Participatory Approaches to Addressing Our Immediate Problems


A Sub-Saharan Africa Perspective

By Emmanuel Manishimwe

This is the 6th month since COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the Sub-Saharan Africa.  World over, there have been observations, expressed on various media, that there were significant losses as a result of the lock-down which has been implemented by many countries.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, Coronavirus was first believed to be foreign, penetrating countries through airports.  Soon it became a cross-border challenge as many drivers tested positive, casting a major threat to transportation of essential goods.  But this has not been the only problem.  There are lessons we can learn for the future.  One of them is fair community engagement.

Whereas Governments should be commended for a job well done and for continuing effort to control the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we could explore more areas we can improve in for better results, for any other widespread strategic interventions now or in the future.  COVID-19 pandemic is likely to leave the poor even poorer than before as many people lose jobs or face salary cuts, yet they were already strained before.    

The first United Nations sustainable development goal is to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.[i]  This will still remain a dream for Sub-Saharan Africa unless we embrace strategic participatory approaches to addressing our immediate problems.

Information management is critical for understanding problems and their associated challenges.  An example could be monitoring direct and indirect impact of a pandemic or strategic solution being implemented.  Whereas strategic solutions may be indisputable, effective management of information can help to provide insights on which modifications could be necessary the next time such an intervention becomes inevitable. 

Narrowing down to Non-Governmental perspective, there are about four elements that could enhance community participation and encourage sustainable community response to overarching problems; understanding of the problem, sharing consistent solutions, engaging leaders and community, and tracking essential data.  

Understanding of the Problem

A top-bottom approach to solving problems can be compared to a picture drawn from the space.  You can only solve surface problems if you stick to that approach.  Obviously, observing situations from the space will give you a wide view but you need to go down and interact with people to deepen your view as well.

Your perspective may not be as accurate until you enable the local community members see what you see.  If you are with them on ground and working with them, help them understand the wider picture you see so you can understand together.

Sharing Consistent Solutions

Let the local beneficiaries be part of the solution process.  Do not assume they are ignorant and may sabotage if involved.  If they are not involved, you will be sabotaging.  Working aside beneficiaries in pretense of helping them will mean such solutions and any community investments obtained in that manner cannot be sustainable.  Share review results and have a common understanding on next steps forward. 

Engaging Leaders and Community

Do not assume that your leaders have everything it takes to achieve goals.  You need to ensure ongoing follow-up and learning areas for more capacity building.  COVID-19 lock-down experiences have taught us that we can still hold meetings without traveling.  This has opened our eyes to realize there are many ways of connecting and staying informed with essential grassroots leaders. 

Grassroots leaders need to be empowered to enhance their local network.  Rather than speaking on radio and go home, distribute your message to all channels without even leaving home.  Have a portal for responses that capture feedback from the web, email and phone responses.  Monitor less active areas and target those for upgrading local communication technology as appropriate.  If we are to achieve big, we have to be more innovative.

Tracking Essential Data

The COVID-19 lock-down experience was very hazardous for all populations far away from health facilities.  There’s very poor planning in rural areas.  It’s only when a person is critically ill that people might decide to carry a person to the hospital.  You can find a family without a telephone you can use to call.  This means there could be losses that were not tracked because the pandemic came when we didn’t have systems to track such data.

Reporting verbal cases to authorities or telling stories on news channels and in newspapers can be helpful but insufficient.  Having widely accessible data centers running and accessible from different fields or departments can be very handy.  People are using social media and phone calls to spend time with friends, they can also use them to improve services and share helpful data within their ministry-driven platforms.  If we can reach this goal, we are close to a purposeful connection with our people.

We may ask ourselves, “will we manage to get everyone in our reach above $1.25 extreme poverty mark by 2030?”.  The answer is simply, “No”!  We can’t just work for the people; we need to work with them if we are to realize significant progress.  This means even existing community-based agencies like religious institutions have a major role to play.  If development practitioners do not recognize these structures, there will be a major lack in mobilization efforts.  Certainly, if any people in leadership will be pre-occupied with personal gain and being as rich as even those who donate, then extreme poverty will remain.  Perhaps this casts a warning that corruption is not only a national problem but a global one, and a hindrance to the attainment of the United Nations sustainable development goals.

[i] United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from

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