An uncomfortable but necessary exchange

Adaptive management is a term thrown around much these days.  In our world of international development, it means the intentional approach to making decisions and adjustments in response to new information and contextual changes.  This necessitates an accompanying humility and openness to change course when we come across questionable impact.  I have often wondered about this concept, knowing how rigid and sector-focused of us international NGOs can be. Is the collective we - donors, partners, communities - ready to change course when we come across evidence that our impact is limited?  

I had my doubts, until I met a lady called Aicha, during one of my most recent field visits to Diffa, southeastern Niger.  A middle-aged, warm and chatty lady, she was dressed in an eye-catching red, sari-like outfit -  the only woman bold enough to stand next to the men as we were welcomed to the community.  

World Vision has been working in the village of Bonegral, Nguimi since 2017 when it started supporting the renovation of a well. Since then, we’ve trained and worked with the community equipping them to start saving groups, maintain the well and promote activities that ensure the protection of children. The village has an estimated 200 families who have been victims of sporadic attacks by militant groups, daily force thousands to flee to other villages for safety.

When Aicha eventually got an opening to speak, I was surprised by her understanding and clarity on the community’s most urgent needs coupled with her high standard of spoken French surprised me.

Bonegral is about 40 kilometers away from the lake, she told me.  In the past, residents were able to grow rice, maize, beans and feed their families and livestock. These days, she walks the 7 kilometers to the market once a week due to the heat, distance and lack of resources. The journey takes an entire day.

A widow and mother of five children, I learnt that Aicha had completed primary school and today held several positions of leadership in the community, including President of the Water committee for which they had recently been trained by World Vision.  I am a trained Community Health Worker” she told me, as she went on to say that malaria remained the biggest threat in the community, pointing out that the nurse and matron are doing a good job of assisting the community manage the situation.

Aicha went on to share that the Lake Chad crisis had brought an additional 70 families to her community in 2017, with very little government or humanitarian assistance.  For example, there was only the one primary school of three classes with just two teachers Principal opened back in 2001 is available to children. Overnight, families were forced to host displaced families and share their already meager food supplies.

And we always welcomed them, what choice do we have when they are family? It is still very difficult because we had to leave behind our livestock. Despite the generous welcome of host communities, the constant pressure and fragility on host and refugee families alike cannot be overestimated - all remain in extreme vulnerability due to chronic lack of food, water and natural resources.

At some, I am alone with Aicha, and noticed that she had been trying to get my attention. Trying to be as discrete  as possible, she whispered,  “why are you here always talking to us about water and latrines?” I don’t understand the question, Aicha, what do you mean?’ I ask.

 “We don’t have food to eat. Look at how thin I am, why then would I be worried about a latrine? What we most need now is food to survive, can’t you see everyone is hungry?”

Her honesty and description of their most urgent needs made me unsettled. My initial instinct was to tell her about the importance of proper sanitation and the effects of poor hygiene on health outcomes, but as a nurse, I thought to myself, she must know all of that better than me in fact and the last thing I wanted was to sound patronizing.

Instead, I acknowledged what she was saying and explored what was possible with the little they had as community resources.

Everyone knows that constant hunger as is being lived out here negates all other efforts: no point sending children to school, e.g, on empty stomachs. Could she encourage the few families with a goat/camel to hire them out to others in the village? With the new borehole, would reviving agricultural produce locally become a viable option? In that very moment of exchange, it dawned on me: the process of giving feedback empowers beneficiaries and is a valuable end in its own right.

We continued to talk and laugh with a few other women as Aicha told us she would share the ideas with the chief.   As I said goodbye to them, I promised to transmit and share what they had told me with more donors and partners.  And I continue to ponder. How agile and ready are we to adapt mechanisms during implementation when the very communities and individuals we are seeking to reach demand it?  

Written by Zena John