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Sustainable development is often a difficult concept to grasp, especially considering, as most practitioners can attest, public administration is a domain with very few absolute answers and even fewer once-and-for-all solutions. Drawing on a case study of a prominent international non-profit organization called Africare, this paper will attempt to demonstrate that, although results-based, the key to achieving sustainable development is often tied to an organization’s capacity to design and implement effective, lasting processes to accomplish developmental goals. Moreover, this paper seeks to offer an alternative perspective on development for aspiring public administrators who often view development strictly in terms of benchmarks and baseline measurements.
Headquartered in Washington, DC, Africare maintains some 21 country offices and several regional offices throughout the continent of Africa. Although in terms of operating budget, Africare is not the largest organization working in Africa however having conducted, to date, over 2,000 projects that have directly benefited an excess of 6.5 million people across 36 countries, Africare’s scope of influence far exceeds that of any other US-based organization working in Africa. Africare sets collective priorities based on three major tenets:
Based largely on the author’s personal experiences working in Africare’s Senegal country office, this paper will elaborate on how the above goals have contributed to the organization’s continued excellence in the field of sustainable development.
When I accepted an internship with Africare, I had recently completed my undergraduate degree and was eager to put my skills to work. Much of my work was related to Community Health initiatives, which were administered by Africare in collaboration with a consortium of equally well-known non-profits. At the center of the Community Health framework were tiny, often one or two room buildings referred to as “health huts.” Rather than being an invention of foreign staff, health huts were created by rural residents who, due to tragically high instances of malarial infections, maternal death, and malnutrition, pooled their resources to establish rudimentary clinics to administer first aid on a local level. Unfortunately, few of these residents were familiar with basic health principles and medical standards thus without the proper equipment, necessary medications, or medical know-how, the “health huts” generally did more harm than good. True to their organizational principles, Africare’s staff:
1) Went Where the Need was Greatest
In a nation-wide initiative, each consortium member accepted responsibility for administering the Community Health initiatives in specific regions—generally within those regions concerned organization was most familiar with and could offer the most logistical support. They conducted a census of populations and consulted with local community leaders in order to a) confirm that the local community felt that their intervention was warranted, b) that community members were willing to accept the new responsibilities involved in participating in the initiative, and c) ensure that they invested resources in “health huts” in proportion to their serving populations—health huts are strategically placed to be available to residents of up to 3 villages.
2) Supported Local Initiatives
Taking note of the locally based efforts, Africare and its consortium of partners solicited international donors for financial and material resources to train the “health hut” volunteers how to identify and treat simple illnesses and to recognize more serious illnesses in order to refer patients to more advanced medical staff in a timely fashion, assisted these volunteers in establishing working relationships with local hospitals in order to encourage information sharing and engagement, and oversaw the provision of much needed medications and equipment, such as malaria tests, insecticide treated mosquito nets, water purification tablets, and rehydration salts—for those suffering from the effects of dehydration, often as a result of severe diarrhea.
3) Integrated Activities Across Sectors
Perhaps even more inspiring is how local volunteers have taken the initiative to engage community members. In many communities, women organize support groups and mentoring for young and expecting mothers to ensure that they maintain healthy diets and clean home environments to reduce the instance of maternal and child mortality, others host cultural events and skits aimed at raising awareness about the causes, symptoms, and ways of preventing prevalent illnesses, and in still other communities, volunteers visit local schools and teach primary students critical health skills such as how to retreat mosquito nets with insecticide and other techniques for preventing malaria.
When visiting program beneficiaries, a recurrent sentiment was that, while community members were appreciative of the material and financial support Africare provided, what had truly made the Community Health initiative a lasting change was that the organization had been strategic in treating them as coequals and partners. They created lines of communications with stakeholders, but also allowed volunteers room to implement program activities in a way that accounted for varying cultural attitudes and traditions; for example, the mentoring groups are largely based on ethnicity because, while one group leader explained that many of the women in her group did not obtain prenatal care from hospitals because of a perception that announcing a pregnancy could put the child in jeopardy of being harmed by jealous neighbors, another woman explained that giving birth alone signified bravery for women in her ethnic group.
Although Africare has collected a wealth of information on program outcomes, their emphasis on the ground is assisting individuals in navigating the process of change and helping them to understand that true, lasting change begins in the public sphere, but must ultimately alter personal behaviors and mindsets. Finally, by focusing on engaging residents in the process of development, rather than concentrating exclusively on outcomes, Africare has imparted the irrevocable gift of knowledge that will span generations.
Author: Kendra Brumfield is a 2013 Founders’ Forum Fellow.