Mobilizing Communities for Self-Reliance

By Grace Chikowi

My name is Grace Chikowi, I have been working with The Hunger Project-Malawi since 2014, first as an HIV and AIDS, Nutrition and Gender Officer and now as Country Manager. I love working with THP-Malawi. I see firsthand the lives of people we work with transform from the despair of deep rooted poverty to healthy, fulfilling lives of self-reliance and dignity.

Me with some of our community-based volunteers or animators

THP’s methodology relies on community mobilization to create sustainable change. When communities are involved in planning the project activities they are more committed to its implementation and they work hard to get the positive outcomes. As we often say at THP-Malawi, the “software” of a development project is as important as the hardware of the project.

We encourage community mobilization through our signature Vision, Commitment and Action (VCA) workshop, which uses five principles: change of mindset, good leadership, vision, commitment and action. This tool aims at addressing the “software” which is really mindset change. It aims at preparing communities to align their thinking to the project goals and objectives, which generally help attain community as well as individual goals. And it develops community-based advocates and leaders who are committed to driving progress.

Each piece of the VCA is critical to mobilizing the community and helping them define and achieve their own development goals.

Mindset change: We mobilize the community to shift their way of thinking from depending on others to address their problems and looking down on their own potential. We work with them to move from the thinking of ‘I cannot’ to ‘I can.’

Good leadership: We mobilize communities to embrace good leadership, as this is key in ensuring accountability to n achieve development goals both at household and community level. Without strong leaders, it is very difficult to attain developmental goals. Hence we work with the community to ensure they select individuals that have good morals and are interested in developing themselves and their communities and then train those leaders to help them grow in their potential.

Vision: During these VCA sessions, communities are asked to speak their vision. They are asked to think of both short term and long term goals at the household level as well as at the community level. We ask participants to draw their vision on a flip chart and identify the path to achieving their vision. Each time I attend a workshop, I really get excited to see how participants put their dreams and vision in the picture. It takes courage to dream and even more to share those visions with your community.

Commitment: Participants of the VCA session are asked to be committed to their vision. If they have a vision and are not making a deliberate effort to invest towards achieving their vision, it is as good having no vision at all. The commitment session solidifies the dream which they have. As a Project Officer, it is so fulfilling to see how excited participants are with putting everything together to achieve their dream within their means. It’s the point in this journey where they really start to see that change is possible — and they can drive it!

Action: Progress in this type of development requires that the community members deliberately take action and participate in various interventions, such as village savings and loans groups, food security and others to enhance learning and change of their current situation. More often than not, they are excited about participating in these programs, especially because they can see how it will help achieve the visions they have for their lives, their children’s lives and their communities.

Celebrating self-reliance in 2013

Each day, I get to work with individuals who had completely lost hope and believed their challenging situations had no solution. They decided to work with The Hunger Project and changed their mindset to believing that they can make a difference and that they are the agent of change themselves.

Generally through my interaction with these communities I have learnt that sometimes all the communities need is mind set change and little empowerment with resources to break through their cycle of poverty.

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.

Grace Mgabadere Chikowi is the Country Manager for THP-Malawi, having previously served as a HIV, Nutrition and Gender Officer for THP Malawi since 2014. Before joining THP, Grace worked as a Nutritionist for Nkhoma hospital, and as Project manager for Evangelical Lutheran Development Services. Grace has also worked as a Secondary school teacher and she holds a BSc in Nutrition and Food Science from the University of Malawi.

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