Over the past few years, calls for proposals have become the main instrument used by development organisations to support agriculture and rural development initiatives in African countries. Besides setting the agenda, this approach has also become a way for development organisations to freely harvest ideas. There is also a lot of double dipping in calls for proposals with bidders recycling proposals to fit particular calls. For most calls for proposals, evaluators are people from outside the country who do not understand the context or the business of the applicants. This means the main result is a desk appraisal rather than physical appraisal where the evaluators engage in face to face dialogue with applicants as well as with other actors who are currently working with the applicants, for instance farmers, processors and traders, who should be used as references in appraising proposals. It doesn’t make sense to base funding conclusions and decisions on written documents when development is about people not documents. Again, calls for proposals processes tend to be very long – proposals writing, baseline, validation of value chains, identification of beneficiaries, training, etc. This process can take a whole season and can interfere with communities’ on-going activities.
Projects under calls for proposals do not easily adjust to calamities like drought. Where a budget is for training farmers in farming as a business, such training will still go ahead even if there is a looming drought in the community. Due to the circular game of setting and responding to targets, the same resources cannot be re-allocated to immediate livelihood activities that may be more important to the community. In agricultural communities, everyone has a sense of belonging. Therefore resources have to be properly aligned and informed by the interests of community members. Unfortunately, most projects implemented via calls for proposals hide important information. For instance, the community is not told how much has been allocated to what activity and how much is being spent for what purpose. Communities are excluded from resource allocation decisions.
The calls for proposals approach has resulted in many disjointed projects which do not speak to each other. African countries badly need funding approaches that support interventions that have struggled with their own challenges and have promise for resilience. In response to the calls for proposal approach, we now have full time specialists in proposal writing who are paid even if the proposal doesn’t succeed. These proposal writers write on behalf of communities they barely understand. That is why most projects face challenges during implementation. Most monitoring and evaluation tools used are not context-specific. For instance, one programme can cover six districts in three different provinces with the same implementation strategy and same monitoring and evaluation tools as if the districts have the same dynamics. For an agriculture project, monitoring and evaluation tools for farmers close to the market should be different from those who are far from the market. Farmers close to urban markets can get cash for their commodities while those in remote areas can end up resorting to barter trade due to cash shortages in remote areas (exchanging goats with groundnuts or clothes; vegetables with salt, etc.). Monitoring and evaluation tools by most of the calls for proposals projects do not take these differences into account but use the same baseline (income from beginning to end of project). A tool for farmers trading in cash should be different from those using barter trade.
Although they are critical value chain actors, traders and agro-dealers don’t get support from calls for proposals
Most the calls for proposals projects are also fond of supporting a few disconnected agricultural value chains. They can support farmers ignoring traders, agro-dealers and processors who are critical parts of the value chain. If households receive cash for work under a donor supported programme but the local agro-dealer has no seed, these households will go and buy seed in urban areas where they leave cash which was supposed to be locked in the local community.
What are some of the alternative funding approaches?
Rather than continue using calls for proposals as funding mechanisms in African countries, development partners should explore other methods such as crowd funding. A few of these approaches are being explored by a few development organisations. Using a crowd funding strategy, initiatives can be funded based on their competitive edges. Rather than competing through a documentation process, applicants can post their innovative ideas which can be objectively vetted and funded. This can be different from the calls for proposals approach where applicants end up trying to squeeze their ideas to fit a given budget. Assumptions used to limit the budget to $100 000 per project under calls for proposals are not based on full understanding of context. The crowd funding approach will be ideal for funding emerging ideas unlike the calls for proposals approach which has no room for the way ideas and innovations naturally emerge.
Given that most projects under calls for proposals are implemented in two to three years, such a stint is too short to claim any positive impact. That is why we need collaboration between NGOs and the private sector for smooth transition of interventions from a non-profit angle to a for-profit, commercial and sustainable path. Lack of proper hand over take over between sectors results in too much reinvention of wheels in between white elephants. Under a crowd funding strategy supporting agriculture development, agro-dealers, traders and processors can receive subsidised grants so that they are able to buy commodities from local communities to ensure market readiness. In most cases, unwillingness to support these actors by programmes under calls for proposals leads to suppressed prices when farmers produce more than traders, processors or the market can take. Farmers lose at the end. If you support bean production in one community like Chipinge but don’t support local agro-dealers traders, there will be a glut of beans in the district because the market has no capacity to absorb the commodities.
Through a crowd funding approach, a community can identify its own potential interventions as well as actors such as farmers, agro-dealers, traders, processors and food chain stores. A needs- based programme can be designed from community to provincial levels. Local businesses like agro-dealers and food chain stores can be funded to support local farmers. This inclusive strategy can move communities out of poverty in a more sustainable way than calls for proposals most of which are being implemented by international organisations with branches in developing countries. How can an organisation be in a community for more than ten years and still be unable to come up with sustainable solutions but still continue accessing funding through calls for proposals?
The crowd funding strategy can be extended to empowering Community – Based Organisation (CBO) most of which are being side-lined or swallowed by outside organisations through projects under calls for proposals. A number of CBOs still exist but focus on social projects like HIV & AIDS. These CBOs should be capacitated and funded so that they can work effectively with the local private sector. A useful intervention should start with CBO needs informing resource mobilisation with some resources re-directed and targeted at particular community activities.
With many African governments calling for resource sharing among mobile service providers and other actors in the same sector, there should be a method of reinforcing resource sharing among development organisations in ways that help communities. We still see different organisations driving different vehicles into the same community. One is focusing on agriculture, another on water and sanitation and yet another on HIV & AIDs. This is wasting community time and denying them the dignity and self-esteem that comes from surmounting their own challenges.
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