Can communities living in poverty, rather than national and international actors contribute to system changes?

edward.irby Dec 13, 2016
school 1

Blog from CEO Jasmina Haynes

Discussions around lasting development emphasise the importance of strengthening community action. However, is it really possible for people living in poverty, rather than national and international actors to contribute to system changes? And if so, why and how does this happen?

This October, on my first visit to a community where Integrity Action works, I got a clear answer- yes, ordinary people can do it and they do it because they desire the power and ability to shape the future of their own communities. The future that reflects their tradition, culture and their own interpretation of what ‘better’ means and looks like.

As I arrived at Namgoi, about an hour drive from Eldoret city, in Kenya, I noticed an impressive looking 2 stories high building. It was a lot grander than any other building that we have passed by and I assumed it was a private school or a company. I was immediately proven wrong as it turned out to be a public secondary school that is free of charge for local school children to attend. It’s the school that the government has paid a national standard amount to have built, so how come it’s done to such a high standard?! I was not the only one wondering as I noticed public servants from Mombasa visiting in search for the same answer.

As I met the school principle, parents, students and community members, the ‘secret’ of success became apparent and really there is nothing uniquely special to their approach. On the contrary, it’s quite simple. The school principle has led on the project in a transparent and accountable way. She has shared detailed building plans, income and expenditure against it, with 2 community selected monitors. Each quarter they would all meet up and go through what has been done and plans for the next quarter. Monitors would take photos, upload findings on and report back to community members. Transparency built trust and ownership over the school - it became something for everybody to be proud of as well as a symbol of what is possible when the community comes together. So much so that now parents will contribute 3,000 Kenyan Schillings over the next 2 years to build the school laboratory. This is a big commitment and for the majority equals the level of several months earning. However, the key is that they trust that the money will be used as planned and that children living in the community will be better off for many generations to come.

As I listened to parents, students, teachers and the principal speak about the school, I couldn’t fail to ‘feel’ the pride in the room. It’s something that they have done together and who knows, maybe just the beginning of a new way of community collaboration. Could this approach ensure that one day there is a medical centre, market place or a community centre to be proud off? Hearing students speaking so passionately about becoming monitors and the values of integrity as a moving force, I’m confident that this and the next generation will get there.

Going back to the question of ‘how the change has happened’, I believe that the answer is found in community monitors. They are the glue and the bridge that has this made possible for the community, the school and the contractors to understand and hear each other’s voices. Macy, a 21 years old girl who was one of the monitors at the secondary school, put it very eloquently: ‘it’s about volunteering to do service for your community. I feel proud to have been trusted and I have done my best not to let my community down’.

Leaving the community, I felt inspired and proud. Proud of Macy, the community, the school, as well as my organisation for creating a pathway for it to happen by putting accountability and transparency at the heart of development.

Sadly, the next project I’ve visited reminded me of the work that is still to be done. A contractor was paid by the government to build an Early Childhood Development room in the Mosobecho community. They had only done a shoddy job leaving a leaking roof, crumbling floor and no furniture. The room that was supposed to be a safe place for 30 4 year old children to learn and play. Teachers and local monitors were rightly angry and have, just like the community of Namgoi come together to find a solution by bringing the local authorities and the contractor to discuss a solution. I know they have found it since as the progress is captured by DevelopmentCheck, the autonomous platform that allows us to the see the progress or the lack off in communities that the sector serves.