Ever wondered how World Vision measures the success of its projects?

Community development isn’t easy to define, let alone measure.

So how does World Vision, or anyone else, know whether a community development project has been successful? How does anyone know what should be done differently next time?

I ask myself these same questions, because it is my job to uncover the answers. 

My name is Peter Weston and I’m one of World Vision Australia’s eight international research and evaluation advisors (we have three more devoted to our program working with Indigenous Australians). Some of us go wherever needed; others are specialists in a particular field of human development, such as child health, nutrition, faith and development and local economic development. 

My focus and passion is production and access to food, with a strong bent towards how food is connected to environmental and climate matters. 

In Australia, each of us risks losing touch with how beholden our stomachs are to climate and environment. Food comes from a shop, and the network of farms that produce it are highly mechanised, irrigated and insured to ensure we never go hungry. What’s more, very few of us rely on what we grow in order to eat. 

Me, I love my veggie patch. But if it was all I had, I’d be in a pretty bad way. For the people connected to projects I work on in remote communities in Africa, whether they eat or not depends entirely on whether they managed to grow enough to feed the family. As for clothing and health care needs – that’s something they can only afford if they have a little surplus produce to sell for cash. 

Measuring success 

I am obsessed, then, with whether our projects have been successful. 

To assess this, we need to investigate whether a project has helped partner communities to:

  • put more food on the table;
  • ensure continuity of food across the seasons; and
  • reduce their vulnerability to increasingly unpredictable weather behaviour. 

In other words, we ask the question: how effectively did we support people to make these priorities a living reality? Additionally, what is happening to their soils and natural resources as a result of the project?

The great thing about my job (apart from spending weeks at a time in these communities asking lots of questions of hundreds of people) is that I am employed to be brutally honest in recording people’s experiences with World Vision, articulating what we did that worked well, what missed the mark, what has changed and how we could do our work better. 

I get to be these communities’ mouthpiece to tell our project planners and managers what they need to hear. That’s vital – because sometimes what’s happening in the field isn’t what you’d expect. 

For example, a consistent lesson I have learnt by listening to rural communities of developing countries is that what’s grown on the family plot is only part of the livelihood story. 

In the more marginalised communities around the world (which is where you will find World Vision) almost every rural household’s agricultural production is complemented with harvesting wild resources: wild foods, medicines, construction materials and fodder for their livestock. In harsh environments, like the drylands of West Africa, communities that have preserved their forests and rangelands turn out to be the most resilient in times of drought. 

In World Vision Australia, we have had to ask ourselves, “did our food security approach focus too narrowly on planting and growing conventional crops and livestock?” 

World Vision evaluation advisor Peter Weston assesses a project in Senegal.

Evaluation in action - assessing World Vision’s reforestation project in Ghana

Recently, I have returned from the dry north of Ghana where the climate is similar to Alice Springs. There, I was working with local staff and stakeholders to evaluate one of our many projects now responding to this environmental/agricultural nexus. 

I found that the project – which was all about restoring natural resources on rural land- had motivated nine communities to incorporate trees back into their farms, to regenerate managed community forests and use agricultural ‘waste’ as a source of compost and mulch instead of burning it after the harvest.

People were very positive about the project, referring to improving soils, more shade in the blistering heat, healthier livestock and more wild fruit and bush meat. One man told me that “the greatest thing that has ever happened in this place is the Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration project.” He said that its benefits are enormous; “bush burning has stopped, soil fertility has improved.” 

People also told us of some factors reducing the project’s effectiveness. One of the local clans that tends to avoid getting involved in community development kept lighting bush fires that affected others’ land. Also, most households did not ‘budget’ their harvest well, and used it up before the following harvest was ready. World Vision is now planning a second project in this area of Ghana.

As a result of the evaluation, the new project intends to support these nine communities to share their new knowledge and practices with neighbouring communities, but also to overcome the gaps we found as well, for an even greater positive impact.