Local Governments as Key Drivers for Self-reliance and Sustainable Development

By Irene Naikaali

In 2018, I was assigned to undertake a scoping exercise in two districts of Uganda. The purpose of this exercise was to generate evidence to inform The Hunger Project (THP) team on the suitable district to host a new epicenter, the dynamic center THP works through to mobilize communities for action to meet their basic needs in a sustainable manner. The exercise involved a series of interviews with district-level, local government officials to verify data on the poverty and vulnerability. The exercise revealed valuable information about the systems and coordination processes across different district departments and how they interact with each other to serve the needs of the community.

This wasn’t the first time I was interacting with local government officials however, this assignment in particular helped me appreciate the local government system in Uganda and its role in providing a secure and stable environment for the sustainability of development programs.

Over the course of my work with THP, I have had the opportunity to facilitate a number of Vision, Commitment and Action (VCA) workshops for district local government leaders. The VCA workshop is the cornerstone of THP’s methodology. It has been successfully used in many countries all over the world to build and strengthen the social capital necessary for sustainable changes. At almost each of these workshops I have experienced a continuous flow of creativity from community members that unlocks local capacity for transformative change. At the first VCA workshop I facilitated for officials at Nwoya district local government, the district made an immediate commitment to donate five acres of land towards the establishment of an epicenter at Purongo Sub County in Nwoya district. We have had similar commitments by other local governments at Kiruhura, Butambala, Mpigi, Mbarara, Iganga, Wakiso and Mbale.

A celebration to mark the opening of a bore hole at Oruka Epicenter.

The acquisition of land is a critical factor in the implementation and sustainability of development programs. Evidence suggests that communities that have extensive rights to land are generally better able to enjoy sustainable livelihoods. We have noted that across all THP Epicenters in Africa, once the epicenter building is constructed and demonstration farms established, communities rapidly transform to become vibrant centers of community action and symbols of positive change.

The commitment and dedication of the district leadership towards the success of the epicenter strategy goes beyond land donation. The leaders continue to play an important role in the mobilization and capacity-building of community leaders closer to the grassroots level. Agricultural extension, public health care and education support services are among the different services extended to communities through existing partnerships with district local government departments. It’s through such extension services that communities are equipped with the requisite skills to undertake self-reliant action for sustainable change.

THP epicenter health units have specifically benefited through improved health service delivery. Through an established memorandum of understanding with the district department of health services, a portion of the district health budget supports health infrastructure improvements and training and remuneration of health care workers. This has had a lasting impact on the health outcomes and overall quality of life of community members.

Allen has her blood pressure checked during an antenatal visit by Immaculate, a nurse at the epicenter clinic. Photo credit: Reinier van Oorsouw, 2019

THP works with each community for a period of about 8 years, upon which it transitions its leadership to the host district local governments. It is during this transition phase that the district begins to entirely rely on its structures to fully support and sustain the ongoing community development programs.

There are currently four success stories in Uganda of epicenter communities that have successfully declared self-reliance. They are currently operating on their own, with overall leadership from their respective local governments. Among these include, Kiruhura Epicenter Community Development Organization under the overall leadership of Kiruhura district local government, Mbarara Epicenter Community Development Organization under the leadership of Mbarara district local government, Mbale Epicenter Community Development Organization currently supported by Mbale district local government. Achieving this milestone is a testament to the community’s commitment to working with the local government to continue to make progress and develop.

There is enough evidence to justify the role of local governments in sustainable development at both community and national development level, however a shift in mindset of many stakeholders is still needed to recognize local governments as key drivers for change. There is a need for strengthened collaboration and support to enable local governments to develop institutional capacities and skills to effectively sustain the development gains at both community and national level.

At The Hunger Project, we know the value of a learning-minded, holistic development approach. We partner with communities, designing programs that build the capacity of local women, men and children to lead their own development and evolve to meet changing needs. When the Epicenter Strategy in Africa was launched over 20 years ago each epicenter progressed through four phases, eventually graduating to a designation of “self-reliant.” Since then, following a thorough data analysis and to improve sustainability, our gender-focused self-reliance strategy has evolved and has proven successful across eight countries in Africa. Within the current Epicenter Strategy, when an epicenter makes measurable progress in nine designated program areas, the communities declare self-reliance, sustainably and independently maintaining development momentum. We ended 2020 by marking a monumental milestone: more than 50 epicenters across eight countries have declared self-reliance. That is, over 50 epicenters, representing 974 communities and nearly 900,000 people, have demonstrated the ability to leverage local resources and governments to achieve economic and environmental sustainability.

These communities have made transformational progress during their time with The Hunger Project. A total of 34 out of 54 epicenters have eliminated severe hunger entirely and nine more have reduced severe hunger to less than 1%. A diverse and reliable income is key to maintaining progress in these communities and, as of the end of 2020, over half of rural households have sustainably increased their income through new, non-farming businesses. For the 468,000 women participating in programs at self-reliant epicenters, learning new business skills has enabled them to launch their own businesses. Now, more than a quarter of new businesses are woman-owned. And with health concerns at the forefront of our minds worldwide, healthy practices at self-reliant epicenters have improved conditions for community members of every age. Programs in water and sanitation have successfully reduced diarrheal disease for children under 5 years to 11%. And Gender Inequality Workshops have reached 43% of people over the age of 15 with accurate and comprehensive HIV/AIDS information, debunking myths and destigmatizing treatment and prevention.

The successes of these self-reliant communities represent not only an end to hunger, but also hundreds of thousands of lives of self-reliance and dignity being lived each day. Women who were once silent are now the leading voices in their communities. Children once denied access to education have a brighter future. Individuals who once woke up each day in food insecurity are looking to the far future with confidence. And mindsets of resignation have forever transformed into mindsets of potential and opportunity.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve continuously refined the Epicenter Strategy and what we are implementing today looks very different from what it looked like when we started. As we look to the future, we will continue the trend of learning. We will learn from these self-reliant communities as they thrive and will find new ways to implement proven models for community leadership. This collaboration between The Hunger Project and community partners serves as a testament to the potential for widespread adoption of community-led models throughout Africa and beyond.

Irene Naikaali Ssentongo has been serving as the Head of Programs at The Hunger Project-Uganda since 2017. She provides strategic leadership and guidance in the implementation of the Epicenter Strategy, a Community-led Development model that places communities at the forefront of their own development. She has mobilized district leaders across 13 local governments of Uganda to build and strengthen social capital necessary for sustainable changes. Prior to joining The Hunger Project-Uganda, Irene worked for Catholic Relief Services, as a senior grants officer. She coordinated a $23M annual grant budget funded by PEPFAR for AIDS Relief in Uganda. Irene is passionate about leadership. She is a seasoned Toastmaster with Toastmasters International and served as the 2018–2019 Club President for Kampala Toastmasters Club.

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