A Discussion with Davis Omanyo, East Africa Regional Director of World Renew

With: Davis Omanyo Berkley Center Profile

November 18, 2014

Background: International development organizations constantly grapple with how to make programs sustainable and to assure authentic local ownership, traits that can be elusive. Davis Omanyo, East Africa regional director for World Renew, spoke with Elisabeth Stoddard on November 18, 2014 in Nairobi to discuss his organization’s development strategies that he believes create truly sustainable and locally-owned programs. Their strategy hinges on a thorough and long-standing participatory process in which communities actively engage in deciding what kinds of projects will effectively address their unmet needs. The process continues over a span of four to five years until the community is convinced that they are sustainable and that the community is fully ready to manage their own development. He also reflects on the pivotal role church structures can play in motivating and gathering communities during the planning, implementation, and management stages of development programs.

Note about World Renew (Guidestar):
Established in 1962, the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), an independent agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, changed its name to World Renew in 2012. Initially a disaster response, relief, and adoption agency, the organization expanded its focus in 1979 to include community development and eventually merged a third focus, justice education, into its vision and mission. Today, World Renew is a well-established and experienced binationally-based Christian organization in the U.S. and Canada with a reputation for innovative and sustainable grass-roots development and disaster response and rehabilitation work in developing countries around the world. Its headquarters is in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Tell me about your background. How did you come to work at World Renew?

I have a master’s degree in public health from Boston University. I was supported by a USAID initiative in order to come to the U.S. for my graduate degree. Before I joined World Renew, I worked for the government of Kenya as a public health officer. The problem with the government, though, was they do not have enough resources to engage the community at a deeper level. I did not want to spend my whole career stuck in an office, so I decided to make a change.

In 1989, I started working at the Anglican Church of Kenya as the community health program coordinator. I rose to the level of deputy director in the diocese of Eldoret and helped form the official development arm of the Anglican Church, now known as Anglican Development Services (ADS). I believe the church is key to development, especially in a country like Kenya where religion and the church are ubiquitous. In villages on Sundays, you can always find people gathered praying under a tree or at a community shelter. Using these preexisting structures and networks is the way to engage communities in development. The structures are there and the people are there. It makes the perfect foundation for development. The goal of founding Anglican Development Services in the Western region of Kenya was to utilize faith and churches as a positive catalyst for development. That success is one of my major joys in life.

Some people think that faith-based development organizations only set out to help their own faith communities. This is just not true. At ADS and here at World Renew, we work through church structures but at the larger community level. We are not engaging only Christians. The church structures, especially in rural areas, simply are the best-organized and most comprehensive social networks. By implementing through these preexisting structures, our programs can reach everyone in a given community. The church is always represented by a person, a friendly face, a neighbor. The church has the power to bring meaning and approachability to development projects.

How can faith be used as a motivator for development?


World Renew is the development arm of the Christian Reformed Church; faith is a key component in our vision and mission as an organization. We are not theologians; most of us are Christians that are skilled in different sectors such as agriculture, health, business development etc. who believe in helping people through development. The church is founded on serving the less fortunate; we live out that belief through leading sustainable development. Transformational Community Development is our servitude.

We have conviction as a church. We are all God’s people. That means God never chooses for us to be poor. He never wants us to suffer. It is the responsibility of all of us, and our churches, to ensure humanity does not suffer. That is the driving force of faith-inspired development. How can we support holistic and sustainable change within our communities? In regards to health, we have to consider the physical, psychological, and spiritual needs of the people.

Health is not merely the absence of disease, but the well-being of the totality of the human being. We have to ask ourselves, how do we fulfill this need to look at the whole person. First, we cannot discriminate. God does not see the difference between a Christian and a Muslim. That person is created in God’s image and, therefore, should be treated as an equal who deserves respect and support.

As World Renew, we work in only the most marginalized areas. They are short of food. Their health is very poor. They have no access to the basic human needs. It is our responsibility to work with these people.

I was born in a small village in western Kenya, not in Nairobi. I went to school in the village and saw poverty every day of my childhood. I saw people struggling to grow food, people unable to afford to go to a hospital, people dying almost every day. I knew this is not how people should live. We should not be attending a funeral every weekend. We should not live surrounded by death. We should lead happy lives.

These experiences fueled my conviction to work in development. I needed to make programs that would improve the lives of rural Kenyans by increasing their access to food, health, and opportunity. In our agriculture programming we focus on, not only increasing crop production, but also enhance the quality of their diets.


How does World Renew implement projects using community-based participatory process?


As an organization we use participatory methods and this is critical. We have reached a point where we cannot compromise on our approach. Involving the communities right from the beginning is the foundation of local ownership and sustainable development. The project is not World Renew’s project. It belongs to the community. It is not about the partner or the donor; the project is about the community, their health, their food, and their futures.

We have realized that communities come up with very sound plans all by themselves. They know their needs, priorities, local resources, and community better than any organization. As an organization, we firmly believe in engaging the communities at least three months before a program plan even develops. During this period, we have forums and discussions with the community to help them understand the processes in place and create a sense of local ownership. If you do not spend this time with the community, they cannot see it as their project.

Most other organizations rush to begin implementation. They truck in resources, push to meet deadlines, and take control of the project. Participatory processes for most development organizations are treated like a requirement. We believe in the process. We know it works, and we have made the decision as an organization to complete at least three months of participatory processes before beginning programming. ;

What does the participatory process look like in those three months?


Basically, we get acquainted with the community. We go to village/community meetings, engage the people in discussions, learn about their community structures, identify leaders, and begin forums to help the community start to look inwards to address their needs, wants, and aspirations. We lead the community in a mapping exercise that encourages them to draw out maps of their villages, identifying water resources, schools, public buildings, organizations, churches, available community resources, etc. This allows them to have another perspective of their community. They can start realizing, “Oh, this is my home, there is the school, here are the farm lands.” This helps the community to work together more effectively, but it also provides a platform for beginning to recognize the community challenges and available resources. Often, what emerge are frustrations over health (especially children’s health), education, and water.

The community now questions, “Is this the way it should be?” The answer is always no. The next step is to facilitate forums and discussions in which the community can reflect on what they want their village to look like in the future. Maybe they want their children to go to the hospital less, or a reliable water source, or better food production. Usually, they can quickly pinpoint what forces or problems are preventing them from reaching a better future. Through this community reflection process, they brainstorm and come up with very clear action plans.

We work with them to develop a proposal for external resources to implement their project plans and help them identify tangible and concrete indicators that they can use to monitor their progress during the implementation phases.

Each of our projects runs for five or six years at the minimum. This gives the community ample time to develop the project plan, implement all phases, and ensure all processes are maintained by the community independently. Sustainability is crucial. Our goal is for the community to tell us, “You can leave now. We are ready.” We will not leave until the community is self-sufficient.

How does World Renew utilize church structures to help project implementation?


In all of our projects we value partnerships with church organizations. We deliberately say that we like to work with church organizations. Their structures and social networks are often the most comprehensive, well-organized, and far-reaching in Kenya. We know that they can be a great asset to development.

For this reason, as an organization, we aim to develop the capacities of local church leaders to ensure they have a clear understanding of development and can be actively involved in project implementation. People of faith are dedicated to serving their communities and aiding the vulnerable. We engage church organizations because they are strongly invested in the health and well-being of their communities. They are not concerned with earning a lot of money or reaping the benefits of power.

Are the church networks restricted to their own congregations? How do they connect to the rest of the community?


In Kenyan communities, the leaders are well-connected to each other. If a village has multiple congregations or religious groups, the leaders from each of these communities will know each other, often, work together. The purpose of the first three months of our participatory process is to engage the entire community in conversation and dialogue. The church leaders help facilitate these gatherings by bringing their congregations, but also reaching out to other faith leaders in the community.

World Renew does not participate in preaching, evangelism, or trying to convert individuals. We respect people’s religion. So, if we are starting a project in a village that is majority Muslim, we engage the Muslim leaders. They are the best connection to the community, not the Christian leaders. We serve everyone equally. We try to facilitate the participatory processes in a very loving way, a very concerned way. We encourage them to engage, question, and have a conversation about their own lives.

What kind of projects do the communities decide on?


In most cases, we go into a community knowing about their specific needs. But, we do not tell them what they need. This is very important. Looking at Kenya’s development indexes, we realize that, for instance, Turkana is a marginalized community because it is very dry, food will not grow, and they lack the skill to set up water systems. However, they need to feel complete ownership of the project. We cannot design it for them. We have to work with them to help them analyze their own needs.

The communities’ primary need is usually better food security. They tell us about the ‘hunger months’ when they cannot grow enough food to feed themselves. Usually this time lasts around six months. We use calendars to mark exactly when food becomes a problem. Then we talk about the causes: not enough rain, excessive heat, over flooding, insect damage, diseased plants etc. After this process, they ask us to teach them the technical skills to manage soil fertility and good farming systems—for example, farming God’s way; this is similar to conservation agriculture for the Christian perspective of caring for the land and managing the soils well for production.

Another common issue is malaria. They ask, ‘How do you stop malaria?’ A lot of the times, people call almost everything malaria; to them, it simply means ‘sickness.’ So, we have to dig deeper with them to know whether it really is malaria, or maybe it’s typhoid, or dysentery. We discuss how many times they go to the hospital during a month and the locations of the nearest health services. The aim is to get a comprehensive picture of their health situation.

Often, they ask us to teach them about diseases and prevention. One of the main ways we accomplish this is through training community health volunteers. We establish a training curriculum which includes all the relevant health issues for the community—proper nutrition, prevention techniques, early detection of diseases, and water and sanitation procedures. This curriculum is used to train the community health volunteers and is also used to create materials that are disseminated to the general population. We also train what we call Village Development Initiators. They call themselves as community ministers, for example, the minister of education, minister of health, etc.

The community minister of health is trained in all health matters and is charged with compiling regular reports on the status of health in the community. The minister, along with the community health volunteers, is also responsible for teaching the community about proper health procedures and disease prevention.
All of these pieces work together to decrease illnesses and hospital visits while improving the overall health of the community.

Can you give an example of an education project?


Sure! One of the communities we went to had a major problem with education. The nearest school was 15 kilometers away through a dense forest. Because of this, the children could not start school at the normal age of seven. It was too dangerous for small children to walk 15 kilometers through a forest. So, the children had to wait until they were old enough to make the journey. The community decided that they needed a local school nearby for their children to start school early. Let me tell you, they built that school without any money from us! It had water and three classrooms.

Now the children can go to school right there in the village. Some people from the community started filling in as teachers so the children could begin their education immediately. But, they were not really qualified. We told them, ‘Why don’t you engage the government. It is your right to have public teachers.’ So, we taught their local minister of education how to petition the government for teachers.

The whole community worked with the minister to put together a proposal that outlined their need for a local school. They explained why their children could not go to school at the right age and demanded that the government send teachers. Simple as that. Now the young kids go to school and the community got their teachers.

We do not just focus on health, education, and livelihoods; we make sure that the community is empowered. We help them learn all the information they need to create awareness of their rights and the capacity to engage the government and other institutions to demand those rights.

Community capacity building is crucial. Transformed communities do not want organizations to come in and give them handouts, such as cows, drill bore holes etc. They will say, ‘No, we don’t want your cows. Why do you think we need cows?’ Dumping resources does not teach the communities how to manage their own lives. It is not sustainable.

Our goal is not just to help them implement their projects, but also to build capacities in the communities for them to support the total needs of the village/communities. Often, the communities start to build structures like village/community development committees. We build capacity within the communities on how to mobilize resources, both internal and external. They now have the capacity to manage their own development.

How does your model change when you take on emergency and disaster response projects?


The model has to change because disasters are, by nature, unpredictable. We cannot do the same extensive participatory processes because the needs are urgent. Currently, we have about three projects where we have been doing the relief program for a long time—Kilifi, Turkana, and Tharaka-Nithi. Kenya has a lot of emergencies—droughts, tribal clashes, flooding.

For instance, right now we have a response project in Lamu because of the Al-Shabaab attack. So many people, many more were displaced. They all retreated into a forests for protection and nobody was supporting them. Luckily, as World Renew a large part of our programs globally involve fast and direct emergency response. We are able to submit a one page proposal to our home office and receive about $10,000 very quickly to begin a quick response to an emergency.

We knew that the people in the Lamu forests had no water, no sanitation, no lighting. So, we sent a request to our home office and immediately distributed mosquito nets, solar lamps and food as well as provided four water storage tanks. They had food with them so they told us they did not need food immediately. But, they knew that their supplies would run out in November. The IDPs planned on going back to their farms in Lamu, but there would be a gap of around five months in which they would have no food production.

Through conversations with them, we organized a food distribution platform that would help them for those upcoming months. They also told us they needed seeds and some farming supplies to start up their farms again. We discussed their plans and needs until we all had a clear idea of how much seed, supplies, and support they needed. In a very short time, they had designed a relief program that would help them transition back to their homes.

In Magharini, we stayed there for a very long time because of the floods in 2013. Even before the disaster, it was a very poor community. We decided that after the emergency response, we would stay to help them develop the community. As we speak, the disaster response has wrapped up and we have begun the participatory processes for long-term development. The community is now working to develop a proposal for the next three years.

Even during the relief stages of the Magharini response, we integrated sustainable development. Through a rapid appraisal and community conversation, we found that they did not need food, but they have no water systems. They asked us to expand their water point to have a pump in the village. So, instead of giving food, we developed a water project. The community worked together to build a large reservoir that would provide a stable water source for the village. They did the work and we paid them with supplies and food.

In Turkana, we are working with over 600 women to build three greenhouses and irrigation systems. This is a pilot project. We have taught them how to grow vegetables, fruit, and grains. I have never seen such smiles! The women have started growing all sorts of crops and fruits such as watermelons. We know there is an oil company nearby, so we have connected the women to the employees. Now, they grow fruits enough for their families and sell to the oil company people to make extra money.


Does World Renew also teach money management and savings to the communities?


We have a program called VSL—Village Savings and Loans. After the community has implemented their projects and they are moving into the management stages, we start engaging the women in this project. Economic empowerment is a crucial piece for sustainability. Typically organizations focus on micro-loan or credit programs that require participants to pay back their start-up loans. Sometimes their business endeavors fail to be profitable and it can be very disempowering.

As World Renew, we have started a different approach. We gather the women of the village and start a conversation about their challenges—they have no resources, their gardens are not producing enough food to sell. Some of them are already running small businesses others are very busy providing for their families. We say, ‘You work so hard. Would you like to meet once a week to have a break?’ They always say yes! Women in the village have no time to meet and just rest together. So, they come and meet while we teach them whatever they want to learn.

We start by teaching them how to save. We ask them, ‘How much can you commit to saving every week?’ It could be as little as a quarter dollar, but they agree to save some amount of money every week. As they continue to meet and learn, this money grows. You just can’t believe how much they save! We have groups of women in Uganda that together they have jointly saved $280,000, not Uganda shillings!

Once they have saved a good amount of money, we introduce more economic strategies. They can now borrow from the savings and support their own business ventures. They can also use the money as a safety net for unexpected insurance, funeral, or health costs. The group works together to manage the money. They are very successful!

These kinds of programs remind me that development does not require a lot of money. The people are very capable if you build the capacities. It is the approach that fails, not the people. Development organizations like the World Bank or even the government, have never understood Africa. Everything is done in a rush, on a timeline. True sustainable development cannot be done on a timeline. The organization needs to work with the community and become invested in their success.

Most organizations that try to do participatory processes come to a community and say, ‘We want to do a family planning project’ or, ‘this is a dry region, do you need more bore holes?’ The community wants to please the organization so they tell the staff what they imagine they want to hear. Consequently, the projects often do not address the real needs of the community. They fail to be sustainable. The organization did not take the time to really listen to the community. That is why we use the three month preparatory process. We never propose a plan. We guide them through conversations until they decide what they need as a community.


I used to work in Turkana for many years. It is a semi-desert and very poor. When you go around this region you see hundreds of broken bore holes. You know why? Organizations come in and think—this is a desert, they must need water. So, they sink bore holes and think the problem is solved. These bore holes are not for the Turkana people, they are for you and me because we are used to water all the time. This is stupidity of the highest level. These people know how to deal with water issues. They can tell you what they really need. This is why the participatory processes are crucial. It is the only way to create sustainable programs that will be locally owned and maintained.

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