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How We Measure Success: A Participatory Approach to Sustainability

By Cynthia Runyenje
on September 22, 2020

Let’s set the scene: a project sought to address the high mortality rates due to malaria in villages in the coastal region of Kenya. The intervention was to distribute insecticide-treated mosquito nets to hundreds of the villages as a preventive measure of malaria. For twelve months, the project distributed the mosquito nets to households in the villages, after which the project ended, having been deemed successful. After a year, the project implementers came back to the same villages to measure the impacts of the intervention and record the success stories from the beneficiaries. Only to find that the mosquito nets that were distributed and installed in each household were now being used as fishing nets and for fencing chicken coops in their poultry farms.  After engaging the community, the project implementers discovered that the villagers’ top priority was not malaria prevention but rather having a consistent source of income to feed their families. Thus, to them, the mosquito nets were useful in fishing and for their poultry farming. This is what the community felt was important to them.

The project implementers were now aware of the priorities of the community and were able to re-strategize for the next phase of the project. The next set of interventions centered around not only distributing mosquito nets but also distributing fishing nets and educating the community on alternative ways of building chicken coops without using nets. By the end of the project, the households were utilizing the mosquito nets for their intended purpose and the impact of the project was not only reduced malaria infections but also sustained livelihood for the community from the fishing and poultry farming. The use of mosquito nets for malaria prevention was, ultimately, sustained even after the project ended, due to the small tweak made from the information obtained from the community. The project was successful as it met the needs of all parties, the community and implementers, thus being sustainable.

Photo © CARE Malawi Maternal Health Alliance Project, 2015, focus group discussion on the community scorecard, Malawi   

The above case study highlights the importance of a participatory approach in project conceptualization and evaluation. Over the years, there has been a shift in how projects are deemed successful. Success has shifted from simply implementing and completing activities, to actual outcomes and impact attained from the interventions implemented. Impact is defined as “the long-term and sustainable change introduced by a given intervention in the lives of beneficiaries”. This includes both intended impacts per the specific project objectives and the unanticipated impact caused by the interventions. A Participatory Impact Assessment (PIA) emphasizes the need for beneficiaries/communities to participate in informing what impact and success mean to them and whether or not the project has been able to address issues they feel are important to them. The community, as the beneficiaries, should participate not only in the implementation of the project but also in the project conceptualization, particularly in defining what desired change they would like to see in their lives as a result of the project. The beneficiary involvement should also be in defining how success will be measured (impact indicators), the collection of data, interpretation, and communication of assessment findings.

Also, PIAin its methodology looks at not only numbers but also the qualitative angle as an indicator of impact. This being the stories behind what is observed, such as changes in perception, attitude, knowledge and wellbeing, among others. This empowers the community and brings about buy-in and ownership for sustainability.

The participatory approach is also a flexible approach that is adaptable to local conditions and contexts. This emphasizes the community/beneficiaries as experts in developing and assessing impacts based on the local contexts and community needs. The participatory approach can also include diversity of perspectives from among the participants. Success and impact are recorded per the various subgroups. An example being disaggregates based on gender, social-economic status, marginalized communities among others.

Governments at all levels, both national and sub-national, also play a key role in participation by developing legislation and policies that encourage, guide and advocate for public participation. In Kenya, Article 10 of the constitution, includes participation of the people as one of the national values and principles of governance. In addition, the country’s long-term development blueprint, Vision 2030, further breaks it down in its Third Medium Term Plan 2018-2022 under the social pillar, the importance of public participation in project cycle management. Furthermore, the Public Participation Bill 2016, once enacted will be a framework for effective public participation, to give effect to the constitutional principles of democracy and participation of the people.

In summary, impact definition and evaluations should not solely be donor-driven, but should be a fine balance between beneficiary-needs as well as donor expectations, facilitated by an overarching framework for effective public participation. Although the participatory methods may face challenges in implementation and ensuring actual participation in practice, it is a great approach in building relationships between the donor, implementing organizations and communities, for sustainability.

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