Guest Blog – The Zambezi Valley Refrain: A Story of Empowerment

This week I want to share a blog written by Diana Conyers, a former colleague at IDS at Sussex, and someone who worked for many years in Zimbabwe. Her discussion of a new book – The Zambezi Valley Refrain: The Story of Basilwizi – by Mary Ndlovu and now published by Weaver Press in Harare (2016) identifies some key ingredients for successful local development. Here’s Diana’s blog:

On 12 May 2016 I was invited to be the guest speaker at the launch of a remarkable book. The Zambezi Refrain tells the story of 27 years of struggle by the people of the Zambezi Valley to improve their livelihoods and right the wrongs caused by the construction of the Kariba Dam. It is the story of Basilwizi, a community-based organisation established in 2002, and its predecessors, the Binga Development Association (1989-99) and the Binga Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (1999-2002).

Having lived in the Zambezi Valley for nine years (1993-2002) and worked with the Binga Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, I was delighted to be invited to the launch of this important book. Here is an abridged version of my speech:  

Why is this book so important?

This book is important because, in my view, Basilwizi and its predecessors provide a model of how local development should take place.

Many years ago, as part of some work with the Commonwealth Secretariat, we looked at the experiences of about 30 successful local development initiatives in different parts of the world in order identify those factors that had contributed to their success.  Basilwizi and its predecessors have followed these highly effectively.

1. Locally driven

Firstly, we found that successful development initiatives are locally driven. This creates a sense of ownership that is essential for sustainability.

This has certainly been the case with Basilwizi and its predecessors. Zambezi Valley residents have always taken the lead. External agencies have played an important role, but only in support of local initiatives.

2. Clear objectives

Secondly, successful initiatives have clear objectives. Without a clear objective, organisations can lose their sense of direction.

In Basilwizi and its predecessors, the objective has always been clear: to empower the people of the Zambezi Valley to improve their livelihoods. There have been changes in the means used to achieve this objective, but not in the objective itself.

3. Participatory approach

Thirdly, successful organisations involve the beneficiaries in all aspects and stages of their work. Genuine participation requires time and effort, but the results are always worthwhile.

This is one of the most obvious strengths of Basilwizi and its predecessors. There are many examples of such participation, but there are two in which I was personally involved.

One was the training of local community representatives to undertake simple forms of project appraisal, so that they could apply for money for development projects. The other was the involvement of local people in a mid-term evaluation of part of the project.

Project appraisal and project evaluation are usually regarded as sophisticated technical processes. In fact, overseas consultants are often hired to undertake them. But the community representatives had no problem in learning and applying the basic principles.

4. Learning by doing

Fourthly, successful organisations adopt a ‘learning process’ approach. This is a flexible approach, in which an organisation learns by doing and adapts in response to lessons of experience and changes in the external situation.

The story of Basilwizi and its predecessors is undoubtedly one of learning by doing. Two examples of this are in my view particularly significant.

One is the response to local community needs. For example, the Binga Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace began as a human rights programme. Its aim was to empower people and help them to exercise their rights. But it soon became apparent that communities had many pressing practical needs, so a development component was added to address these needs.

The other is the way in which the organisations have learned to adapt to and manage the local and national political environment. This is never easy and, given the problems that Zimbabwe has faced in recent years, it is no mean achievement.

5. Leadership and human resource development

Lastly, successful organisations have good leadership and develop their human resources. These two are interrelated. An organisation needs strong, committed leadership, particularly in the early days, but it is equally important to develop the capacity and commitment of all those involved, otherwise they become over-dependent on one or two key people.

Two characteristics of Basilwizi and its predecessors show that they have done this. One is the continuity of staff. There are many people involved today whom I knew when I was there and some have been there from the start.

The second is the way in which the original leaders have gradually handed over day-to-day responsibility to others, but continued to provide overall support and guidance. There are not many leaders in the world who have done this.

Implications for donors

The ‘Basilwizi approach’ presents major challenges for donors. For understandable reasons, donor agencies prefer to support projects in which they are in control, rather than those where they merely respond to local communities. They also prefer projects where the activities are clearly defined and follow a pre-arranged schedule, rather than those that adopt a more flexible, learning-by-doing approach.

This has caused problems for Basilwizi and its predecessors. There have been times when they have struggled to get donor support. However, there have always been some donors prepared to take a risk and do things the Basilwizi way. If more overseas aid was provided this way, the development world would be a much better place.

This post was written by Diana Conyers, and first posted on Zimbabweland

1 Comment

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One response to “Guest Blog – The Zambezi Valley Refrain: A Story of Empowerment

  1. Excellently covered by Diana. She is my inspiration and Guru. If I remember 1st one in IDS that is Diana.
    Please provide me her contact no and email address. IDS id may not be working for her.

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