Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Fund the Front Line: What Have Your Ears Heard? What Have Your Eyes Witnessed?

October 09, 2013

Afar way

In the rural region of Afar, Ethiopia, regular electricity and cell phone use is still rare. Daily newspaper routes do not extend this far past Addis’s city limits, and radio programs remain stubbornly inaccessible, with very few broadcasts made in the Afar language.

And yet, here in one of the hottest and most remote places on earth, a social network thrives, rivalling anything Silicon Valley has to offer.

 This network, a living internet, is called dagu, a way of communicating perfectly suited to the Afar Pastoralist way of life, and a crucial component of successful development interventions.This network, a living internet, is call dagu, a way of communicating perfectly suited to the Afar pastoralist way of life, and a crucial component of successful development interventions with the community.

“What have your ears heard?”

I have witnessed it myself as the co-founder of the Action for Integrated Sustainable Development Association (AISDA), a local NGO working with the Afar people to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and to improve livelihoods and access to water.

The dagu custom dictates that, when you meet someone on the road who has travelled some distance, you must stop and exchange news.

 Just as day-to-day life in the Afar desert is a world away from the modernity of Addis, so too the challenges and opportunities of local NGOs are far removed from the experiences of larger international organizations.The conversation often begins with the phrases “Iytii maha tobie?” and “Intii maha tubilie?” (“What have your ears heard?” and “What have your eyes witnessed?”) Answers cover all matters of community importance: weddings, funerals, conflicts, alliances, issues of livestock, road conditions and even the newly-understood dangers of traditional FGM/C.

Vocational training

Our successes – convincing four districts, particularly Dalifage and Dawe, to ban the practice of FGM/C, establishing vaccination programs for livestock across huge swaths of desert, improving water access and facilitating local solutions to water-borne diseases – are due in large part to being embedded in, and embraced by, the community we serve.

Just as day-to-day life in the Afar desert is a world away from the modernity of Addis, so too the challenges and opportunities of local NGOs are far removed from the experiences of larger international organizations.

Our staff agree to live in the field for months at a time without any reliable way to communicate with their families. They travel long distances by foot in temperatures that can exceed 46C, and are exposed to malaria among other illnesses.

But despite this physical and psychological isolation, it is not staff turnover that is our greatest challenge, it is fundraising.

Necessarily, organisations like ours succeed because of our commitment to the local communities. Our most important relationship is with them, not donors.

All the world’s a stage

Our dedicated focus to the frontline of development should not undermine our own sustainability, but it can. Which is why it is so important that each different development actor recognizes the role they should play, and make the required sacrifices to do so.

Local organisations have the relationships with local people, but lack money and international visibility.

Foundations and other institutional donors have the ability to support our efforts with flexible funding and help us access higher levels of profile and policy.

This requires championing grantees, not using them as trophies.

This is something the new Fund the Front Line campaign, led by Stars Foundation with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pears Foundation and Charities Aid Foundation, is trying to achieve.

Dagu for development

The Fund the Front Line campaign is one way that a group of foundations is trying to shine a spotlight on local actors and challenge other donors to do the same.

In fact, the campaign is a lot like dagu itself:

  • A unique way of conveying information that is participant-oriented.
  • Receivers (listeners, donors) are expected to engage with the news and take proper action.
  • Above all, it has equality, mutual respect and care at its heart.

I think we’d all agree a bit more of that in the development system couldn’t hurt.

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