Building resilience in communities on the brink of disaster

By Aerie Changala 15 December 2015

A Nuru Ethiopia staffer teaches farmers how to properly space seeds during planting. Holistic approaches are integral to good development practice, and will be essential to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, says Aerie Changala. Photo by: Nuru International

Editor's Note: Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar joined the board of directors of Nuru International, a nonprofit organization, in 2014.

The sky blackened as locusts descended upon our small village on the border of the Sahel Desert. I was only weeks into my Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, but for the Fulani people living there for generations, it was the worst devastation anyone had ever seen. Overnight all vegetation was gone. The combination of locusts and drought destroyed millet harvests and green pastures for livestock. This exacerbated an already food insecure situation for 1,000 people living on the edge of a growing desert.

My assignment to build a meeting room for a village savings club and teach bookkeeping quickly became absurd after the locusts came. All of the able-bodied men left with their cattle literally in search of greener pastures. Women, children and the elderly stayed behind. The village became a ghost town as the food security situation deteriorated. Poverty began to compound, as everyone who was left just tried to hold on.

Compelled by this experience in 2004, I’ve since worked to help populations perpetually on the brink of disaster become more resilient. At Nuru International, we focus on ending extreme poverty in remote, rural areas by training leaders to deliver locally-designed, integrated development programs. We believe that such holistic approaches are integral to good development practice, and will be essential to achieving the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals.

Here are four tenets that have shaped how Nuru designs programs for smallholder farmer households across remote regions of Kenya and Ethiopia, and can be applied across other areas:

Focus on basic needs

Nuru programs address four areas of basic need: hunger, inability to cope with economic shocks, preventable disease and death and lack of quality education for children.

The same needs that can compound extreme poverty can be leveraged as synergies to reinforce poverty eradication.

Here’s how: farmers sick with preventable illnesses like malaria and diarrhea may lose a week of working their land or earning income.

By teaching healthy behaviors to prevent disease, farmers have a greater chance of working the land and earning income when healthy. Truly, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” in integrated programming.

Deliver programs in an intentional sequence

At Nuru, integrated programming doesn’t mean all interventions are operating simultaneously. In designing around how farmers live their lives, Nuru has developed a layered sequence for its programs.

Farmers start with increasing yields and then progress to microsavings, diversifying income, adopting healthy behaviors, paying school fees and so on. Farmer households are at the center of the program design process.

The endgame is increasing resilience

Farming by nature is a risky business. It is just as important to plan for bad years as it is to plan for good years. Through sequenced, integrated programming, farmers can become increasingly resilient.

After increasing income through selling surplus crops, Nuru farmers learn ways to diversify income.

Village savings and loan programs build farmers’ ability to cope with economic shocks. In good years, farmers accumulate savings. In bad years, farmers rely on savings. Health care is used to reduce illness and, thereby, shocks.

Learn from failure

In trying to solve an age-old problem as complex and persistent as poverty, it is extremely unlikely that any single organization will solve it alone. Integrated rural development is not new. It has been around for decades.

Many communities have encountered integrated rural development projects in the past. Nuru seeks to learn from our partner communities so that what we can replicate what worked and innovate on what didn’t.

For organizations transitioning to integrated programs, consider taking these steps:

1. Adopt layered sequencing into programming through focusing on strategic entry points that can either amplify impact on the target population or remove barriers. Nuru has found that this sequencing can be done incrementally over time as programs evolve.

2. Design for resilience in programming by not just focusing solely on impact, but rather on continued impact. Build in contingency plans. What happens when crops fail, farmers get sick or food prices rise? Reducing risk and building savings have been core to Nuru’s resiliency. Check assumptions and stress test theories of change.

3. Spend time reflecting on failures. Learn from failure by acknowledging failures and sharing with other organizations to avoid repeating mistakes. The goal of the international development community should be to provide better services to our beneficiaries. We all need to continually learn and improve.

Eradicating extreme poverty on a global scale will only be achieved by building resilience at the household and community levels. And by leveraging integrated development programs to build synergy we can accelerate the end of extreme poverty.

How can an intentional, integrated approach to the design, delivery and evaluation of programs make an enduring difference in people’s lives? Devex, in partnership with FHI 360, aims to advance the global conversation on the promise offered by integrated development solutions through #IntegratedDev. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #IntegratedDev.

About the author

Aerie changala
Aerie Changala

Aerie Changala is director of international operations since 2011. Having spent the majority of his adult life living throughout Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, Aerie has traveled extensively, speaks seven languages and brings a global perspective to his work at Nuru. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso and specialized in microfinance.

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