Travel and Do Some Good
by John Morris
In my 10-minute career interview after studying economics at Bristol University I was asked my objectives. ‘I would like to travel and do some good,’ I said. I was told that British aid had a programme to provide 100 teachers a year to the newly-independent countries of east Africa. This sounded great, even though I knew nothing about Africa. So, after a successful application, I set off to teach for two years in Africa.
|John (left), speaking through a translator, discovers the impact of Salvation Army projects on life in Meigu County, China|
|Women from the Kwa Baka HIV/Aids project in South Africa talk about their successes and future needs|
|John (centre) maps out the location of income-generating greenhouses in Corqueamaya, Bolivia|
|Children in a newly-built school in Ghana|
I arrived in the Port of Mombasa and set off by train to Uganda. I remember leaning out of the window, watching village people walking home from their day’s work as the sun was setting, and thinking how fortunate I was. After a year studying for a Dip Ed at Makerere University in Kampala I was allocated to Maseno School in Kenya. The equator actually went through the house.
The founder of the school, a missionary, had walked some 150 miles from Nairobi in around 1900, stopped in the hills looking down to Lake Victoria and decided it was the ideal place for a boys’ boarding school. All the boys came from local villages, so I soon learned about rural life in Africa. I even helped plant 25 acres of maize in the school field.
My heart wanted development to be my life’s work, so my next move was to study for a master’s degree in economic development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I learned how to do cost-benefit studies and project analysis. My target was a career with the British Government’s aid programme. I joined them as an economist in 1968 and had four years in London working on project analysis and visiting West Africa.
Some time later, married and with a 10-week-old daughter, we all set off for Nairobi. I had a five-year job in a small group of experienced professionals managing aid to East Africa. This was where I worked on and learned about participative and successful rural development. Three years followed in Malaysia, helping design a project planning system for the Department of Agriculture under the auspices of the World Bank.
My evaluation experience began in 1983, looking at the effectiveness of World Bank integrated rural development projects. I was asked to evaluate six projects in Africa.
I was with an agriculturalist and a sociologist, both very practical and experienced. Their knowledge, my project analytical skills, and – most importantly – asking the farmers the right questions, enabled us to obtain the farmers’ views on effectiveness, something not often achieved in those days. Our reports demonstrated that each project was actually a failure and that the huge piles of monitoring reports and surveys were not worth the paper they were written on. The methodology was unsound and the size of both the surveys and the projects were too large.
I also devised a way to bring the findings of all six projects into one report. All this provided good lessons for a future evaluation specialist.
On the strength of this work I was appointed head of DFID’s (the UK Government’s aid agency) evaluation department. In the next 10 enjoyable years I managed some 20 evaluation studies a year looking at the results of projects and their effectiveness.
The job was enjoyable but I could only take part in one study a year myself. I missed working with communities in Africa and Asia and finding out for myself what effect projects were having. In 1996 I therefore decided to leave DFID and set up my own consultancy business evaluating projects.
My first contract was to help design an evaluation system for PLAN International. We progressively applied, tested and developed the system in four countries.
In each country we evaluated a representative selection of community development projects. Following this we wrote up a manual. Then we trained two of PLAN’s staff to take the work forward. All this took nearly two years and similar contracts followed.
The Salvation Army became aware of my work through a former colleague. I knew the Army had a strong reputation for effective work with needy people in the UK.
What I didn’t know was that it is an international organisation with an overseas programme seeking to meet human needs and relieve poverty.
I was strongly motivated to work with the Army partly because of its UK reputation but mainly because, as a not particularly active Anglican Christian, this might give me the opportunity to use my skills to try to benefit Christian work, something I had not done before but wanted to do now.
Everywhere we went as part of the evaluation process we were made welcome and comfortable. Although I was an outsider – an inquisitive intruder even – I was never made to feel like one. For me it has been a privilege to work with such dedicated Christian people.
My favourite project was probably the Kwa Baka Aids project in South Africa, although a clinic helping to identify and treat leprosy in a poor area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, was equally impressive.
A group of women living on a very remote hill in Kwa Zulu Natal wanted to help people avoid the HIV virus and support those already infected. A church in Germany wanted to help people living with HIV/Aids and had raised US$5,008. The Salvation Army’s International Projects Office linked the two together and a project was formed.
The Kwa Baka Aids project was picked for evaluation at random out of a list of small projects. The modest funds had been used to train a network of volunteers in HIV/Aids prevention, counselling and support.
When we wrote to The Salvation Army’s Southern Africa headquarters to say we would be going to evaluate this project they were worried. They explained that the project had finished two years previously, that it would be difficult to find the volunteers and that we might not see anything happening. However, I managed to persuade them.
When the evaluation team visited the women’s group I asked their president: ‘Now the project has finished what are you ...’ but I was sharply interrupted by her saying, ‘You may have finished spending your money but the project has not finished!’ I have never so enjoyed being corrected.
It became clear that, although project funding had finished, activities were still continuing. What we saw was a very active and effective group.
In the hospital two of the women were providing counselling for people about to have an HIV/Aids test and for those receiving their results. Some 5,000 people a year were helped in this way. The women also provided the necessary pre-courses for those about to take antiretroviral drugs and provided home visits and help for those who were badly ill.
Members of the group also took every opportunity to campaign and inform people about HIV. They spoke in churches, at village meetings, in markets at schools and even in bus queues. This is very significant work in a society which has been refusing to face up to and address the HIV/Aids problem.
Many of the women who were trained were themselves living with HIV/Aids. By being part of the project they felt positive about the contribution they could make, They were proud of the way they were able to reduce the stigma, help change behaviour and lower future infection rates.
The project had paid for some training by health specialists. The costs were modest and were for transport, food and staff time. The Salvation Army corps in the village made available a simple office for the women to use and this support was key to enabling the women’s group to be fully effective.
The Salvation Army can be justly proud that its international network managed to connect a church in Germany with remote villages in South Africa and by so doing help meet human needs. It is surprisingly difficult to transfer effectively and efficiently small sums of money to help make a difference. In this case the difference that has been made is impressive.
In my experience The Salvation Army is different from other non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Firstly, it is based in and is a part of poor communities throughout the world – from traditional village people in Africa to Muslims in a slum in Bangladesh and Aids victims in Russia. Secondly, its dedicated staff are driven by their mission statement to meet human needs without discrimination. Thirdly, it is serious about wanting objective evaluation so it can learn and improve.
All these together make TSA not just different but, in my experience, unique.
Evaluation has helped The Salvation Army identify weak and strong projects and understand what makes them good or bad. This in turn means it can improve its systems, eliminating weak projects and building on and replicating strong ones.
Running successful community development projects is not easy – in fact it is extremely difficult.
Meeting human needs and getting good value for money takes both dedication and constant vigilance.
John Morris is a development consultant and evaluation specialist who undertook an evaluation of The Salvation Army’s community development projects worldwide