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Whose Progress?

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The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are over, the Sustainable Development Goals are in! As we consider the progress made, we also ask: How can progress be measured?

Certainly, development statistics show a broad range of achievements, and these achievements should be celebrated. But we recognise that progress is not equally shared by people around the world.

Further, how much do these statistics indicate a movement towards “fullness of life”? How can we tell whether people are finding justice, or dignity – the signs of God’s Kingdom? Surely there must be more than development statistics to indicate success?

Ezekiel 47 outlines what happens when God’s Kingdom reigns and his Spirit flows. Perhaps these are signs of progress for which we can search in development and in more complex situations. There will be an abundance of good things, stale and old practices and damaging structures and traditions will become fresh, there will be life, and people will have purposeful and meaningful employment. Diversity will be celebrated, and there will be healing and reconciliation. If we can look for such signs, or even signs of these signs, and even in dark and troubled situations, then we can see signs of progress towards God’s Kingdom. Very often, these signs may be seen in the people who carry about God’s Kingdom in them.

TEAR’s role in this process is to pray for our partners and the communities, be flexible in our funding and reporting, and give partners time to work through the situation without placing excessive burdens on them. Sometimes we will also offer partners additional direct technical support.

In 2014, I conducted an evaluation of work in communities that our partner, Share and Care Nepal, had been working in for the previous three years. In my executive summary I wrote:

Whose Progress 1

“In summary, the project is progressing very well. From an effectiveness point of view, the general conclusion and recommendation of this evaluation is: “Keep doing what you’re doing; it’s going well!” The project is well run, with highly competent staff who have the values and attitudes to bring out the best in a well-considered and implemented project design.”

There were real signs of progress in the communities. Some of these were tangible changes that had occurred: better and more effective drinking water systems meant improved health and less time spent collecting water; irrigation systems resulted in improved agricultural yields leading to better nutrition and incomes; Health Posts were better equipped and effectively community-managed leading to better quality health services; women and farmers were able to access loans to invest in income generation schemes or small-scale businesses.

These changes are relatively easy to see and some measure of success or even efficiency can be applied to them. More complex, and less easy to see and measure, are the equally-real changes that had occurred in people’s lives.

Being a member of a Women's Action Group is like having a light on a very dark day.

Again, in the evaluation report I tried to summarise the depth and breadth of change that had occurred: “…according to the women involved, the [women’s] groups have enabled women to gain confidence and ability to participate in community level decision making, including accessing government funding for women’s development that they previously didn’t know was available. ‘Previously we couldn’t speak in public, but now we can’, was a recurring theme in all the groups. Women are initiating activities for themselves and working together to develop effective small businesses and community wide advocacy events. Developing women’s leadership has been a significant outcome of the Women’s Action Groups and this is something that is flowing down to a new generation with Creative Adolescent Girls’ groups.

“In each Village Development Committee (VDC) the Women’s Action Groups have formed a Women’s Network that provides training, has connected the individual groups and allowed them to carry out joint activities and to access VDC funding and services for women’s development.

“Women’s Cooperatives have been set up in two [villages] to provide additional savings, loans, government subsidies and business enterprise initiatives to the members. While the cooperatives are still in their infancy, they are already showing strong growth and the ability to resource significant economic change in the villages.”

I left the project excited and encouraged about the progress that was being made. Truly, I thought, these were steps towards the sort of dignity, justice and integrity that are the signs of God’s Kingdom.

In May 2015, just three weeks after the Nepal earthquake, I was due to visit some of the same villages. I wondered what had happened to the progress that we had seen the year before. Could those positive changes survive the devastation of people’s homes, livelihoods, faith in the very ground that they lived on, and through the tragedy of the lives lost?

I found that, as people were starting to put their lives back together and deal with the events that had hit them so hard, it was difficult to see how the changes of the past few years could survive or even help the communities. The most that could be hoped for at the time was that the community groups might be useful in assisting in the distribution of relief materials.

Six months later, in November, I returned. I was able to go back to the same villages and see how the people had responded and how the work of Share and Care Nepal had supported them to recover from the earthquake. The tin shelters that cover the hillsides had taken on an air of semi-permanence. Gardens were growing outside them, and the monsoon rains had encouraged the growth of grasses and taken the shine off the new tin. It didn’t hide the fact that it was going to be a cold, difficult winter.

“We’re worried about the winter”, explained one group member. “Sleeping under tin sheeting is cold and condensation forms inside. That makes it very cold, and very wet.” Food will also be a problem in a few months. “It was a bad monsoon and our harvest is about half of what we normally get”, said a member of a Farmers' Group. “Now we have finished harvesting but there is nowhere to store the grain.”

“Previously we had to feed 10 people with our food”, added one woman. “Now we have 15 people living with us because people are sharing their shelters with those who don’t have anything.”

Whose Progress 2

There is no doubt that people are still suffering, but there’s another side as well. There was lots of laughter in the groups we met, and people were overwhelming in their thankfulness to Share and Care, and TEAR, for the support that they had received. There was a positiveness that still remained from before the earthquake. Groups have started meeting again.

“The earthquake delayed our group’s activities,” said one group leader, “but now we want to get back to work. We had plans before the earthquake, but now we have better ones.”

The community structures that had been developed through the project have started to work again and these are providing mutual support, hope and a practical means of bringing about positive change as people re-build their lives, homes and livelihoods. As one woman said: “Being a member of a Women’s Action Group is like having a light on a very dark day.”

It’s hard to measure such signs of progress. Even the fact that in the groups I met with the women mixed with the men as equals in the conversation is a sign of progress and change. You can’t quantify the importance of being part of a supportive group, of being confident to take your place in community decision-making, or of having the skills to work together and rebuild communities after a disaster. Such signs do not appear in the official statistics, but surely these are indicators of people gaining a greater sense of the fullness of life?

In situations of crisis, these less-tangible indicators give hope. One-third of people living in poverty today are in fragile or conflict-affected states and this is estimated to increase to two-thirds by 2030.[1] Nearly half of the countries that TEAR works in are categorised as “fragile”.[2]

What does progress look like in these communities? Tangible benefits of development built up over years can be lost in a day if troops arrive to occupy, loot, destroy or rape.

The Sustainable Development Goals recognise this and Goal 16 is to: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

Do we see echoes of Isaiah 54 wrapped up in development speak in this goal? “All your children will be taught by the LORD, and great will be their peace. In righteousness you will be established: Tyranny will be far from you; you will have nothing to fear. Terror will be far removed.”

Working in 'Fragile' Communities

The place of women in Afghanistan brings together elements of deeply-ingrained injustice, chronic fragility and conflict.

One of TEAR’s partners in Afghanistan works with women who are survivors of violence or trafficking, and seeks to give them skills and links into working environments that can restore their dignity, provide them with an income, and enable them to start re-building their lives.

A recent evaluation of the partner’s work stated that the women involved feel less vulnerable, “stronger, full of hope and independent” after their time in the project. Other participants said that they “can focus on being something for the future”, and “I think I can do something in life…I can make decisions for myself”. With practical skills came increased confidence, self-worth, new opportunities, and critically, hope.

The program’s most notable success has been in giving women a sense of community and social belonging with other women. These mutually-supportive relationships provide the foundation for other changes to occur. As a result of these changes one woman was able to say “When I left my home, for the first time I felt like a human being, I have the rights to be independent…I feel part of a community, I have skills to give to the community…I can stand on my own feet after leaving my house.”

When I left my home, for the first time I felt like a human being, I have the rights to be independent…I feel part of a community, I have skills to give to the community…I can stand on my own feet after leaving my house.

Another project in Afghanistan helps start women’s Self Help Groups. There are now more than 800 groups involving around 16,000 members. These really do have the potential to be a significant movement for change, and change is occurring for the members who have access to loans, representation to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and access to legal and personal support. The suffering and violence within Afghanistan continues. The broader status of women is not greatly affected, although it may be influenced. But for the individuals involved, there is hope.

Last year, the offices of TEAR’s partner Sudan Evangelical Mission (SEM) in South Sudan were looted as opposition forces and then government troops fought over access to the town. The people from the local community fled into the bush and were in hiding. SEM continues to be committed to the people of Mundri and, as staff pick up their own lives, they do it as part of the community. Recently, a Peace Agreement was signed between the community of Mundri and the government forces. The peace process was led by the local Bishop, and the church played a key role in mediating and monitoring the implementation of the Peace Agreement. God’s people, in the midst of their own suffering, have taken a stand at their own risk, and ensured that a voice for justice and peace and hope is heard.

TEAR and our partners are rarely able to influence the course of civil war, nor can we prevent the unjust actions of either governments or their oppositions. What our partners do though, is to be a presence, to direct the way to the fulfilment of peaceful and inclusive societies.

In Nepal, the community expressed their appreciation for way that the Share and Care staff shared the experience with them; literally walked with them as they picked through their ruined houses and shared in people’s grief and fear. In South Sudan the SEM staff joined the rest of their community in the bush, without shelter, water, medicine, or food. There is a cost to being so committed to the communities in which you work. But this cost declares a concern and demonstrates a love that goes beyond the ability to complete a project successfully. Demonstrating such unity often brings about a transformative change that strengthens the impact of development activities and embeds them within communities more deeply than the most effective training course. Because our partners are Christian, this commitment takes on a deeper impact. As Christians we are recruited into God’s service to His world. In John, Jesus commissions his disciples for service by declaring “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21-22) This is a commission to an incarnational work in which we bring God’s presence, message and love to a world in need. As God’s love is demonstrated practically, we can trust that God will be building his Kingdom in seen and unseen ways.

It is important for us to know what activities work effectively to bring about change and to be able to assess that change. It is also important for us to be able to identify what has worked well and what hasn’t.

Across TEAR’s International Program we have a framework that helps us assess effectiveness. We use evaluations, monitoring from the field, and reporting from partners against objectives. Our strategy is to be working in the places of greatest need according to international poverty statistics. Through these methods, we can make a judgement about the progress or success of TEAR’s work.

Just as important, is the time we spend listening to the people with whom we are working to hear what success and progress means for them. It is in the people and their experiences that progress will be defined and seen.

Development statistics show us that progress is happening. What they don’t show is what progress means for the cattle farmer in South Sudan, for the husband and wife who are rebuilding their lives after the earthquake in Nepal, for the woman in Afghanistan who is gradually gaining in confidence after the shattering impact of sexual violence.

We need to look widely and be cautiously encouraged. We also need to sit down, listen and learn from the people who are behind the statistics; the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the hungry, and the thirsty. It is in their struggles and suffering that we join, and in their hope and in their progress that we rejoice.


Phil Lindsay is TEAR's International Program and Effectiveness Coordinator. [1]. http://www.brookings.edu/research/interactives/2013/ending-extreme-poverty#fragile_states [2]. http://www.oecd.org/dac/governance-peace/conflictfragilityandresilience/docs/List%20of%20fragile%20states.pdf