Using local knowledge to plan coherent post-conflict rebuilding

‘The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.’ Meas Nee, Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages

This wonderful image captures for me the essence of rebuilding after conflict. It is a slow, gradual process of rebuilding the local structures and governance that has been destroyed or damaged by war. It reflects the idea that rebuilding depends on working with local people to restore and enhance their capacities and abilities, even as they are recovering from the trauma of what they have experienced. And it starts at the bottom of the system, and not the top.

I was thinking about this image as I read about the pleas of people in northern Mali for government officials to return, so that services can return to normality. IRIN News reported on Monday that people living in Gao and Timbukti, in northern Mali, are “calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of ‘complete chaos’. “ While the insurgent groups are mostly gone, thanks to the French, Chadian and Malian armies, only a few administrators have returned.

While they are waiting for the government officials to return, IRIN reported, “town residents – including village elders, chiefs, women and youths – are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.” But while some key officials in Gao and Timbuktu have come back, officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return. Clearly, that limits the amount and extent of rebuilding that can take place.

However, those exiled officials represent an extremely useful resource of local knowledge that could aid military and government in ensuring that the transition from relief to rebuilding is a smooth continuum. Often in such situations, longer term planning (if it is done) is done from a distance by people who don’t know the area well, if at all. Regarding those officials as a ‘think tank’ full of local expertise could allow government and the military to create rebuilding plans that are meaningful and useful for local communities. Quick impact projects thus could be planned so they help form part of the foundation for long-term recovery that can begin once government officials return.

The situation points out, once again, the need for military interventions to be thinking beyond the shorter term aims of restoring law and order in places where conflict has occurred or is occurring.

Even as soldiers are sent in, someone should be planning for the time when peace will return and people will want services to return as well. That is a lesson that has been drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places which have experienced military interventions in the past decade or more. Such an approach is respectful of both local people and of the soldiers who intervene, ensuring that their efforts can have maximum locally-appropriate impact and thus make the best use of any available local resources, diaspora funding, and donor funding.


Plea for return of officials to northern Mali, IRIN News, April 22, 2013
Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages, Meas Nee, 1999 – chapter 5.


Growing up – freedom or obligation?

Reading the many stories of locally-led development shared through the blog event Day Without Dignity 2012 – Local Champions was fascinating. Some of the posts told stories of local champions; others talked of how their perspectives had been changed when they sought out local knowledge or learned from local people.

Many times, it seems, the deepest differences in our thinking are not talked about because we each assume that others see the world the same way we do. These are, in effect, our ‘built-in’ lenses, the ones we don’t realize we have. One of those differences, I believe, is the idea about obligations to family when we reach adulthood – about the extent to which we have ‘free will’ to pursue our own destinies as adults.

I remember exactly when this difference became clear to me. I was doing research in Brčko District in northern Bosnia, where local people have created a governance structure that reflects and respects all ethnicities. I was trying to understand how the district’s financing worked initially, and I was talking with a distinguished gentleman who had been involved in that process.

Trying to indicate that I had understood what he had said, I said ‘so it is like what happens when a person becomes an adult and thus independent from their family because they are earning their own money’. I remember the look of profound shock on his face as he explained to me that on reaching adulthood, a person becomes able to contribute to their family’s welfare through their earnings.

A cultural divide
Thus did I encounter what seems to be a fairly large cultural divide between North America and much of the rest of the world. I grew up in North America with the idea that when I became an adult, I might go somewhere else and work and eventually create my own family far away from my original family home. My parents’ obligations to me, in many ways, ended when I became an adult. Similarly, I did not expect my children to support me in old age.

In many other parts of the world, however, reaching adulthood means one is now able to contribute materially to one’s family’s wellbeing. In fact, reaching adulthood means taking on a whole set of responsibilities for one’s family – sometimes in effect becoming, at least economically, a parent to one’s own parents. ‘Free will’ for the individual, in that sense, is a foreign concept.

In many cultures, a young man cannot marry until he is able to support his parents and siblings as well as a wife. In many cultures, a young man’s earnings go into a family ‘pot’ that is allocated by the senior male in the family. But in North America, the idea of getting a job is so that you have your ‘own money’ that you can spend as you wish.

A brilliant book by Patrick Chabal, called Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, explores some of these differences in cultural understandings and their implications as they apply to Africa. He suggests that one of the western challenges in analyzing African politics is that we see through a filter that is created by our own assumptions about how societies, economies and political systems work – that we see individuals as ‘free agents’ and in fact, that we think such ‘free agency’ is a key part of being modern. His book explores what the ‘politics of being’ means in an African context, and as I read it, that picture is much closer to the one held by the aboriginal peoples of North America than to the rest of the continent’s inhabitants. It is a picture that is rooted in place, in family, and in obligation.

Polycropping vs monocropping
Another equally fascinating book, entitled Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott, looks at how the western idea of a state has developed and why so many projects intended to better the human condition have failed. He argues, in essence, that we create a ‘map’ that reduces the complexity of societies and then develop projects and approaches that rely on that artificially simple understanding. He provides a diverse variety of examples.

One involves the story of what happened when colonial agricultural specialists first encountered indigenous farming in West Africa. Local people were planting different crops in the same field simultaneously (now known as ‘polycropping’), which in that environment is exceptionally efficient. But those fields seemed sloppy and disorderly to the specialists, who considered ‘monocropping’  to be ‘modern’ – with often disastrous effects on crop yields and soil conservation. Polyculture, on the other hand, was perfectly suited to the local climate and local cultural and family practices.

This story illustrates why these kinds of assumptions matter so much. Projects often are designed from within our view of how the world works. The story about monocropping and polycropping is not that far removed from what many see when looking at ‘traditional’ societies in conflict. We assume that conflict has wiped the slate clean so that there is no local governance left in villages, and we start out to rebuild governance. In doing so, we are often more focused on the individual as a free agent than we are on the family as the unit around which society is organized.

‘Traditional’ societies may seem as messy and disorderly to western eyes as those West African gardens looked to colonial Britons, Obligation to others, and commitment to one’s family or other social unit, may be seen as inviting corruption, rather than being the normal way in which society works. Better to spend some time in those gardens first, asking people to explain why specific crops are grown and why they are planted together in specific ways, before trying to redesign their farming practices.

More reading:
Chabal, Patrick (2009). Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling. Zed Books: London and New York.

Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

The power of seeing our world through new lenses

Last year, I was sitting in a small village near Butembo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It was part of my work of evaluating a peacebuilding project run by a local NGO based in Beni, with funding from a UK foundation. I introduced myself and explained why I was there. I wanted to learn about the small health centre that the women had built, which now made it possible for villagers to get basic health care in their village.
There was a pause after I spoke, as if no one was sure who should speak. Then one of the women began to talk. She explained that their leader, a strong woman who had spearheaded the project, had been killed in a traffic accident not long before. She explained that over the past few years, the villagers had been forced to flee into the bush several times, and each time, they lost more of what they had built. To mark their decision that this time, they would stay put, they had built the small health centre and the community building in which we were sitting. (The NGO had provided the metal for the building’s roof; everything else they had done themselves.)
I saw many similar examples of peoples’ courage and determination to make life better for their communities during that trip. It would be a very long list if I tried to tell you about all of them here.

A different picture
Suffice it to say that meeting all those people gave me an entirely different picture of that area of eastern DRC. The media stories often portrayed a dangerous place and people as victims of violence, but that is only part of the picture. Those media stories generally did not suggest a place where people had dignity, determination to build a better life, innovative solutions, and a commitment to help those who had less than they did. But that is what I saw.
These are not the stories that most North Americans hear in the mainstream media. I learned this when I was asked to talk about Hopebuilding wiki by a dynamic group in Wenatchee, in Washington State, a few years ago. They said they found it difficult to find any stories except the ones about how things were not working – stories of deficits, rather than stories of assets. (This group has gone on to apply an asset-based appreciative inquiry approach to their own work and it is having profound effects in their community.)
Finding these stories, whether in North America or in the rest of the world, involves changing the lenses through which we look at the world. In the 1980s, two Americans helped create new lenses. David Cooperrider developed the ‘appreciative inquiry’ approach, which looked for what is strong and alive in an organization and builds on that rather than looking for what is not working. John McKnight realized that the key to community development was helping communities see what they had, knew and could do, rather than what they didn’t have, didn’t know and couldn’t do. Both ‘asset-based community development’ and ‘appreciative inquiry’ offer us new lenses to see our world, whatever part of that world we live in.
The deficit-based approach does not bring hope or dignity to anyone. Seeing what people can’t do creates the idea that they need someone to guide them and do it for them, and that they need resources from outside before they can start anything. But ‘experts’, no matter how knowledgeable about their subject, cannot be ‘experts’ on a particular community and its people. It is the people of the community who are the experts on their place.

The power of ‘horizontal development’
The Community Development Resource Association calls this process of working with local knowledge ‘horizontal development’ – neighbours helping neighbours. It is a different process than ‘vertical development’, where experts come into a community to ‘fix’ it. Horizontal development is a universal process. In communities around the world, what inspires us to do something is seeing our neighbours do it and learning from what they do. Often this does not require money.
The first story I ever put on Hopebuilding wiki was the story of a principal in a small village in Lesotho. Her teachers were telling her that students couldn’t concentrate because they were hungry. How she addressed this challenge ended up changing life in the whole region.
She saw that around her school, there was vacant land that could be cultivated. Over time, she helped the parents see that possibility, too. Then she brought in a small South African NGO that helped the farmers see that they could grow several crops a year – which was not how they had farmed up until then.
The parents planted crops in that vacant land around the school, the home economics class used those crops to prepare meals, and the students’ academic work improved because their stomachs were full. The community’s food security improved as well, because the parents also applied that same knowledge to their own farming.
As neighbours from other villages heard the story, they came to see it for themselves. Then they began to do the same thing in their villages, and soon, there was a network of such programs all over the region – and the only outside resources involved had been the expertise of that small NGO, whose approach was to build on what the parents already knew about farming.
This is the power of horizontal development – it changes people’s lenses about their own community and by doing so, it opens up new possibilities for what they can do for themselves. Often they can see possibilities for doing something that addresses a number of problems at once (see, for example, the Kibera community cooker).

Sharing encourages replication
Such stories can be found in every place in the world, including those places that are experiencing conflict. What we need to do is to share these stories with each other, and that is the delight of the internet – it is becoming easier for people to access, and share, these stories, and thus replicate their neighbours’ achievements in their own community. And that is happening in North America as much as in the rest of the world.
Sometimes neighbours need some money to carry out a project – and in that area, too, new kinds of organizations have grown from these new lenses. Organizations such as make it possible for neighbours in North America and Europe to support the activities of their neighbours in other parts of the world. This is an investment in human capacity, and ingenuity, and determination – and thus, dignity. And this is what is changing our world, even if it doesn’t always make the headlines.

Send in the farmers first!

Some time ago, I was talking with three men from a village in Sudan. One was an immensely dignified man, who had spent a number of years building peace among his family and then his neighbours and then his village. Through a skilled interpreter, he and his two colleagues had been telling me how they had done this work. After some time, I asked them to draw a map of the area we were discussing.
These villages were so small that they didn’t seem to appear on my map. So, on the flip chart on the wall, they drew the area. And each time they talked about an event, they showed me where it had happened. At some point, standing in front of that map, they explained to me that one result of peace was that they were able to start cultivating their fields again for the first time in many years.
When they began tilling their land again, and growing the staple crops of millet and sorghum, the prices of those two crops began to go down – because there was a greater supply. The fall in prices was dramatic, and was continuing. But not only did that increase the food security of local families, they saw it as offering an opportunity.
With some small resources, they could re-create a network of small local market that would attract traders from outside their area who would buy millet and sorghum – and also bring in other goods from outside. In other words, peace had brought not just increased food security but an economic possibility that they could see very clearly.
The problem was that there didn’t seem to be anyone who had money to fund a local market and thus help to restart the local economy – and by extension, benefit the region.
It was not an unusual story. Evaluations of large-scale reconstruction programs in Sudan, even those designed to build and encourage collaboration among agencies, found that they seemed unable to focus on the very small amounts of money needed for such projects. Or to take advantage of the fact that people returning from big cities had learned skills that they never would have had the chance to learn back in their villages.

The same geography
I was reminded of those visionary Sudanese men when I read an article in the New York Times about a US agriculture department program in California that aims to introduce US soldiers to the basics of Afghan farming. Apparently Central California looks a lot like Afghanistan and grows many of the same crops – pistachios, almonds, wheat, pomegranates and grapes. The program is intended to help the soldiers see with different eyes what is happening around them in the Afghan countryside, and reflects a change in approach that began in 2009 but is only starting to have an impact now. Part of this program involves sending US agricultural extension agents to Afghanistan to work with farmers.
What struck me in the article was its comment about how decades of conflict has devastated Afghani agriculture and taken away much of the agricultural knowledge and basic infrastructure. And I wondered – is that actually true? Have farmers forgotten how to grow those crops like fruits, nuts and grain that they used to cultivate before poppy cultivation began to increase? I suspect, from what I have seen in other places, that the answer is ‘no’ – that knowledge still exists. What has probably been devastated is the network of small local markets that used to exist, at which farmers traded and sold their crops.
And this seems to be true in many places around the world that experience conflict. One of the effects of conflict is to destroy the network of relationships that used to bind villages together and as a result, the local economic network as well. Rebuilding that local network starts with rebuilding those relationships, which is why so many local peacebuilders focus first on teaching conflict resolution skills and creating safe places for people to resume talking to each other.
Those skills have to be retaught because years of conflict turn people inward – to their families and closest friends. They learn to fear people from other villages – even sometimes their own sons, who learn that a gun makes it possible for them to get what they need without having to work for it. (In many ways, the headlines suggest that this is not so different from what some Americans also experience in their communities).People who must live in fear don’t cultivate land because they are afraid to go outside the safety of their village. They stop going into the forest to collect berries, and they stop going to fishing camps. Food security becomes precarious.
The external answer is often to focus on rebuilding local law and order, by building up the police and army. But to my mind, that is starting from the wrong place. One needs to start with changing how people think, and the people who do that best are local people who understand how people think, understand what they have experienced, and are able to work with family and friends to start changing that mindset.

Rebuilding relationships first
When people have created peace by rebuilding relationships and trust, small scale local economic development begins to flourish again. People begin cultivating gardens, selling surplus crops, trading with others for what they need instead of taking it at the point of a gun. They do so even when land ownership is not clear – growing crops on whatever pieces of land are available, as people did in Kinshasa with support from agricultural experts there.
But so often, external interventions don’t nourish and support those small shoots of peaceful growth because they are focused on the ‘bigger picture’ – rebuilding the infrastructure from the top down. And so those small shoots don’t get the small amounts of ‘fertilizer’ (read small amounts of money) that would help them grow into a stronger local and regional plant.
Helping American soldiers see the Afghan countryside with different eyes seems to be an attempt to change the focus, although the article speculates that this may be too little too late. It is hard for soldiers, who must worry about their security and that of their colleagues, to change their focus in this way. But programs like this one do hold out hope that the next time there is a conflict somewhere, and other countries are tempted to intervene with military force, that they will consider sending in the farmers first. Or at least sending in the farmers along with the peacekeepers.

Further reading:

Duplicating Afghanistan from the ground up, by Malia Wollan, New York Times, April 14, 2012

Processing plant creates new futures for Afghan women, Hopebuilding wiki

Urban farming project in Congo shows how burgeoning cities can improve their food security, Hopebuilding wiki

Celebrating the difference that individuals make

Today, I wanted to take a few moments to celebrate the impact of individuals who approach peacekeeping, peacebuilding, or developmental projects as human beings, first and foremost. These individuals, and the relationships they create, help to build peace sustainably, and I want to salute them for what they do – even if they may never know the full impact of their work.

Let me tell you a story, to illustrate this point. It is about a Canadian who went to Sudan several years ago to serve as a UN military observer. Like many of us who do this work, he came back home not sure if his work had been as meaningful as he had hoped when he went. He had stories of the things that did not work – the kind of problems that occur every time you try to bring together people from many countries in a dangerous and high pressure situation, in another culture and language, with a difficult task to carry out.

Anyone who has ever done international development work, or worked locally on such a project, has such stories that highlight the gulf between what we hoped we could do, and what we were able to do. Sometimes these stories overwhelm the other stories – about the friends we made, the things we learned, and the small things we were able to do. That is because, unless we are lucky enough to have something tangible to point to that we did individually, it is hard to know if we made any difference at all.

My friend Jim was based in a UN base near a small village. He got a bicycle and would ride around the countryside, chatting with people as he went. At the base, he would go over and talk to the children who gathered at the fence that surrounded the base. He would give them small things people sent him – a pencil, a piece of gum – and then, after he learned that they could sell empty pop bottles in the local market, he would collect pop bottles in the base and give them to the children in the morning. He built a network of relationships; he saw people as individuals, with names and stories and needs and wishes.

Another Canadian soldier at his base had taken on the task of helping a local village build a school. He had raised money from family and friends, and the school had been built. I suspected that Jim, while celebrating his friend’s achievement, may have wondered about his own achievements. (Or maybe I am imagining that he felt this, because it is certainly what I have felt a number of times after such projects or missions – did I make a difference?)

Jim had been back home for about a month or so when I had lunch with Tom, a friend who has many contacts in the Canadian military through his past peacekeeping experience. He also teaches and writes books. One of his contacts was in Sudan and had just written a story about the importance of peacekeeping, and Tom shared it with me.

It was a story written by a Canadian soldier who had joined the UN peacekeeping force and been based at the same place. He talked about how he got up early on his first morning, planning to enjoy the sunrise in peace and quiet. But as he looked towards the sun rising from behind the mountains, he saw a group of children clustered by the fence. Initially, he was a bit irritated; he had hoped for a quiet start to his day.

Then, as he walked to the office, an Indian colleague said to him, I guess you are wondering why those children are there. They are waiting for Jim. Jim was kind to them – he gave them small things, including the used bottles, and if he had nothing else to give them, he gave them a smile. They still gather there because they hope to see him again.

That story made a huge impact on this man. He found himself wanting to be like Jim – to make a difference in the lives of these children. He came to recognize that in relating person to person, he gave them the gift of recognition as fellow human beings – ones as valuable and loved as his own children. He also gave them the hope of peace and the hope of a better life coming. For him, Jim came to stand for a person-to-person approach to peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and development.

Shivers had been running up my spine as I read. I wondered if this was my friend Jim. So I asked if I could have permission to share this story with him, and ask him if by any chance this was a story about him. I learned later that Jim broke into tears when he read the story. Here was irrefutable proof of his contribution – he had made a difference, to those children and their families, and to the Canadian who came after him and learned from his example.

In this post, I want to celebrate and thank all those men and women who, like Jim, bring the gift of humanity to the places where they go. I want them to know that, even if they are not blessed with the grace of reading a story about their impact, they have indeed made a tremendous difference by choosing to be human beings relating to other human beings.

Talking about the ‘unmentionable’ – menstruation as a development opportunity

One of the most common searches that brings people to Hopebuilding wiki is about sanitary pads for young women. People search on this topic from all over the world. Clearly, awareness of the importance of this issue has greatly increased. Social entrepreneurs are running projects. Campaigns to increase girls’ education talk and think about menstruation. School and community-based economic development projects make sanitary pads. Talking openly about menstruation as a developmental issue has encouraged projects to build separate toilets for boys and girls in community schools.

Discussion and activity has come a long way in a few years. I first began to research this topic in 2006, when I read a story about a refugee camp whose staff had not thought about providing sanitary pads for women as a necessity, along with shelter, food, and water. At first I thought about the apparent inadequacies of the camp planning process. Then I began to wonder how those women coped with the flow of blood each month. And that led me to wonder what women did when they had no way, and no place, to buy pads or tampons.

I learned that many women used old pieces of cloth which they washed over and over again. Some used leaves of plants, or grass. In some cultures, menstruating women are placed in an isolated hut during their period. In many places, girls’ education was disrupted, when they were sent to such huts by their parents or when they stayed home from school at that time of the month because they had no reliable protection or because the school did not have separate toilets for girls and boys.

Unhealthy solutions
Clearly I was not the first person to be thinking about this problem. In Uganda in 2002, Dr. Moses Kizza Musaazi learned that many girls didn’t attend school during their periods because they couldn’t afford to buy commercially-made pads and their improvised solutions weren’t reliable. Almost all of the urban poor were using banana fibers, grass, leaves, old newspapers, or pieces of cloth. Not only were those not reliable solutions, but they were unhealthy.

Dr. Musaazi, who worked at Makerere University in Kampala, was a specialist in appropriate technology. He began to think about how to provide a low-cost solution, and that led him to the abundant papyrus reeds that were growing in swamps and on river banks all over Uganda. Since ancient times, papyrus – which is more than half cellulose – has been used to make everything from baskets, rope, and sandals to mattresses and even boats.

He began to experiment with using papyrus to produce sanitary pads. During 2003-4, he got support from the Rockefeller Foundation. The result was to create Makapads, which were much cheaper because they were made from local materials. But the impact was much more than just a cheaper product. Because he focused on locally appropriate technology and local materials, making Makapads created jobs – in harvesting papyrus, in making the pads, and eventually, in distributing them.

Makapads thus became much more than just cheap sanitary protection for girls and women. It became a sustainable, integrated, economic development enterprise that is now spreading outside Uganda. One NGO in Kenya, for example, sees distribution of Makapads as a way for women to create small local businesses by distributing the pads in villages and cities.

Addressing the health issues
People in India came up with a different solution. One local NGO, Goonj, collects old clothes, cleans them, and makes them into sanitary pads that are distributed very cheaply in poor areas of the city and villages. In this case, old clothes represented a different kind of renewable, sustainable resource. But Goonj went beyond providing cheap pads – they also began to use the pads as a way to educate women about menstruation.

In 2004, they had learned that many women didn’t realize that their ad hoc solutions made them vulnerable to potentially life-threatening infections. Village women used and re-used pieces of dirty cloth because they thought menstruation was dirty – and those cloths rarely got properly cleaned. In villages, where people got water from hand pumps, there was no private place to wash them. Drying them openly in the sun was not possible because of the same lack of privacy. It was a massive health problem, Goonj discovered, made worse because no one talked about it. So Goonj began to use the pads as part of an educational campaign, Not Just a Piece of Cloth.

Another innovative solution developed in India after a young girl asked at a UNICEF workshop why it wasn’t possible to have a vending machine that would give her a pad for a few rupees. UNICEF, to its immense credit, followed up. That led to the development of the Napivend machine, which now is available in many Indian schools. (And it also led to the development of a napkin disposal machine – because making napkins much more widely available means that there is a disposal problem akin to the waste management problem posed in western dumps by disposable baby diapers.)

Not only is the Napivend increasing girls’ school attendance and performance (because they are not missing days of school), but it turns out that it is helping the girls’ mothers as well. Many girlsbuy the pads in the vending machine and bring them home to their mothers as well. (And in other parts of India, women’s self-help groups make sanitary pads and use the sales proceeds to finance their other developmental activities.)

An opportunity wrapped in a problem
Talking about menstruation openly, and talking about menstruation as a developmental issue, thus has turned a problem into a solution that addresses a variety of problems all at once. It has made it possible to find practical, locally relevant solutions that are improving women’s health, improving girls’ school attendance and marks, and creating jobs for women (including women who are refugees, and elderly women) and sustainable local economic development.

A year ago, I was observing a small group of young men and women in a small village in Zimbabwe. They were asked, separately, to identify the biggest problems they faced, and to think about opportunities to address them. I was delighted to see that the young women had identified the lack of affordable sanitary protection as a problem for them. After they had finished their discussion, I told them about Makapads, and about the other varied projects throughout Africa and south Asia where making sanitary pads is providing income for elderly widows as well as providing affordable protection for young women. It was not a solution they had ever thought about. It turned the problem upside down – from just a problem, to an opportunity that could solve several problems at once.

For more reading:

How much money does locally-led peacebuilding save?

One of the big challenges in evaluating development projects that involve social change is the question of proving that what you did led to specific results. There is a fascinating discussion about this question on Alex Jacob’s NGO Performance blog.

Coincidentally, this morning I also read about a new study that compared the costs of providing HIV/AIDS drugs to 3.5 million people vs. the benefits in terms of increased productivity, fewer orphaned children, and savings on care otherwise needed for TB and other opportunistic infections. Spending $14.2 billion between 2011 and 2020 would save 18.5 million life-years and $12 to $34 billion on those costs, the study found.

This reminded me of something I learned a number of years ago when I was the executive director of a quasi-governmental women’s organization in the Northwest Territories. The Council, which directed our work, had asked me to find ways to make progress on making family violence a higher priority for government.

Up to then, the usual approach had been to talk to government about the needs of women who were experiencing violence. Government usually saw dollar signs when the Council or other groups lobbied them – this was going to cost them money. And when it came to spending money, there were always a lot of competing priorities.

Investment vs costs
So I went to the internet and spent some time doing research. That was how I discovered some fascinating work being done by a women’s group in British Columbia. Instead of focusing on how much government needed to spend on shelters and support programs for family violence, they had decided to look at how much family violence cost government. And they cast a broad net in doing so.

They realized that many agencies and departments were dealing with the consequences of family violence. The police; the courts; the prisons; the social welfare agency; the hospitals; the probation service; the shelters; women’s advocates; and so on. That added up to a great deal of spending on the results of a behavior, with much less being spent on addressing the causes. And it didn’t include the costs experienced by employers when women had to take time off work as a result of family violence.

They set out to see if they could estimate how much all of that was costing, and the figures were completely astounding. They had to do a lot of estimating, of course, because (at that time, at any rate) no one was collecting those kinds of statistics in a related way. When the costs of running a shelter and family violence education programs were compared with those other costs, it represented a miniscule investment. Government was spending millions of dollars on dealing with the results of the behavior, compared with only a few thousand dollars on preventing the behavior. This wasn’t a sensible investment in cost-benefit terms.

A new perspective for government
So I decided to begin explaining spending on family violence as being an investment in reducing substantial costs that appeared elsewhere in the government’s budget. This was an argument that was easily understood by government. Most government officials had never thought of the issue this way. They were used to thinking about categorizing spending by department, rather than by activity or by addressing a multi-faceted problem. Suddenly, they saw the money they were spending on shelters and supporting educational programs about family violence in a completely different way. It represented a way of saving money, not a way of spending money. (And this new view brings a lot more allies into programs to end family violence – agencies and people who otherwise would not be involved with ‘women’s’ issues.)

Many social agencies, and many local peacebuilders, don’t think of this way of approaching the evaluation of their work. It is a sea change in thinking. Suddenly, we are not asking them to think about what their program costs, in isolation. We are asking them to think about what that investment in their program represents in terms of savings.

For example, in one community in South Kordofan that had experienced years of conflict (before the current problems arose), peace meant that last year, the community residents were able to plant their fields again for the first time in many years. When there was peace, they could cultivate without fear and they were able to harvest their crops without having them stolen by armed groups. The result was that the price of the two staple crops, sorghum and maize, began to drop dramatically – and that had a marked impact on the cost of living. Instead of having to buy these staples, people had a stock of them. And even those people who couldn’t cultivate fields benefitted, because it cost them less to buy these staples at the market.

People in the village had begun thinking about how they could now attract regional traders to their local market to buy the surplus crops, as they would get better prices from those traders than if they took the goods to more remote markets. And attracting more traders would benefit the rest of the community, too, as those traders would likely bring other goods with them that people otherwise could not obtain easily.

A cost benefit analysis of peacebuilding
Last year, I began asking local peacebuilders to begin thinking about this kind of cost-benefit analysis of their work. Don’t just look at what your program costs, I urged them. Think about what your program saves. It is not a usual way people think in social development circles and so it takes a bit of stretching of the mind. In peacebuilding terms, it means estimating some costs because data is not easy to obtain.

Think, for example, about running a community-based activity to provide jobs for young men by starting a trucking company (a real-life example). As their business prospers, they start to turn in their guns to the local chief, because they don’t need their guns to make a living. Effectively, you are running a DDR program while also building the local economy, creating jobs, and providing cheaper and better local transportation. How do you measure those benefits, vs. the investment in buying two trucks and providing some basic training in management and book-keeping? One way is to compare it with other local disarmament activities.

One of those, in southern Sudan, had involved having 1,500 soldiers living near a village for six months, before eventually having a battle with the young white army herder/soldiers scattered around the bush. During those six months, the soldiers used local community food to support themselves – the community felt the impact for years afterwards. Many people were killed in the fighting, and the cattle that the young men were caring for scattered all over the region.

The costs were clear to other communities, which used this as a salutary example of what happened if the community could not find a way to disarm these young men peacefully. But no one actually totted them up in columns, and the NGO that inspired the trucking company had never thought of using those costs as an example of what its program had saved.

The cost-benefit analysis of locally-led peacebuilding is just in its infancy. But it has huge possibilities for changing how this work is currently funded and monitored. In doing this, local knowledge and capacity represents a huge plus on the ‘credit’ side of the comparison. For international organizations, developing the capacity that local peacebuilders bring to the program would represent a huge investment of both money and time before they could start. But in evaluating programs, the value of this local knowledge is never computed.

More reading:
Resch S, Korenromp E, Stover J, Blakley M, Krubiner C, et al. (2011) Economic Returns to Investment in AIDS Treatment in Low and Middle Income Countries. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25310. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025310

Aids treatment is good value for money, says new study. Sarah Bosely’s Global Health Blog, The Guardian

Throwing off our results chains, by Alex Jacobs. NGO Performance blog. October 5, 2011.