Telling Stories about Community Development; Why “Abundance” takes an integrated development approach


Written by Deepa Pullanikkatil

Post Doctoral Fellow, Rhodes University

Founder, Abundance

“A world of abundance, where there is plenty for humans and where nature is thriving”, is the vision of our non-profit organization in Malawi called “Abundance”. We have often been critiqued to be an organization that is focusing on too many things. “So, what is your area of focus?”, “Aren’t you doing too many different things, could you not narrow your projects down to one or two?” These are some of the questions people often ask us. To answer them, I tell stories; real life stories about people I have met while working in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in our world. These are the people who inspired Abundance, to take an integrated approach to development.

Supporting community participation is key

We were working on a climate change adaptation project in Lake Chilwa Basin in southern Malawi. It is a lake basin with 1.5 million people, predominantly subsistence rural communities with natural resource dependent livelihoods. We were confident in our thinking that we were providing ideal interventions for climate change adaptation to communities in the Lake Chilwa Basin. Feeling quite satisfied in the knowledge that we knew exactly what the communities needed to adapt, we brought forth interventions such as solar fish dryers, fuel efficient stoves and efficient fish smoking kilns; we promoted conservation agriculture, we provided trainings on climate change and with the communities we planted,  lots and lots of trees.  But when we went to the villages, we realised that women’s participation was not as good as it should be and that men had other challenges they wanted to share with us. Men came to us with their two main concerns, cholera and bilharzia (a debilitating disease caused by parasitic flatworms called schistosomes affecting the urinary tract) and asked us if we could do something about that. Women said that poor access to family planning and reproductive health services were the challenges they faced. The reasons for their reduced participation was now clear. How could men attend meetings when disease burden was so high? How could women participate actively when they had so many children or so many sick people to care for?

Why interconnectedness matters

Faced with the dilemma of how to address the health and family planning needs of communities through a climate change adaptation project with a specific livelihoods and environment focus, we realised that the way forward was to use an integrated approach. We could no longer take a sectoral approach, because communities did not live their lives in compartments. They lived integrated lives with needs that were interconnected. If we wanted to help them adapt, then we had to understand and work with interconnectedness. These often cuts across sectors and does not fall under a narrow themes of livelihoods or environment.  We had to open our eyes to these new perspectives.

In order to address the cholera and bilharzia challenges, we environmentalists were required to learn about disease and parasitology. We learnt that the challenge of bilharzia was partly created by well-intentioned irrigation coverage expansion. This was a method intended to help communities improve agriculture and adapt better. But in areas where bilharzia is endemic, increasing irrigation coverage allow snails which host the bilharzia causing parasite to spread to such waters, thus spreading bilharzia in to areas where previously it was not prevalent. In such a situation, environment, irrigation and health are intertwined. Without integrated planning there is risk of creating negative impacts through well-intentioned projects. We collaborated with health institutions and undertook research. We found prevalence of bilharzia was indeed high – up to 49% in some areas. The publication of the research was shocking to many and since then, a lot of attention shifted to the neglected disease of bilharzia, and help poured in.

It’s nice when people think you’re an expert

While doing research on bilharzia, as environmentalists, the first hurdle we had to overcome was that of our own ignorance, or lack of interest to work on a field that we knew nothing about. Mostly it was the fear of appearing ignorant, after all don’t we all like being the “experts”? We as environmentalists had to learn about health, about parasitology and diseases. Going beyond our comfort zone was a humbling experience and finally, in the end, as thousands of people got treated for Bilharzia, it was satisfying to see community needs met, exactly the way they should be met.

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