A drop of water, in time, will fill the jar

Posted on August 26, 2015

Three months ago, I didn’t really know anything at all about international development – the paths of UK-based charities like Marie Curie and international NGOs don’t often cross. Since then, I have had the extraordinary opportunity of spending my some of my Clore Social secondment in Ethiopia, learning about how Retrak transforms the lives of highly vulnerable children, many of whom live or work on the streets. The work of Retrak’s Community Development Workers absolutely blew me away, and has sent my head spinning about impact measurement, empowerment and long term change. 

I sat in on one of the weekly Self Help Group meetings that the Community Development Workers facilitate, where up to 20 local women come together to save small amounts of their own money. To give you an idea of their level of income, members start by saving the equivalent of 10p per week. This eventually builds up a pot that they can take loans from in order to further their economic prospects, for example start-up capital for a small business. One of the group members I met summed up the process with the Ethiopian saying: “a drop of water, in time, will fill the jar”.

You might be wondering what all this has got to do with children living and working on the streets of Ethiopia’s cities. Pleasingly for me, the answer is data-driven programme design. Retrak have run a drop-in centre and night shelter in Addis Ababa for the last 8 years, which provides life-skills lessons, catch-up education, a health clinic and family tracing so that children can be reintegrated with their families. Over the course of this work, Retrak have been collecting the home locations of children who they have reintegrated. By analysing this data, they noticed that a high proportion of children were coming from the area around Hossana, a large town about 4 hours south west of Addis Ababa.

They then set about designing a programme that would address some of the major factors that drive children towards living on the streets of Addis Ababa: poverty, child labour exploitation and parenting issues. Self Help Groups not only address poverty by enabling women to start small businesses, they also enable Community Development Workers to provide group training and 1-2-1 support on a range of issues including child trafficking, parenting skills and the dangers of street life.

I had the opportunity to hear some of the group members’ stories during my visit, and what most struck me was the degree of empowerment they described and the extent to which their attitudes had changed. One group member spoke about how her attitude to ‘being poor’ had shifted, in terms of taking control of the money she had, sending her children to school and how her approach to parenting had changed, all as a result of the Self Help Group.

Another spoke of the sense of mutual support that the group give each other – a sense of sisterhood – and the Community Development Workers later said that more and more often the group solve their own problems through discussion, and that their role becomes more of a facilitator as the group matures. It reminded me a lot of being in an Action Learning Set.

I was lucky enough to be able to hear the stories of change because the programme had been running for more than two years. But it’s a slow process – drops of water filling the jar – because it is the group members’ own money. The model is focussed on empowering communities to solve their own problems, rather than quick fixes. Retrak measures this impact through Most Significant Change stories and changes in a standardised child wellbeing scale, but these can take a long time to materialise. It’s mightily impressive work, but it requires an approach to programme funding that doesn’t expect immediate results. 

The experience has left me thinking that if a small charity can track individual level outcomes in a rural setting with virtually no IT infrastructure, then it should be within the grasp of most of the social sector. It’s also another reminder that it’s foolish to think that you can capture every important outcome with a quantitative measure. Qualitative methods are incredibly useful in capturing the range of impacts, expected and unexpected. Finally, the experience shows that making data useful to organisations isn’t always about collecting more – sometimes it’s about thinking hard about how you can make better use of what you’ve got. Something as bland as an address can be a powerful tool for social change.

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Michael Cooke

Michael Cooke

Social data scientist

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