Skip to content

The challenges of community advocacy

February 2, 2014

One of my favorite development blogs is The Stubborn Problem of the ‘Village Elite’, voted a World Bank ‘Top Ten Blog Post’ in 2012.

It’s one of my favorite because it’s honest and speaks of what goes wrong when implementing development projects, and points out a number of critical grassroots issues that aid workers face at the local level. The article also draws attention to some troubling trends in global development, such as the problem of the ‘village elite’, ‘elite capture’ and the issue of ‘participation’ in development.

In most development projects the success or failure of an intervention program is largely dependent on how well one understands a community’s behavior and the planning or design processes of the project you intend implementing. Unfortunately, pertinent decisions such as the location of the project, who to access and how many people to target continue to be made at ‘top-level’ meetings instead of in consultation with the communities we aim to support. This usually comes about because of tight deadlines around proposal submissions and/or budget constraints on the part of the organizations.

More emphasis is usually placed on winning the grant rather than assessing the efficiency, effectiveness and impact of the particular intervention on the target communities. Once the grant is secured we in ‘the field’ are tasked with implementing the project. If it’s an advocacy project, we usually focus on ‘theory of change’ which largely entails continuous training and monitoring as opposed to direct service delivery.

The ‘beneficiaries’ usually know very little about our work but are excited to be the targeted community of our intervention. The initial training sessions can take up to four days, starting early in the morning and ending late at night. Of course, we buy lots of stationery which we distribute to our community whilst being fully aware that most of the recipients cannot read or write. However, we just don’t pay much attention to that aspect. Instead we hand out pens and copies of the training agenda, and hang our fancy banners – with our donors’ logos and our logos on them – on the walls hoping the participants will notice them and that somehow the community will appreciate our donors having seen the logos.

Most participants seem bored by training regime

We then bring in a ‘technical consultant’ or a facilitator to train the community members for hours on end with a minimum number of breaks for tea and lunch. Most participants seem to be bored by the training regime, or they see it a waste of time – firstly, because they can’t connect it to their daily lives and, secondly, because it all seems too theoretical.

For decades now most local communities have become used to projects that show immediate results, such as aid workers constructing boreholes, toilets and schools for them. However, the shift from this myopic view of project management to longer term development results that use results-based management has seen an increase in advocacy projects.

This paradigm shift places greater emphasis on addressing the root causes of poverty as opposed to only providing relief food. Importantly, it endeavors to see the community as equals and engages with them to have their say in development through participatory processes. It places community ownership at the heart of development. Furthermore, it envisions an advocacy process that ‘advocates with’ the community as opposed to ‘advocate for’ or ‘advocating on behalf of’ the community.

The thinking behind this shift in development practice is quite brilliant as it has a greater potential for lifting more people out of poverty and closing the ever widening poverty gap. Unfortunately, community understanding and reception of this development shift has so far not been very positive. This is due mainly to the fact that most advocacy projects build capacity through a greater focus on training and dialogue processes – ‘software’ intensive – as opposed to the more popular focus on ‘hardware’ processes of the past.

In one particular community in northern Kenya, I was to implement an advocacy project on water management. The biggest challenge I faced was how to train a farmer on water management when he lacked water on his farm because he lives in a semi-arid region. Or, how is one supposed to train a group of women on how they best to utilize water in their homes when they tell me their children at home are thirsty, so they have to walk more than 30 kilometers to fetch water.


In my opinion, I did not feel like the project was making any tangible impact because we were not addressing the direct need – which was water scarcity – and, as a result, we were not looking for sustainable ways to ensure that this particular community has access to water.

In the training sessions which I conducted there was usually very little interest among participants from the community for software projects. In fact, I found that as the day progressed, the participants would, one by one, excuse themselves from the training sessions: for example, mothers would say they had to take their children to the hospital whilst someone else would insist he had to take his camels to graze. Being the liberal project manager I am I feel they have a right to leave. However, I have found that if I continue being lenient all the participants end up asking to be excused. I try therefore to find a happy medium.

Meanwhile, one of my colleagues believes in being strict when conducting training, so he usually locks the door and keeps the participants inside – only allowing them short breaks. He even instructs them to switch off their mobile phones. I don’t agree with his approach to training. However, my colleague says we are giving the participants money to attend the training sessions so they should ‘listen and learn’.

Attendance at training sessions linked to pay

No matter how engaging or uncomplicated I have tried to make the training sessions – even adding visuals and pictures – the participants still find it difficult to relate to the topics of discussion (water policy, for example). They only seem to be interested in proceedings at the end of the day when I hand out a small ‘sitting allowance’ to each one, and they can go and buy a few groceries for their families on their way home. From my experience, participants only attended the training sessions because they were being paid to attend, not because they were learning something, while field officers were only interested in claiming they had successfully completed the training.

On the other hand, community members have never shown any difficulty understanding more tangible projects, such as the building of a school in the area. Community members are definitely more receptive to these kinds of projects and go out of their way to support you in achieving your intended goal.

However, advocacy projects are not that visible because they’re all about changing perceptions and the behavior of a community with regard to a particular issue. Chances are the community will not appreciate what you’re trying to achieve, simply because they don’t see any immediate results.

My experiences have therefore led to me questioning the effectiveness of promoting community empowerment through training, and whether pure advocacy projects can ever achieve the intended impact in a rural village setting. Unfortunately, this is the reality I have faced as a development worker in ‘the field’: beneficiaries who only care about receiving money, and development workers who only think about taking photos and writing fancy reports to donors on how successful the training was while it clearly wasn’t.



What I Read in 2013

January 11, 2014
  1. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
  2. Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nan Graham (Editor)
  3. Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock
  4. Hostages: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Pirates  by Paul Chandler, Rachel Chandler and Sarah Edworthy
  5. Born in the Big Rains a Memoir of Somalia and Survival by Fadumo Korn
  6. The Africans by David Lamb
  7. Dust From our Eyes: An Unblinkered look at Africa by Joan Baxter
  8. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini 
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 
  10. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Schahill
  11. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke
  12. Zami, A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
  13. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein 

Other Great Reads,

Kenya Refuses by the New Inquiry 

Audre Lorde Poems

The State of World’s Human Rights Amnesty International Report 2013

“You are All Terrorists” Kenya Police Abuse of Refugees in Nairobi by Human Rights Watch

The Somali Compact 

‘Media in bed with the military’

September 15, 2013

In an endeavor to discuss Kenya’s incursion into Somalia under the ’Operation Linda Nchi’ it’s fundamental to begin with highlighting media narratives of the incursion at the time; ‘Kenya is not at war with Somalia’, ‘Kenya has not invaded Somalia we cannot call it an invasion just an operation’, ‘It is not our soldiers who have gone to war it’s our country which has gone to war’, ‘It not our country which has gone to war it’s our soldiers who have gone to war’, ‘We are simply creating a buffer zone in Somalia’.

So the question is why do we have such a dichotomy in our narratives? How comes we failed to agree on such a crucial aspect way before the invasion? The answer lies so close to home—-the role of the media and how they covered the news in the wake of the invasion and during the incursion to date and the role of the citizens who decided to be passive on this issue. The journalists were embedded in covering the story which was unfortunate. The narrative was one sided based with the agenda of the media. There was poor professionalism in reporting and conveying the story and we as the consumers of the media failed to criticize thus our own socio-economic security agenda was neglected.  In this article ‘Reporting from the Cannon’s Mouth’ Abdi Latif Dahir cautions on the dangers of embedded journalism among Kenyan press and points out factual errors that were committed by reporters during the incursion which clearly shows how journalists were distracted by the events to a near theatrical dramatization. The journalist failed in their duty as the fourth estate, they failed short in addressing the fundamental narrative of the time which was – security. Kenya’s incursion into Somalia should have been a fundamental moment in time to have acrimonious debates on security agenda in Kenya. The media should have focused their lenses on the security apparatus of this country however they saw this ‘invasion’ primarily in military terms failing to see or connect it to the socio-economic outcomes. The responsibility of the media in retaining healthy journalistic skepticism in covering the events was overridden by the desire of the journalist to assume the role of soldiers which to my opinion is an incestuous relationship. In simple terms the media failed to determine what the story really was or what it should have been as they were all sucked in the pro-war agenda.

They failed to engage with the state to find out;

How adaptable our security instruments are to emerging threats, how we develop security policies, whether we should have civilian or non-civilian actors lead the security agenda, if the security sector is answerable to the civilians, what is the civilian oversight on the security agenda…and so on

Given the state of security at the time having a discourse on this topic was not only vital but inevitable yet the media choose to ignore it. When it comes to addressing issues of national security the assumption has always focused on the political aspect of security even though security is defined as ‘a service delivery stipulated in the Kenyan constitution that goes beyond political matters’. This is because the Kenya’s security narrative has for a long time been preserved and confined as a political matter. This view largely ignores other forms of security central of all being – human security. There could be no apt time to address security issues than when our Kenya defense forces (KDF) were deep in Somalia. However this debate was never offered a platform and few questioned the security agenda of the country at the time. The media failed in objectivity in reporting nor holding the government accountable. The citizens on the other hand chose to be passive, they preferred to linger in muted narratives and not demand answers or explanations from the government.

This narrow view on national security has created a discourse that fails to go beyond the political agenda; it is therefore imperative that a holistic approach be adopted that is inclusive. This new approach should view security not only from a political dynamic but also from a social, economical, environment angle and above all as a human security aspect. This transition cannot be possible or complete without the mouthpiece of the society – the media. It is the role of the media to ensure both the government and the citizenry agree on most terms as per the social contract. We cannot claim to be a democratic state yet fail to have democratic debates. The journalists have still failed to raise alarm at the high number of casualties of Kenya Defense Forces or the socio-economic implications of this ‘invasion’ to the mwananchi. This failure largely puts into question the platonic separation of government and press which lies at the heart of Kenyan journalism.

Development Agenda: Having the Passion is just not enough

June 13, 2013

I read this on an article ‘Development is political. It is not linear, but complex, and we operate in a political minefield’ and got so inspired that nearly jumped on my chair but then I was left asking myself how do we make our voices heard in this ‘political minefield’ we need solutions. I have been working in development since I graduated, it’s all I know and care about and don’t think I ever want to leave this industry. Despite reading so many books by development critics, who continuously question this industry I choose to remain hopeful that things will soon change in development. My journey to love development begun in the spring of 2009 in my sophomore year when my sister’s boyfriend brought me Dambisa Moyo’s ‘Dead Aid’ which had just been published in the U.S. I was taking general courses at the time and had little knowledge of the whole development agenda and its actors. The book was a major turning point in my life (Despite all the critical reviews) that made me to delve more into the subject and I begun reading more on development from Paul Collier, Bill Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, Leslie Brown, Samir Amin, Walden Bello, Vandana Shiva, Noam Chomsky and countless others. I was basically spending the little pocket money I got to buy all the books I could simply afford. That’s how my love/hate relationship for this industry begun. With my Cum Luade in International Relations degree I could have decided to pursue so many other career paths including academia which I also love or Foreign Service but I decided to work for non profits. I have to say I enjoy the thought of knowing what really development can do to transform communities but I don’t enjoy the fact that development is doing so little to reach it’s potential. I have been implementing mostly advocacy projects that range from Gender Based Violence to climate change which I do enjoy yet there are times I feel the impact is so little or non-existent. My frustrations is more on the system of development, how it is framed is really not going to change much even in the next 30 years. From the detached proposal written by consultants in a first world country who have limited knowledge on the real issues facing the ‘community’ the project is being addressed to, the greedy organizations just wanting to win grants, or the donors who come up with ridiculous guidelines and procedures like the log frames, M&E frameworks, results based management yet they know basically well that ‘indicators’ is not an indication that an impact/outcome will be reached. The people who implement these projects just bend the rules to suit their own needs, after the end of the year they will write a beautiful report of how the project achieved its target and manipulate percentages and data to demonstrate that the target was reached. Development works at the high level meetings where our governments and organizations commit to bold statements and agree that development is going to solve world’s needs and with that regard rich countries continue to release billions to channel to this industry. But what is happening at the grassroots levels where the money trickles to, no matter how little. Where the ‘community’ and ‘beneficiaries’ of these commitments are meant to have their poverty levels halved? the ‘Bottom Billion’ Nothing is changing. There you find organizations and individuals those charged with implementing these projects mostly just in for the money and they embezzle thousands of dollars which was meant to ‘solve world problems’. The individuals who are charged with ensuring that the community voice is heard is the same group that is committing fraud and taking the little that is allocated for the community. We can’t continue blaming our governments for not doing enough. We are also to blame.  I bet being passionate about development is just not going to be enough to solve world problems neither does being a social activist guarantee that the person is struggling for humanity.

Drones to Monitor Human Rights

March 25, 2012

A recent controversial New York Times op-ed ‘drones for human rights’ by Andrew Stoboand and Mark Hanis has been the cause of major debates around human rights circles.The article proposes for a new ‘solution’ in solving systemic human rights abuse in conflict zones. In the article they write ‘A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court’ This argument further endeavors to add surveillance as a new course of humanitarian action besides the known customary methods of advocacy and enforcement. The article states ‘We could record the repression in Syria with unprecedented precision and scope. The better the evidence, the clearer the crimes, the higher the likelihood that the world would become as outraged as it should be’ This outlook to solving human rights abuses seems like an attractive solution for those of us interested in preventing human rights abuses. However it is still a pre-mature argument as it ignores other fundamental aspects as there has always been an ubiquitous availability of information on human rights abuses however the problem has been attributed to the lack of political will to solve human rights by states, the inadequate response to these violations as well as the lack of legal framework on use of drones in international law. The article suggest that human rights organizations can now use drones to monitor abuses however it forgets to mention that the same human rights groups have in the past condemned the use of drones as they view it as a violator to human rights itself. The emergence of human rights in international law has placed the rights of man on a pedestal almost equal to the rights of the state after a long progressive battle with the inception of the ICC. Allowing drones to monitor human rights abuses or giving states the carteblanche to use drones against perceived ‘terrorists’ would be a setback to the achievement of rights of the individual as stipulated in the UDHR since it will undermine the role of the Rome Statute as well as eliminates the human value of giving testimony or providing evidence that a human rights violation occurred as drones will solely be providing the imagery satellite account to a human rights abuses. Another nascent issue to this myopic outlook is the violation of a country’s sovereignty during surveillance by drones as well as use of the drones to kill certain individuals of that particular country without the consent of that country. In Africa, the US is leading an aggressive campaign against terror suspects by building up drone bases in Ethiopia, Seychelles and around the Arabian Peninsula. Previously the US has already been known to uses armed drones against Al-Qaida suspects in Yemen and Somalia and also to monitor pirates off the coast of the country. In Sudan a similar project that uses satellite imagery to monitor human rights abuses is already being implemented in Darfur under the ‘Eyes on Darfur project’ however accounts of human rights violations still remain rampant in the region. Africa where most of the conflicts occur will be largely on the recipient side of this form of militaristic adventures and not only will it exacerbate inter and intra conflicts but it will also further alienate the African voice and interests in terms of security as well as human rights.

How to guarantee social protection in a highly disenfranchised world

November 9, 2011

Protests have gained a common ground in Kenya with volatile inflationary rates looming and ever increasing inequality gap widening. As i type this i can hear sounds of blowing vuvuzelas as public university lectures protest on the streets of Nairobi.The sound of the vuvuzela is not one of a celebratory tone but that marked by an unrestless workforce who for a long time have been receiving poor pay from the Kenyan government and now want their demands fulfilled. The International Labour Organization and the Social Protection Advisory Group have released a new report Social protection floor: for a fair and inclusive globalization that aims to provide a blue print for governments especially in developing countries to promote ‘ social protection’ reduce poverty and promote social inclusiveness. UN Sec General Ban Ki-Moon has stated that

“The Social Protection Floor Initiative is a UN system-wide effort to promote common priorities and solutions, to ensure basic social guarantees for all”.

This new shift to development aims to increase safety nets to the most vulnerable by promoting social inclusiveness of all citizenry in order to reduce poverty. Despite the existence of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, access to these ‘universal rights’ has not been so universal rather selective as many remain locked out of the provisions of this authoritarian declaration. In developing countries fundamental developmental concerns such as those of the food insecurity, housing, water, sanitation, income insecurity, lack of social benefits and exclusion of women in the decision making process are just but a tip of the ice berg. How can a government guarantee there is human security for all in terms of income, employment or access to basic social services without excluding anyone be it the elderly, women and children or the youth. The adoption of the social protection floor as a global concept aims to tie it’s approach down to country specific social problems to promote inclusive growth. This concept deviates from the previous ‘Washington Consensus’ one size fits all rule that offered a temporary yet concentric solution to social and economic problems. However, social protection endevours to offer country specific prescription to economic and social woes giving countries the autonomy and ownership to design and implement their own social protection floor that will embrace and acknowledge the countries’ institutional frameworks, history, social aspirations and economic budget.Social protection floors in general aims to protect all from economic and social insecurity while paying tentative attention to to those that were excluded by the bounties of globalization.The achievement of the social floors will highly be determined by how effective our governments are in providing security, ensuring rule of law and inclusive growth as well as how active the citizenship is in terms of exercising their universal rights and their obligations that link them to their development states in terms of paying taxes and obeying the laws. Duncan Green in his book

From poverty to power:How active citizens and effective states can change the world

sees the cooperation of effective states and active citizenship as an important component in eliminating poverty and ensuring social inclusion. The social protection strategy with it’s multiplier effects could be the developmental solution to the challenges that capitalism as a system has just thrown to us. By the time i was concluding writing this short article,i had gathered that the government had already pronounced the lecturers strike illegal so much for social protection!!.

Who are the real tyrants?

October 31, 2011

”All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent” Thomas Jefferson

I thought i could remain silent over the brutal killing of Muammar Gaddafi but i just can’t otherwise i will be equal to those who choose to be blind to atrocities. So they killed him in cold blood and treated his body with so much disregard for human life and human rights going against the laws of Islam, the same law that the new Libya claims to be founded on. Jamie Tarabay in this article says

”those who were fighting to depose him might be as ruthless as the person they were determined to replace”

Where was the logic in this brutality? does Libyans even know that we live in a democratic world that guarantees everybody the right to life no matter how tyrannical one is perceived to be. Worse tyrants are those in ‘civilized countries’ who celebrated the death of Muammar. Such is Simon Sebag Montefiore who wrote an Op-ed called Dictators Get the Deaths They Deserve shamelessly justified the killings quoting biblical instances he says

”There is no greater achievement for the tyrant — short of immortality — than to die in his own bed”

He further states

”His preposterously exuberant cult of personality was surely shattered by the spectacle of his pathetic demolition”

In another article by Ellen Knickmeyer ‘Ladies love Libyan Rebels- the sexual Revolution arrives in Tripoli’ further ignores the atrocities the rebels committed on the women and children in their quest to oust Gaddafi. It endevours to paint a propagandist picture by adding a sexual dimension to the war. How can the Libyan woman see the rebel who wiped her family as a ‘sexual liberator’? How possible is this scenario? What prompted me to write this article was such kinds of literature being circulated and published in respected and widely read newspapers. The amount of moral and social decay being presented here is one of utmost disgust.


aid & development / politics & institutions / systems & complexity

Women in Aid and Development

A place for women in aid and development to network, share and learn

An Africanist Perspective

Politics. Development Economics. Political Economy. General Social Science.

Kenya Elections 2013

Kenya's 2013 elections in historical and social perspective


With(out) Predicates

Neo-colonialism and its Discontents

A blog by Sara Salem. Postcolonialism, Marxism, feminism and other conspiracies.

Jason Patinkin

Journalist, East Africa


A great site


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.