Community participation and sustainability

Five hours north of Addis Ababa, beyond the Nile Gorge, lies the community of Debre Markos. For the past six years, MCC Ethiopia has partnered with Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO) in support of its work in food security and watershed rehabilitation in the rural area surrounding Debre Markos. The project combines working with vulnerable, marginalized people who are food insecure for four months of the year, with cash-for-work to rehabilitate the severely eroded communal and individual farm lands in activities such as gully rehabilitation and terracing. Both food insecurity and land degradation are common and intertwined problems throughout Ethiopia. But what is distinctive is MSCFSO’s approach to this work. The community is involved in all levels of planning, implementation and evaluation of the project. MSCFSO believes that unless communities participate in all levels of project management, development initiatives cannot be successful or sustainable.

The MSCFSO project in the Debre Markos area began, like other MCC supported MSCFSO initiatives, with a community meeting that identified the core problems to be addressed along with potential challenges. From the beginning, MSCFSO looks to the communities in which it works for the depth and breadth of their knowledge and experience. MSCFSO incorporates a rural participatory approach with techniques developed by Paulo Freire that assumes that marginalized and exploited persons can and should be enabled to analyze their own reality. Initial project meetings are conducted in open forums which also give voice to all in the community, with care taken to ensure that all voices are heard. This process includes those who are marginalized and helps to empower the vulnerable participants whose food security and other development needs the project seeks to address. MSCFSO also uses focus group discussions to help dig further into the problems and challenges and to identify the resources available to meet those challenges.

This process helps to develop a sense of ownership, as project participants begin to claim that this is our work that addresses our lives and therefore we need to work together now and for the future. In Debre Markos, farmers participated in determining which watershed was most degraded, the delineation of the area for rehabilitation, the selection criteria for
project participants and, in conjunction with the local government, the number of project participants.

A watershed development plan was made in conjunction with the community. A watershed committee was formed in each of the watersheds and those committees, made up of representatives of the women, youth, elders and farmers participating in the project, established bylaws to ensure people obey the communal land rules. For example, if animals are found grazing on the land being rehabilitated by the project, the animals’ owners receive a warning, followed by fines for further infractions. Knowing that there is broad community commitment to the effectiveness and sustainability of the project and to protecting the rehabilitated watershed fosters a spirit of strong, mutual accountability within the community.

A major concern of the community as the project was developed was how to address the ‘free grazing’ of animals once the harvest was completed. Some community members want access to the watershed’s rehabilitated land for fodder for their animals, but others raised the concern that this grazing could threaten the trees and grasses planted for land stabilization. The solution to this dilemma came from within the community. Community members agreed that grasses that grow at the edge of crop land during the growing season could be harvested for animals. Also, it was decided to plant tree lucern (a fast-growing, nitrogen-fixing tree/shrub) on soil bunds in the watershed that is rehabilitated that can then be harvested and pruned, thus encouraging a “cut-and-carry” method for feeding animals that were once allowed to graze freely.

The implementation of the Debre Markos project depended on active community participation, with community members gathering materials like stone and sand for the construction of check dams in the watersheds. With some of the activity being carried out on communal land, broad community participation and ownership in the project was essential. Project participants and the broader community alike understood the potential benefits of the project and how it would help to improve both the land and their livelihoods.

At first it was hard for some in the community to believe that the problem of land degradation was possible to resolve. But with a growing commitment from the watershed committee and the broader community to protect the rehabilitated watershed and its surrounding crop lands, along with the support and technical assistance of MSCFSO and the local government development agents, skeptics began to see progress and believe that change was possible. The involvement that community members had in the project increased their confidence in their abilities to solve difficult problems.

MSCFSO has found that a key component of mobilizing community participation is involving local institutions. During project implementation, MSCFSO engages social and religious organizations that already play vital roles in the community. For example, in a community like Debre Markos in which the vast majority of the population is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, the church organizes regular opportunities during holy days and saints’ days for church members to gather and discuss community issues. Institutions like the church are able to apply social pressure to encourage community members to act in ways that conform to broader community needs, such as reducing the free grazing of animals. To be sure, mobilizing key institutions like the church to reinforce community ownership of specific projects can bring power dynamics issues and imbalances to the fore, and careful attention must be paid to such potential dynamics. With regards to the free grazing and deforestation issues that the Debre Markos project addressed, however, there was unanimous agreement within the community about the negative impacts of free grazing and deforestation on watershed rehabilitation and the urgency of finding ways to address those challenges.

MSCFSO’s experience in Debre Markos demonstrates that community involvement in all stages of project planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation is essential for strong community ownership of development initiatives. Such ongoing participation ensures that development projects are viewed as belonging primarily to the community, rather than to a local NGO like MSCFSO or to an international NGO like MCC. In Debre Markos, the strength of the social cohesion when all segments of a community work together has proven successful in several watersheds over the past six years. Community participation and sustainability, strength and ownership—all keys to success.

Cath Woolner is MCC Co-Representative for Ethiopia, with assistance from Yihenew Demessie, Program Director for MSCFSO.

Learn more by reading the Spring edition of Intersections – Participation.

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