The Hunger Project’s Epicenter Strategy in Africa is a systematic, honed and proven process for empowering clusters of villages to establish self-reliant, community-led, integrated systems of basic public services. Today, more than 120 epicenters serve nearly 2 million people in rural areas across eight African countries. But the strategy did not tumble from the skies fully baked. It slowly emerged from a brick chicken house built by women in northern Senegal, and some lessons learned along the way.
The Hunger Project’s program in Senegal was launched in 1991 at the invitation of then-President Diouf following a conference that gave rise to a new, decentralized and flexible methodology for rural development called Strategic Planning-in-Action, or SPIA. SPIA involves creating local multi-sector councils that facilitate bottom-up planning with communities.
In 1993, after a period of organizational planning, Senegal’s SPIA Council began working with impoverished rural women from MPal, a village in President Diouf’s home region of Louga. Although women in MPal were already demonstrating self-reliant action through their involvement in savings groups, they were still located very far from Dakar, making it difficult to demonstrate the potential of the multi-sector community planning council method’s to policy makers. This was our first lesson learned.
The women knew that a good pathway out of poverty in the Sahel was to raise chickens, but this required unaffordable infrastructure. The Hunger Project leveraged their existing loan fund with a strategic investment, which enabled the savings group to buy the mortar and make the bricks necessary to construct their own chicken house.
This success was catalytic for these women: They had never conceived that funding and overseeing a construction project was within their reach. Their mindset quickly shifted from, “I can’t,” to, “I can,” to “we can” – a critical transition in perspective that underpins The Hunger Project’s capacity-building techniques. The “we can” outlook played out over the next few years as the women took on new initiatives. They soon built a literacy training center and a space for their growing rural bank, all in close proximity to the chicken house.
Local men who at first were resistant to women becoming literate eventually changed their minds, showing us that gender and cultural norms in rural areas are often far more flexible than we think.
To ensure government engagement and buy-in, the women invited the regional governor to “cut the ribbon” on each new building. This created a constructive relationship that led to the government assigning and funding a nurse-midwife and clinic near the chicken house, the bank, and the literacy training center.
While The Hunger Project takes on a finite period of capacity-building, government has a long-term partnership with each community and citizen. For example, the women of MPal passed rigorous literacy and numeracy exams in 1996, opening the door for their group to become a legally recognized savings and credit cooperative. Their hard-won government recognition permitted them to accept outside deposits and reinvest savings in the community. Armed with this long-term ability to generate and grow wealth, they told our Senegal team at the time, “OK, now go support our sisters” in other areas, which we did.
By 1996, we had established a similar program in neighboring Ghana. The approach of mobilizing communities to establish a centrally located complex of buildings and arming them with confidence-building workshops and skills to launch income-generating projects began to take on a life of its own.
When The Hunger Project’s Africa director, Fitigu Tadesse, was showing the program to government officials, one said, “Oh, what a nice community center!” The construction of community centers in Africa actually has a bad reputation, as they tend to sit idle for lack of local ownership. Tadesse responded with both pride and outrage.
“No! This is not a community center!” he said. “This is the epicenter of community mobilization.”
In that moment, the name of our approach – The Epicenter Strategy – was born.
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, The Hunger Project began training thousands of community members as “animators,” or locally acceptable role volunteers able to leverage scarce staff resources. Our African colleagues were initially skeptical that these methodologies could work for them, but nonetheless piloted them in early 1998. They worked brilliantly – adapted to an African “call and response” methodology, providing an army of animators in each epicenter that could reach every family and village within walking distance of the epicenter building. Elected “epicenter committees” were then established to manage the many epicenter programs.
Soon animators became specialized in the areas of health, agriculture, nutrition and other sectors according to personal passions, forming subcommittees for setting and achieving sectoral goals.
At that time, reflecting on the Beijing Platform, our teams recognized that though our programs focused on improving the lives of women, they did not alter the patriarchal gender dynamic. After consultations with numerous feminists from across Africa, we concluded that the highest-leverage intervention would be economic empowerment via an African Woman Food Farmer Initiative of credit, training and advocacy – run by women for women. They recommended it be separate and independent from the Epicenter Strategy.
This last point proved a serious mistake. Our work to establish women-owned rural banks worked well within the integrated program of the epicenter, but failed as a stand-alone program. Dual management systems also created conflicts. Fairly quickly we “re-integrated” the African Woman Food Farmer Initiative into the Epicenter Strategy.
As part of this overall gender-focus, we redoubled our commitment to always have gender parity in all epicenter committees and subcommittees, and launched WEP, a Women’s Empower Program of workshops on women’s rights led by WEP animators. And, as a result of attending the UN Special Session on AIDS in 2001, we developed an HIV and AIDS and Gender Inequality Workshop, which helped both women and men think through the gender factors that fueled the epidemic.
The next tough lesson came in 2006, when we launched a scale-up demonstration in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Until then, each country had typically launched no more than one or two new epicenters per year; now we would launch eight per year. This collided with the local committees’ established habit of leaving every decision to their country director. We had to train field staff to exercise far more independence with decision-making authority, and nurture within our country directors a greater willingness to delegate authority.
The most recent lesson was that legal bank recognition does not suffice as a sole indicator of self-reliance. Beginning in 2012, our African colleagues developed a scorecard of 52 indicators across eight major goals to determine when an epicenter is sustainably able to set and achieve its goals in all key sectors: health, nutrition, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, and economic development. In 2015 and 2016, our first 15 epicenters achieved this status.
There are more lessons The Hunger Project needs to learn, particularly to meet challenges of climate change and youth engagement. Our greatest unfinished task is to have this kind of gender-focused, community-led development fully owned and integrated into local governance systems. This is becoming more likely with a new wave of democratic decentralization currently underway in Africa. The 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals also recognizes the necessity of integrated solutions and strong institutions at the local level.
Making this a reality is our 2020 goal. We will keep you posted!