Sustaining Stories and Developing Dreams
Our innovative behavioral programs begin with the stories. What are people saying about their life, moral dilemmas, contingencies and constraints, or their inability to put their best foot forward because of their particular circumstances – for example, when “sex-for exchange” is the only choice for impoverished women needing to feed their families. Through these intimate, participatory, and storied encounters, SSF learns about critical needs, and together with community members, we search for appropriate solutions. Our journey towards authentic development has caused us to move beyond Western-driven models – the “top-down” templates usually experienced and expected to be fulfilled by recipients in “development” projects. Rather, our vision and goal is to modify behavior in situations where the usual solutions are impractical or impossible to achieve.
We have accomplished this participatory design through the adoption of mbuntu principles – the African philosophical premise that argues: “we are who we are (being) because of our presence and participation with others in community (belonging)”. As such, mbuntu assumptive truths govern all of our program activities – in health, education, nutrition, water, and finance.
Yet in practical terms, how are these principles operationalized in the community and “on the ground”? One innovative challenge has been to identify appropriate vehicles for communicating what is required in implementing participatory development.
Participatory action research (PAR) has been our preferred methodology over the years Salama SHIELD Foundation (SSF) has been present in Sub-Saharan Africa. PAR grew out of the efforts of liberation theologians in South America, and has subsequently shaped reflection-and-action processes in development. Persons, individuals, and community members – located and living at the grass-roots – are the creators of their own destinies. Our role within Salama SHIELD Foundation, is quite simply to come alongside and nurture (with the resources we have available) the participatory processes towards achieving authentic development. AS Willms suggests,Participatory action-research is based on this liberating understanding of the nature of inquiry. It is about individuals and groups researching their personal beings, social-cultural settings, and experiences … the recovery of personal and social histories, re-examination of realities, and regaining of power through deliberate actions leads to the production of knowledge that can nurture, empower, and liberate persons and groups to achieve a more humane and equitable world …
Doing PAR means taking a journey because PAR is about movement – movement from the way things are to the way things could be. It is about transformation on both personal and social levels.
PAR, linked with other scientific research methods, elicits for SSF the evidence and knowledge base that drives our concept construction, implementation, and evaluation of interventions and programs. As such, we pride ourselves in actualizing a research action organization (NGO).
Over these many years, we have also built on PAR principles to implement decision-making and problem-solving solutions to development concerns. We accomplish this through organized conceptual events which are defined as:
facilitated, creative, problem-based forums that “intentionally nudge” persons with differing truth perspectives (or paradigms) to construct a shared, ethically compelling framework for understanding the problem and the behavioral and social solution”.
How is it that we should persuasively communicate our integrated development model?
In African villages, an elder will pick up the handle of his/her wooden stool and join friends in a neighbor’s compound. They will comfortably socialize, reminisce, tell stories, and look for appropriate solutions to the problems experienced in the present. As a practical metaphor, the arm, legs, seat, and base of an African stool symbolize the following:
The arm of the stool represents necessary connections to a larger community. When community members work together as equals in resolving difficult problems, they can achieve almost anything when they solve problems together. The reason for positing this is that they are backed by the ancestors, and also supported by a community of living, socially engaged friends.
The (five) legs of the stool reflect the inter-linked nature of the programs that enhance the well-being of persons in community: ensuring safe drinking water, food security, health promotion through education and support, finance through poverty reduction, and educational opportunities made available for youth. All of the Salama for Life programs are linked to these five legs of the stool. No one leg alone is sufficient to accomplish sustainable, enduring development impacts.
The seat of the stool is the most comfortable – as it should be. It expresses the outcomes from these comprehensive, synergistically-linked and –connected programs. There emerges, therefore, evidence of poverty reduction because of the micro-credit revolving loan (MCRL) program instituted in the community.
The vast majority of non-government organization (NGO) initiatives are projects only and not programs. By that I mean, a NGO will support a potable water scheme, another a health project, and another targeting orphans for adoption – all of them projects. Our experience at the level of community is that critical, unmet felt-needs constitute a full set of basic needs experienced at the same time: egs., being impoverished, hungry, lacking safe drinking water, malnourished, and where young people lack education. SSF has recognized this complex, interconnected suite of concerns, and seeks to address this multiple set holistically. For example, scarce access to safe water results in limited hygiene and sanitation opportunities, disease risk (water-borne diseases), and under nutrition. Limited nutrition undermines the requirements for HIV medicinal care and support; it also causes stunted growth in children. This compromised physiological state undermines cognitive capacities and the ability to learn. A lack of education is a contributing factor to poverty and vocational opportunities.
What is required, therefore, are interventions (or integrated development programs) that attend to these connected critical concerns in an orchestrated fashion – attending to all basic needs in concert.
The following programs attest to our approach to participatory, authentic development, and highlight the importance of attending to the needs associated with health, water, finance, nutrition, and education together, conducted in creative harmony with all stakeholders.