20 of 25: To Make It Last

One thing that amazes me in the NGO world and more particularly in Save the Children’s work in Kenya is the mindset of how to translate short-term programs into long-term impact.

Program cycles last a year, two, maybe four, mostly influenced by funding limitations. Many of the programs we run here are behavior change programs, we work with local communities, mother, fathers, traditional birth attendants, community health volunteers, women only groups, chiefs, men barazas, midwives, to enlighten them on key health issues, to educate them, to change the way they think, hence change their beliefs and the way they act. So from human development point of view these cycles are really short. They are short, also because in a way they are innovative, experimental in the sense that we program from scratch, then launch, implement, monitor, test and learn. And it all takes time, by the time we have enough evidence to see what’s working or not and how to improve, programs are coming to their end, and there’s the real chance that there might not be ‘thereafter’ to continue the project… So whatever we do, we need to aim for a strong impact during the implementation. Plus we need to aim for sustainability. So answering the big question: what happens after we are gone.

One such project is the so-called Village Savings and Loan Associations. It targets community health volunteers, probably one of the most important stakeholders in the local community, who help us implement our programs. Community health volunteers visit households to map expectant women and to educate and encourage them to look for skilled healthcare. And I must tell you, from my perspective their job is not an easy one. They cover long distances in areas with difficult access, no roads, no infrastructure, to visit the 50, or even the 100 households they supervise. I was in the footsteps of a number of CHVs, in pursuit of interviews to cover various interventions. We were walking many kilometers in the heat of the day, to places without roads, electricity or running water, to places where vehicles cannot access and there’s no network coverage. We were rained on, we (I) got sunburnt, we were sliding in mud, we were climbing steep mountains.

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As you can see, it’s a beautiful nature, but it’s not an easy task, to cover huge distances to reach the households. So you would ask, what is their motivation? Well, for one, they are selected by the local community, so they have the trust and respect of the community members. They also receive a lot of support from the NGOs, they get training, they get guidance, they get phones with software to support their work, they belong to a strong network. So this work increases their social status, improves their image in the community. But beyond that, they are exactly that, volunteers, they receive some small reimbursement for their travelling, but ultimately they are not paid. At the end of the day they go home and need to provide food for their family. So once Save the Children or other NGOs withdraw, and there’s no structure or organization to support the community health volunteers, with trainings, meetings, guidance, then this leaves a gap in the system, and the question – what then? The intervention Save the Children have launched to bridge this gap is to empower community health volunteers economically, in a form of self-sustained and self-managed financial system, where members buy shares in a local savings and loan association, can take loans, and can save money. The so-called Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA).

I’ve been an observer to a few VSLA meetings, and I must say I was impressed by the way they function. The smiling, light-hearted mood of locals, when we meet on other occasions, gets very serious and formal here, they do take this program seriously!, and want to make it work, because they have personally benefited from the program. This keeps them motivated to continue, and very strict also to defaulting members. You miss a meeting without excuse? You will be penalized. You ask for a loan? You need to give strong justification and have the approval of the other members. You don’t have sufficient shares? You’ll not be granted the full loan you ask for. You miss a deadline to pay back? You’ll pay additional interest.

But if you follow the rules, and if you have entrepreneurial spirit and drive to succeed, you can change your life. Some community health volunteers have set up new businesses, some of them have expanded their businesses, many of them have improved their households, securing education for their children, building new houses… All of them are encouraged, confident, hopeful for the future. And extremely committed.

Why would they continue with their volunteering work? Well, because this gives them a sense of belonging, of fulfilment, they say they will never forget where they came from…

I come from a world, where business continuity and sustainability many times is taken for granted. Business cycles and planning horizons are not normally driven by the pressure that after the cycle ends, the business ends. We tend not to think what happens after, we presume business will continue to exist. Exit or downsizing strategies are considered as something extraordinary and bring about a lot of turbulence to the business. But this experience makes me think of impact and sustainability as something that requires a special effort, but also a special mindset. It gets me thinking… Like, when my assignment comes to its end, what will remain in this team from my work? Like, in the next role I take, how will I make my special footprint that will stay? Like, when I live my life, what will I leave behind?