Life is not easy in the Sahelian and Northern regions of Burkina Faso. These regions are characterised by arid soils, land and resource degradation and recurrent droughts, aggravated by persistent high temperatures, erratic rainfall, violent winds and deforestation. Other recurring shocks, such as epidemics and disease, further undermine development gains. Many villages are caught in a perpetual cycle of drought, floods, hunger and locust invasions.
Efforts to build local communities resilience to these risks and crises are being put to the test by the complex and deepening food crisis across West Africa. Eighteen million people are affected, including a million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Experts have alluded to a perfect storm of contributing factors: last years failed rains and harvests, political instability, reduced migrant labour and wages, rising food prices and a growing refugee crisis. So how are vulnerable communities coping, and what lessons have been learned from recent efforts to build community resilience against complex shocks and hazards?
In the village of Masboré in Zondoma province, Christian Aids resilient livelihoods work with local partner Reseau MARP, initiated in 2008 and funded by the UKs Department for International Development (DFID), illustrates the importance of integrating humanitarian and long-term development approaches, with a premium on participation and accountability. Community members say that they have made significant progress in identifying and implementing a range of locally appropriate measures to improve income, food security and disaster resilience. However, without long-term support from local government, technical services departments and donors, people will continue to rely on humanitarian relief in times of disaster like the present food crisis.
A risk-centred approach
Masboré is one of 19 pilot villages in Burkina Faso that undertook Participatory Vulnerability and Capacity Assessments (PVCA) in 2009 as part of Christian Aids Building Disaster Resilient Communities programme. The PVCA approach helps poor people analyse their problems and suggest their own solutions. It is carried out by local partner organisations working with communities to collect and analyse information about short- to long-term risks and vulnerabilities in a structured way, and then develop community action plans from these findings.
One community member says: Before the PVCA process, NGOs came and told us what to do and we just did what they said. Few of the interventions implemented in Masboré in the past involved the wider community, or took a holistic approach to community development. Nor did the community have an opportunity to assess and understand the role that local risk factors play in development processes. As a result, benefits were patchy and proved short-lived when risks and hazards recurred.
Christian Aid trained and supported Reseau MARP to facilitate the PVCA process in Masboré and five other villages, beginning with trust-building sessions. After the vulnerability and capacity analysis, Reseau MARP helped the community to develop a community action plan. The wholly participatory approach meant that the action plan is based on locally perceived risks and vulnerabilities. It is completely owned by the community, and is now steering the communitys development requirements. It has provided a basis on which the community can plan how to maximise local capacities to address short-, mediumand long-term risks and vulnerabilities. The community plan also serves as a negotiating and influencing tool through which the community can seek government, donor and technical support. The PVCA also acts as a baseline against which communities can assess progress through regular monitoring and review. In all, 87 people in Masboré, women and men of all ages, took part in the PVCA.
Timing is an important factor. Learning from past experience showed partners the importance of ensuring that meetings do not clash with planting times or harvests, for example, as it can be difficult to engage adequate community participation for the amount of time needed for each meeting or activity. In order to allow different groups within the community to have their say, particularly women, people organised themselves into age and gender groups to identify risks, vulnerabilities and local capacities, using tools such as community mapping, problem pyramids, focus groups and Venn diagrams. These different perspectives were later brought together into a holistic community risk, vulnerability and capacity matrix, which was used as the basis for the community action plan.
Key risks and resilience efforts
Among the key risks identified by women were health problems, epidemics and malnutrition. Solutions included nutrition training for mothers, information for mothers on epidemics and vaccinations and the establishment of a mother and child clinic within the community. Reseau MARP helped link the community to local health services, which have since provided support for child vaccinations and nutrition training. For farmers and livestock breeders, the key concerns were drought, flooding, bush fires, conflicts over grazing, insect attacks and livestock diseases.
The community recognised that they themselves could do much to prevent bush fires and conflicts between livestock breeders by setting up watch brigades and constructing livestock paths and enclosures. Reseau MARP helped the community link with agricultural service departments for information and support to improve livestock health and vaccinations. The community was also able to utilise Christian Aid and DFID funding to convert a local building into a grain store. The new facility helps farmers manage their cash flow and guarantee some degree of food security when food supplies run very low. Farmers can deposit a sack of grain at the end of the harvest when prices are low, and then retrieve it for the same amount when market prices are high in the late dry season. Alternatively, the store can sell a farmers grain at his request when prices go up, and return the profit to the farmer, less the original transaction amount. Members of the community say that they have noticed huge benefits in productive years when harvests are good. However, they recognise that, in years when harvests fail, such as 2011, resilience efforts like this are less effective. Having reviewed the community action plan in late 2011, they realised that they needed to establish or build on alternative livelihood options, such as livestock breeding and irrigated market gardening.
Small-scale livestock breeding proved one of the most popular resilience measures identified by the community. Several women-headed households that received a pair of goats or sheep as part of the original action plan reported that their situation in the current food crisis had improved dramatically. They have been able to sell some of the offspring produced by the livestock and use the money to buy food, pay for schooling or cover other family needs. Training in improved fodder techniques such as hay bailing has also helped sustain livestock while fresh fodder is in short supply.
Until the action plan was introduced, the community in Masboré had low awareness of their vulnerabilities and the range of dangers and risks they faced; likewise, they did not recognise their existing capacities, and did not understand how to enhance their resilience against such threats. There was little in the way of an enabling environment for building disaster resilience, with local stakeholders such as NGOs and the local government rarely coordinating disaster risk reduction or development activities. Communities did not have much opportunity to participate meaningfully in planning, implementation and evaluation of interventions.
Since the PVCA process, the community has started to gain an understanding of the most effective measures for improving health, food security and incomes, for building more sustainable livelihoods and for preventing damage from bush fires, localised conflict and insect attacks. Community members hope to gradually reduce their dependency on external humanitarian relief during crises, and assert that the building of a local dam and the introduction of incomegenerating activities for women such as market gardening are far better ways to free them from this dependency in hungry periods. Such measures also mean that people will not have to resort to exploitative, poorly paid work at a local goldmine, which is harmful for their health and where labour conditions are extremely poor.
The community is now more aware of the government services available to it, and people are more confident about asking for, and even demanding, access to these services. At the same time the local government authorities are more willing, it seems, to engage with the community, having themselves become more aware of the communitys vulnerabilities and the range of risks people face. Early engagement of the municipalitys mayor and other government service department personnel during the community PVCA process was key to establishing a sustainable, trusting and more accountable relationship between all stakeholders, including local and international NGOs, Reseau MARP and Christian Aid.
As a result of the participatory and integrated approach to development and disaster risk management, community members also say that they feel much more in control of their own situation and their future. They have become empowered to seek support for the activities they want to implement, and as a community are more active in working together to find solutions to problems. Mahamadi Ouedraogo, president of the community resilience committee, which was set up in the early stages of the programme, says Now we understand the risks ourselves and what is needed to solve problems. We do the activities we want to do.
The introduction of information-sharing and complaints mechanisms through the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership has also helped the community to hold all relevant stakeholders to account around the commitments made, projects planned and budgets allocated and expended. Women in the community have put pressure on local government officials to honour a commitment to appoint medical staff to the village maternal health clinic. Understanding how project budgets are allocated and how budgets have been spent has enabled the community to challenge a contractor brought in to repair the grain deposit store. When he asked the community to supply the sand and cement for the job, they knew that the materials had already been paid for. After this was pointed out, the contractor understood that he could not take advantage of the community and got on with the job.
According to the community, the whole approach has been a very positive experience. It has brought a kind of enlightenment to the village. As a community we evaluate our situation and the activities that are proposed are things we have proposed. Then we discuss with our partners what we can and cannot do according to available budgets. However, balancing the communitys enthusiasm with a realistic view of the resources available is a challenge. According to Mahamadi Ouedraogo: The energy for building resilience is there in the community, but the means to do everything we want is not always enough. HAP has been a great benefit to the community and now people in the community feel empowered to ask for support. During the current crisis, they have asked our committee to provide them with livestock because they see this has helped those who received the livestock before. But neither we nor Reseau MARP immediately had the resources to help them. Fortunately, funding from Christian Aid and DFID is now available so we can help them.
In addition to managing community expectations, there is still some way to go in connecting the community PVCA and action plan with local government policies and development planning. Community members say that there is a need for greater government support for structures that can protect them in a timely way during slow-onset crises such as the current food crisis. The influx of Malian refugees has added further pressure due to the greater strain being placed on scarce resources.
Christian Aid has been working with three local partners since 2008 to support 19 communities across the north of Burkina Faso to put in place measures to build their resilience to disasters and crises. Evidence from these communities suggests that, in areas where market gardening has been possible, resilience-building measures have had greater success than in the pastoralist communities further north, where households are dependent on livestock breeding alone. Initiatives such as new fodder storage techniques can buy households some time during periods of food insecurity. However, during extreme drought and when there is competition over food between humans and animals especially between the local pastoralists and refugees crossing the border from Mali with equally hungry livestock and families government and donor relief efforts remain of major importance to prevent malnutrition and loss of livelihoods. In addition, where families are already experiencing malnutrition and using extreme coping mechanisms, anecdotal feedback has been that the structures established to help deliver community action plans, such as the village committees, can work with humanitarian agencies, health centres and nutrition services to ensure that appropriate aid gets to those who need it most.
Amanda Farrant is Donor Communications Advisor, Christian Aid. The featured communitys experiences are documented in a film, Lessons from Masbore, available at http://youtu.be/GNAmJDVN8oc.