Building stronger institutions in Africa starts at the local level

January 4, 2021
At the conclusion of the November 2020 meeting of the Transformation Leadership Panel (TLP), our chairperson, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf noted, “Africa is resolved to being in charge of her own destiny.”

For me, that is a thrilling and hugely important assertion, because that ownership begins at home. It’s why I started Camfed almost 30 years ago to help educate and empower young women. Camfed now reaches more than 4 million children in five countries, and that makes me proud. But I’m also proud of the way Camfed began. I was a novice in international development, and made the place and the people where the problem lay my school and teachers. It began as a personal initiative with 32 girls.

Of the many tools that African countries can deploy to improve human wellbeing, strong community institutions are commonly overlooked. In contrast to regional and national institutions, they are often considered “nice to have” rather than a necessity, so the long-term commitment to strengthening them is sadly lacking.

Yet community institutions are the missing link between those who deliver initiatives and those meant to benefit from them. Any dialogue about strengthening institutions in Africa—a stated priority of leadership at the African Development Bank, for example—not only should include institutions at the community level, it should prioritize them.

Continental, regional, and national bodies are very important in the resources and skills they can marshal but just by their scope and size, they lack constant insight into the local context to effectively inform design and delivery of their development programs.

So often, initiatives never arrive at the local level, or arrive and find no institutional structure with which to partner and yet continue anyway. The resulting development projects are a pale shadow of what communities mired in poverty need and, without true roots into the community, are transient, leaving a vacuum in their wake. This common approach is often underpinned by skepticism that a poor, rural community has the understanding of its needs, the ability to articulate its aspirations, and the commitment to engage.

My experience tells me little could be further from the truth. When I set out to support girls’ education in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s, I found fragmented education, health, and welfare services in the rural areas, staffed in most cases by people from urban areas who simply “endured” for as short a time as possible what they regarded as “punishment” assignments. I also saw a passion for education among rural families but a lack of both the confidence and knowledge to demand better services.

What was needed was a mechanism or institution to channel that passion into action. In a village called Mola in what was the most deprived district of Zimbabwe, I discussed with the Chief the vicious cycle of uneducated girls becoming mothers when still children themselves and giving birth to the next generation born into poverty. He called a meeting, open to everyone in his community, to discuss girls’ widespread exclusion from school. That daylong meeting established the rudiments of a community-owned initiative.

Girls’ education was my primary purpose in founding Camfed. Its realization is the result of institution-building at the community level; without this vital component, Camfed’s work would look like so many other programs whereby decisions are made by outsiders with a tick-box determining “benefits”, where there is no room for nuanced decision-making or for the vital knowledge communities hold. It would have been a top-down model with a minimal transfer of resources, one in which when a program ends, nothing is sustained. Yet Camfed has sparked a vibrant movement to which hundreds of thousands of people in rural communities bring their knowledge, skill and passion. Far more happens beyond Camfed than within it.

At the heart of work that has evolved over almost three decades is the establishment of a Community Committee, with representation from all the local constituencies with the power to improve girls’ education status. There are now 154 of these committees, community-based institutions with the remit, capability and overriding ambition to improve the lives of the most marginalized. They are sustained by the results for which they can feel immense pride.

Long-standing committees see the children whom they have helped on the path to education qualify in medicine, nursing, law, accountancy and education, while others establish businesses that enhance the local economy. Newly-qualified teachers and nurses are returning to work in their home areas and with their local knowledge, understanding and relationships, are transforming the education and health systems that once had an ever-changing body of staff.

Alongside the Community Committees, institution-building has resulted in what is now a fully-fledged alumnae – CAMA. It currently has 157,000 members, all from poor rural families with little, if any, history of women’s education.

Imagine the critical knowledge and capability this network holds as to how to advance their communities in advising child immunization programs where mothers are resistant. Or in designing pre-natal programs that integrate traditional and modern medical practice. Or in supporting schools to become places where girls feel valued alongside boys. These are just a few of the in-depth conversations I have had with alumnae and in language that is respectful; not for them “feeding program”, “AIDS orphans”, or “illiterates”. Moreover, coming full circle, many alumnae are now members of the Community Committees.

Community-led institutions can have outsized effects and so building them and strengthening them is a moral imperative. Institution building must become the new by-word at all levels, a component that is considered an imperative in any development design. With the right, consistent support, community level institutions could inform those national and regional institutions and learn from them in a dynamic exchange.

To do this, they must be supported to grow and become sustainable. They would then become a fundamental component in ensuring that Africa is indeed “in charge of her own destiny”.

About author

Ann Cotton OBE is Founder and Trustee of CAMFED and a member of ACET’s Transformation Leadership Panel (TLP). She has been focused on improving opportunity for children at the margins of education for more than three decades. She began her career in a London school by establishing one of the first centers for girls excluded from mainstream education.

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