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.
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?”