Author: Universities of Medical Sciences of the Provinces of Hormozgan, Kohgiluye-Boyer Ahmad, Kurdistan (Ministry of Health and Medical Education), Centre for Sustainable Development and Environment (CENESTA)
The Area-Based Development project, funded by the UNICEF Country Programme for Iran, has been implemented by the Centre for Sustainable Development and Environment (CENESTA), with the Co-operation of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. The two-year project officially began in August 1998, and was expected to last until July 2000. The institutional partners emphasised critical concerns about participation, capacity building and improving the conditions of women and children. It is a process-oriented project that has been evolving based on the lessons learned from the communities.
Purpose / Objective
This evaluation, carried out in 2000, was requested to: a) assess the process, results and impacts so far achieved; b) assess appropriateness and effectiveness of the adopted strategic approach; and c) provide recommendations to UNICEF, CENESTA, the project institutional partners and the beneficiary communities for optimising the project impacts and pursuing lessons learned in all appropriate contexts.
The Area-based project is to be evaluated in terms of process, outputs and impact on the health and well-being of women and children in the fifteen pilot communities. It is to also be evaluated regarding the surrounding conditions that may foster or impede the sustainability of the achieved gains.
This was a very participatory evaluation, both in the members of the team (which included all three key stakeholders - MoH, UNICEF and CENESTA), and in the techniques that were used for information gathering about the project. The principal methods were as follows:
Semi-structured interviews - list of topics/themes to explore; with stakeholders, gatekeepers, and residents, both male and female
Focus group - assigning discussion about a set of topics or guiding questions, and then handing over to the community; followed by discussion with probes; conducted with men and women separately, occasionally with youth
Village walkabout - viewing achievements and problems in the community; seeing aspects of everyday community life; conducted with community animator/co-ordinator and some residents
Participatory observation - eating and sleeping in the community, using community facilities; seeing their shops, storerooms, latrines, homes, etc.
Participatory plenary/large focus group meeting with multiple stakeholders (using idea cards); conducted with sectoral and intersectoral groups plus community animators and co-ordinators
Documents review (for materials available in English)
Key Findings and Conclusions
Participation strengths - Respondents in the evaluation affirmed the participatory nature of the Area-Based Programme, and offered many indications of its participatory character and outcomes. Participating communities have felt more self-confident as a consequence of the project activities, including training, analysis and practice of skills. Observers reported that communities were doing more planning for themselves than they were capable of, prior to the project. This was linked to their increasing capacity for analysis.
Participation weaknesses - There have been some difficulties with mobilising women in the project areas as animators, members of the sanduq committees, and as health workers. This is linked to the intensity of cultural values and sensitivity related to gender; in the face of such feelings, the project designers focussed in the beginning on getting the participation of male community members. They felt that it was imperative to establish a degree of trust in these traditionally male-dominated communities before seeking active involvement of female community members, which could take much longer than the two years of this project cycle.
Accountability - Many of the sanduqs are being created in environments that are not accustomed to formal accounting, either because of limitations of literacy or because collective enterprise has not often occurred in the past. Despite the limited background with formal accounting procedures, the sanduqs and the implementing agency report that villages have been able to devise accounting methods in order to maintain the sanduqs. Building on this indigenous understanding has a strong advantage in participatory ownership of the accounting. At the same time, however, it can introduce various inconsistencies and thereby affect monitoring by the co-ordinating sanduqs or CENESTA.
Preventive health and environmental sanitation behaviour - Some latrines were reportedly built in most of the villages, and attributed to the inputs of the project. However, the achievements in this area were often lower than what the animators and co-ordinators desired for the communities. According to the project implementers, this may represent overly high aspirations by the community animators and co-ordinators. The project was not financially equipped to take on an expensive latrine-building programme, and the provision of latrines was not a part of the UNICEF-sponsored component of this project. The planners have also noted that the Government is well equipped and has the financial means to take on such an endeavour.
Many of the rural villages complained of solid waste (rubbish) build-up in their communities but, rather than organising local clean-up arrangements, they were waiting for/expecting sectoral assistance for mechanised clean-ups, similar to those occurring in urban areas. Again, this represents a mismatch between expectations and resources available.
During the implementation, the programme workers encouraged and facilitated the process of developing contacts with local authorities, especially sub-district and district governors. These authorities, in turn, were able, in some areas, to facilitate intersectoral linkages, e.g., with water, agriculture, social affairs, co-operatives, fisheries, etc. Some government sectors in the programme districts/provinces are quite aware of the programme, and some have visited the project settings/villages.
However, there is no collective forum at which village/community issues are routinely presented to and input received from multiple sectors under the governors. Thus, the extent of co-ordination varies considerably from one area to another, depending on the interest of the officials and their duration in office (which was sometimes preciously short before they were transferred or moved to other areas).
Long term plans - Involvement with this project has substantially raised the planning interest and capability of the participating communities. The communities are beginning to dream and open their horizons beyond the mundane. A wide range of potential larger-scale projects were being conceived and explored by communities, ranging from producing bottled water, to building schools, to improving access to transport. Some communities were already creating concept papers and proposals for these ideas, and starting to discuss them with the responsible government sectors.
Use of sanduq funds - the sanduqs were using the seed money in several different ways. What is exciting is that they were succeeding at becoming profitable in all the different areas, and doing so in quite a short time despite various constraints. The more common strategy was communal investment in a joint venture (e.g., a retail grocery in Surgalm, a wholesale store in Gohert, a fishing boat with motor and nets in Baghan). These joint ventures sometimes included co-funding by wealthy community members, enabling the seed money to contribute to substantially bigger projects than it might have done otherwise. Less commonly, some of the communities, especially in the Yasuj area (e.g., Amir-Abad, Bar Aftab) decided to use their money to fund local micro-credit projects.
Transfer of ideas
Spread of innovations - According to the information availed to the review, this project is unique, at least in the regions where it has been established, and probably in the whole country. As such, the spread of ideas from this project may be an important indicator of impact, as well as showing receptiveness to its expansion or replication in other areas.
Neighbouring communities - There were several examples of how project innovations are beginning to spread to neighbouring communities. Where neighbouring villages see that a village's needs are being met, it can be a powerful entry point for sharing ideas and stimulating participation.
Information sharing - some of the technical people associated with the project are beginning to transfer the lessons learnt to other arenas. All the villages indicated willingness to share their experiences with other groups that are interested in the project, including other villages that want to try a similar approach.
Documentation - The project villages are maintaining their own archives of correspondence, handouts, data collection and PRA maps and tools that have been created locally. The implementing NGO, CENESTA, has also made a significant effort to collect copies of all of the key documents. CENESTA has then archived copies, as well as presenting copies to important stakeholders, like the provincial government authorities. Animators have become accustomed to preparing activity reports and are increasingly using the project computers to write these reports.
Education and child development
Libraries/books - All of the project communities had received a donation of books from UNICEF and the Ministry of Education - 300 books, mostly targeted toward children. None of the villages had a community library before this donation. Some of the communities were particularly adamant about the positive value of the books for their community. Much as the books were appreciated and communities were requesting more, it was unusual to find a community that had managed to supplement the original donation. This may be a reflection of a combination of factors libraries as an exceedingly new innovation in communities, very rural communities with little or no access to book outlets, and even a lack of awareness among the various government sectors about the existence of the libraries and their potential to use them for circulating documents and facilitating their own sectoral education efforts.
Child development - four people (two males and two females) were invited from each of the programme villages to a workshop on child welfare and development. Following this workshop, the participants returned to their villages and tried to mobilise their communities to implement the ideas of the workshop, such as day care programmes, increased emphasis on child and women's rights, better nutrition for children, and more support to play and intellectual development for children. Some communities really took the child development workshop to heart and acted upon the ideas when they got home, e.g., developing recreation facilities and activities for children, improving child nutrition, and setting up a day care centre.
Education for girls - Access to education for girls has been limited in many areas, both in terms of family permission to attend and in terms of schools that are set up to teach to girls. The project has worked intensively with the education sector in Jask, Bandar Abbas and in Tehran to improve this situation for the project areas.
Child rights/child welfare - Child rights issues were included in the initial three-week training workshop at Jask for community animators. Several of the communities have taken action on their own after the workshop, showing the potential for change when there is active follow-up in the community. Actions have included community meetings and discussions, better communication with children, more participation of children in community events, identifying vulnerable children, and even taking ownership of a child welfare programme that had previously been ignored.
While this project is still relatively young, the strong environmental background of CENESTA as the implementing agency has helped stimulate community awareness and support community involvement in environmental issues. Environmental activities that were adopted or promoted in many of the communities included improvement of human waste disposal addressed principally through health education, though some sanduqs also used community funds to address the problem. The use of solar cookers was initiated as a pilot project, through a donation of such cookers to the sanduqs, together with some training in their use, and engaging communities in making specific suggestions for improvements relative to their local practices and conditions. Although it was not part of the project proposal, some communities were also getting increasingly involved with tree planting, improved agricultural practices, advocacy for collaborative management of public lands and natural resources, and improved harvesting of natural resources.
Challenges of the ABP - design, collaboration, support, sustainability
Project design and start-up
Slow start-up - the initial stage of the project leading up to starting implementation of activities in the communities was long, influenced by community pace, government bureaucracy, and design factors.
Dispersed and remote communities - the selection of provinces, districts and communities was based on vulnerability criteria; it resulted in a very dispersed set of communities, some of which are quite remote from provincial and district headquarters towns. While this was able to test project strategies in highly vulnerable communities, it also constrained the process and cost of monitoring and follow-up.
Small scale of the project - this was a pilot project that was carried out with very modest inputs and short duration; as such, it was difficult to resolve some of the expectations of various stakeholders, some of which were just not compatible with the resources available, e.g., solving fundamental problems of poverty at sub-district level or testing systems adequately to be sure about expansion potentials.
Low involvement by sectors - some felt that there had been little success in developing participation, collaboration, co-ordination, and financial support from sectors involved with development, especially during implementation. In part, this was attributed to low political will at local levels, and partly to the rapid turnover of key government officials.
Lack of integration of sectors into the project - The focus of this project was clearly based at community level and working upwards to the sectors rather than a top-downwards approach working through the sectors to the community. This community-based approach, which is a bit unconventional in Iran, did result in some concern by some sectors that they had not been invited (or enabled) to create a framework for people's participation.
While both sides acknowledge that participatory processes take a lot of time, neither side has yet sorted out appropriate indicators for sustainability (of planning, activities, human resources/capacity, and financial capability) or the timeliness for discontinuing external support. Potential ideas include:
To what extent local institutions are capable of carrying on
People's level of confidence and trust in their future
When good results are reached by the communities
Planning and co-ordination
Focal point community - Most respondents were impressed with community planning and implementing capabilities and recommended that the focal point for development planning should be at community level. While the emphasis was on community-based planning, there was also a strong recognition that government does have a role and that it needs co-ordination.
Focal point government - One part of the debate about government's role in co-ordination was linked to concerns about supervision. Sectoral people within government have had a tendency to believe that it is their role to supervise, and they have seen supervision as a technical support issue. Others, such as the implementing NGO, have argued that technical support can come in the form of advice, but the core issue is collaboration in management to capitalise on the strengths of community, government and other participating stakeholders. This approach requires the participation of government with its technical skills, but does not presuppose that government is automatically more knowledgeable than the community about the local situation.
Continuity - A continuity strategy should be developed in partnership with the communities, with government representatives responsible for those communities, and with the implementing NGO.
Replication - this project should be seriously considered for emulating in other areas of Iran, including the promotion of community animators, bottom-up planning, sanduq development committees with community investment funds and local wealth-generating activities.
Selection of communities - consider working with entire administrative units, e.g., sub-districts. This will require a collaborative team (with community and sectoral representatives) to work out a strategy for identifying administrative units in need, and then clarifying those units that can go further to make commitments to the project, and what the nature of their commitment and contribution would be in order to become recognised as collaborative development partners.
Monitoring - monitoring in participatory projects like the ABP to include:
The objectives of the project to be carefully followed up and regularly monitored, since positive outcomes will strengthen good ideas
Creating opportunities to discuss the projects, analyse achievements, study and evaluate them at specific intervals by the communities themselves
Appropriate initial assessment in order to identify precise strategies and the role of monitoring and evaluation at every stage
Accountability to communities about finances - consider more community meetings, or possibly a visible posting of ongoing (e.g., monthly) income and expenses, perhaps with simple charts using symbols that are easily understood by all, including non-literates.
Improving government links/support - register the Sanduq to get recognised by government. In addition, in order to improve government support to participatory community development projects:
Eliminate unsatisfactory practices of government agencies
Ease government bureaucracy and make regulations more flexible in such projects so that the government sectors can easily work with project implementers
Create opportunities for the participation of other interested and effective sectors
Library support - Mobilise books, handouts, and other materials for the community libraries that teach about development, e.g., books on poultry rearing, irrigation, or improving agriculture. Such documents could come from government sectors, universities, national and international agencies.
Alternative sources of funds - project communities to work on accessing various additional funds to address community priorities, rather than being dependent on a single project such as the ABP. Advocate for channelling government funds through the sanduq rather than holding them at central level to increase local capital.
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ECD - Area-based Programme