediator for them when projects go amiss.
Judith is now working to expand the space for that dialogue to include a wider audience in an ongoing way, thus creating a feedback mechanism for redesign and reconsideration of development projects. She has started the first monthly radio program and quarterly bulletin both called Development Monitor, which critically looks at initiatives around the region and allows stakeholders to offer advice, suggestions and solutions thus facilitating dialogue between the players in a public space, creating real transparency and accountability.
To date, forty CSOs have been involved in the dRPC’s program. They expect to reach another forty groups next year, eighty in the second year and one hundred twenty in the third. They intend to disseminate their model widely, forging links with other groups within and beyond Nigeria whom they can mentor to replicate their ideas. The dRPC is creating leaders in multiple communities, as those who have received training and mentorship, graduate to become facilitators for other capacity-building programs. They have already begun working with the UK organization Accord to implement their capacity-building model in Chad and Cameroon. These forums are transforming the way development projects are run in the north of Nigeria and beyond by teaching all parties involved how to appropriately use development resources.
Judith-Ann grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and came to live in Nigeria after she met her husband and professional partner while studying at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.
Judith developed an interest in participatory systems of governance as a young student in Trinidad and Tobago and, as an African in the diaspora, took a concerned interest in the fact that most examples of poverty and authoritarian political systems came from Africa. Through her research and activism, she sought to understand and support the civic participation of marginalized groups, such as women, in her adopted country. Her first entrée into development work was in reproductive health in northern Nigeria, which no one else wanted to do, as it involved talking to prostitutes. Because a significant amount of the international funding in Nigeria has been concentrated in this field, she has had significant experience with the relationship between donor agencies and community organizations and the need for greater accountability. She has used this knowledge to serve as a consultant to various funders, while also working with many NGOs and CSOs working on women’s issues and developing the master’s program in Development Studies at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria.