What you may have missed from Barack Obama's Africa trip

U.S. President Barack Obama greets embassy staff and their families at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya during a visit to Africa in July 2015. Photo by: Pete Souza / White House

Over the past couple of weeks, Africa has been featured in more global headlines than usual as U.S. President Barack Obama visited Kenya and Ethiopia.

While President Obama’s trip rightly focused global attention on key development challenges in Africa, including good governance and access to electricity, the media gave little coverage to the community-based organizations working on the “front lines” to improve lives at the base of the pyramid in a lasting way.

As defined by Service for Peace, community-based development organizations treat poor communities and their institutions as partners in the search for solutions to their development challenges, rather than simply viewing them as the target of poverty reduction efforts.

We visited Kenya and Uganda to meet with several such community-based development organizations while Obama traveled in the region. Even against the backdrop of $7 billion government initiatives and presidential speeches, it became clearer than ever to us that the local change-makers in community-based development organizations are critical to building real momentum for sustainable development — something we all agree is necessary to truly reduce global poverty.

The power of local cohesion

Much of the traditional development assistance underway in rural areas like those we visited could benefit from incorporating community-based development approaches. In northern Uganda, for example, a malaria epidemic has affected 350,000 people over the past three months. A previous indoor residual spraying intervention lowered the natural immunity of residents, made them more complacent about taking preventive measures, and led local health facilities to stop stocking malaria drugs — all of which made the communities more vulnerable to the crisis underway.

Top-down health and poverty alleviation schemes like this would have a better chance of creating meaningful impact if they involved local communities in the design, implementation and maintenance of solutions.

But there’s an understandable reason why many do not: Community-based development is not simple or quick. Communities in rural Uganda, for example, are loose associations of people who live close to each other and are bound by kinship. It takes considerable time and effort for communities to organize themselves into functional bodies capable of understanding community needs and determining how to satisfy them.

For decades, development assistance has created a culture in which these communities are recipients, not leaders of their own solutions. Many development thinkers have started conversations around how we can shift that culture to make sustainable progress; how residents of poor, rural communities can be problem solvers rather than problems, and can embrace changes they generate internally.

But as many can attest, this doesn’t just come about through the “teach a man to fish” method. In the end, serious change isn’t about development practitioners training others, but rather about local communities identifying their problems and coming up with sustainable solutions. When this change happens, it’s powerful. It not only allows a community’s resilience and self-advocacy skills to shine through, it also enables the community to connect with their local government and adapt continuously to a changing world, rather than relying on help from outside.

Two examples from our recent travels illustrate the potential for community-based solutions to emerge from the shadows.

Wayne L. Firestone, CEO of International Lifeline Fund with community health club graduates in Uganda. Photo by: International Lifelife Fund

Singing ‘sustainable’ outcomes

Justin Otai, Uganda’s former ministry of health and WASH official, sits in the threadbare office space he shares with the water ministry. He speaks with the excitement and energy of a young community organizer, alongside the wisdom of a seasoned government official who knows how to work with the system to get results. Despite his graying hair, he has resisted the temptations of retirement to return to northern Uganda, where he oversees the work of an International Lifeline Fund 75-village network of health clubs that supports community empowerment and education.

The club network was originally designed two years ago as a delivery system for health and hygiene education to work toward universal access to water, but it is morphing into a platform that showcases local learning communities at the village and district levels, promotes leadership development that sticks around after the initial intervention, deploys scalable innovative mobile banking technologies, and even creates some locally grown edutainment in the form of health-themed dramas, songs and dances.

One of the verses sung by community activists at a summer graduation ceremony for the club proclaimed its philosophy well: “Our work is our health, our health is our water, and our community is our responsibility. We are our teachers; pwonya (teach).”

From stigma to resilience

From a small office in Nairobi, Kenya, Joyce Kingori operates a mental health services platform supported by BasicNeeds that serves stigmatized smallholder coffee farmers and disenfranchised individuals in rural and nomadic communities. By using established health facilities as a formal entry point, Joyce and her team work with these community members to form self-help groups that are paired up with the most local levels of government. Group members provide emotional support for each other, serving as a vehicle for social and economic empowerment.

Through the first six to eight months of these groups, BasicNeeds and its community development partners support the identification and treatment of hundreds of people who live with undiagnosed mental disorders and epilepsy.

Eventually, a group that used to include people who would be tied to trees for “treatment” transformed into a group of advocates. That seemingly incremental change shows its true power as group members start turning their personal interests into livelihoods, relying on the support of fellow community members as they each pick up the skills they have or want to become self-reliant. While some members engage in enterprising activities, such as farming, tailoring and craft making, others decide to invest in their education or career development.

Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability

Given the enormity of the intractable health and poverty problems in Africa, is forward-looking development work doomed to another decade of unsustainable community-level interactions? Not if we are thinking about sustainability as integrally connected to achieving impact.

Governments and large nongovernmental organizations are doing a lot to address the world’s most pressing issues, but it is imperative that they connect their efforts with these change-makers — even though they may be operating in the shadows.

An editorial in the Ugandan Sunday Vision explained this well as it reflected on the recent malaria epidemic: “The main lesson from the Northern Ugandan malaria crisis is that sustainability should be at the core of every development program. Without a sustainability plan it is easy to lose the gains made by any intervention.”

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Wayne Firestone

    Wayne L. Firestone is the CEO of International Lifeline Fund, a Washington, D.C.-​based NGO that promotes deep community engagement in bottom-of-the-pyramid countries by implementing low​-​cost and highly replicable interventions. Firestone is a Georgetown-​educated international lawyer, Kogod entrepreneur fellow at American University Business School​ and member of the Washington Chapter of the Society for International Development.
  • Moitreyee Sinha

    Moitreyee Sinha is the associate director of the health and infrastructure portfolio at the Global Development Incubator, where she works with new initiatives and social enterprises including International Lifeline Fund and Basic Needs. Before joining GDI, Moitreyee managed the global health portfolio for the GE Foundation and has extensive experience in leading large-scale global initiatives, shaping cross-sector collaborations and social changes at the crossroads of public, private and philanthropic sectors. She has received the Kingdom of Cambodia's highest award for philanthropy.