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While working for Catholic Relief Services in West Africa I helped to develop the concept of funding extremely small projects and wrote this report for CRS and USAID.
Microprojects - Senegal Director's Report
In 1965, during my sojourn as director of the Catholic Relief Services program in Dahomey and Togo, I first began to realize the great value of very small projects. At the same time, I found out how really difficult it was to find funds for them. Good ideas that could revolutionize the life of a given community mouldered away on a piece of paper stuck in a dusty file because the cost of putting them into action was "not worth the paperwork," or "too small to make an impact."
These were the excuses of the funding organizations we approached at the time - the United Nations, AID, and various European organizations through CRS Geneva. The excuses were quite valid from their point of view. Due to internal bureaucratic machinery it actually took considerable effort, time and paper to get a project submitted, approved and activated. In the face of that they were justified in throwing up their hands in despair at a project which cost so little and would only affect one community.
But the fact remained that if one community could be affected, then so could another, and another. The ancient Chinese said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We had seen far too many instances of massive funding of massive schemes that left the ordinary peasant untouched and the economy of the country no better off. Such grandiose schemes always seemed to leave the human element out of their planning.
Far from being lazy and ignorant, the average African farmer is hard-working, shrewd, and as independent as he can be. He is aware that there is much he doesn't know, and he is willing to experiment as long as he is certain it won't mean starvation for him and his family if the experiment fails. He is full of ideas, too, for improving his production and his way of life, but he is understandably reluctant to contribute either his time or his money to possible failures. The giant leaps promoted by his government are mostly beyond his comprehension and belief. When pushed into them he holds back. Hundreds of silent, rusty tractors and thousands of acres of uncopied "demonstration" farms throughout West Africa can attest to that. But that very first step on the ten thousand mile journey, he can understand that, even if he doesn't know exactly where the road is leading.
That very first step; that is what needs to be encouraged. So that is what we did. Of course, a little money was necessary to get things started or to keep some things moving. Not just "a little money;" very little money; amazingly little money. After receiving our first "Micro-Project" fund from our regional office in Nairobi, one of the earliest projects was $20 to buy chicken wire for a group of Boy Scouts in Togo. They had bought the chickens and built the coops themselves, and were out to show their elders how to raise chickens for profit. More recently, in Senegal, $16 paid for a rope which permitted the cleaning and repairing of wells in ten villages. This affected the health and economy of over a thousand persons! If that isn't getting full value for you money, nothing is.
The point is that before the Regional Office of Catholic Relief Services agreed to try out the idea there was no way to meet the need as we saw it. The idea itself was not original. Through extensive trips and interviews with many missionaries I had learned of the "Micro Realisation" scheme of Secours Catholique Français, which provides relatively small amounts of money collected by individual parishes in France for specific projects submitted by missions around the world., particularly in Africa. But even this worthy endeavor was subject to long administrative delays, inadequate supervision of funds, and inflation of project costs "to make it worth the effort."
The need as we saw it was for a small fund immediately available for pumping into a project while enthusiasm was still high. By keeping the delay between submission and funding down to days instead of weeks or months we could often avoid a year's postponement when seasonal considerations were taken into account. Even more important was the effect on the people. Imagine the reaction among those who had grown accustomed to bright promises and few, if any, results when one of us would say, "We've studied the project you gave us the day before yesterday and we visited the site this morning. Let's go down and get the cement this afternoon!"
Not least in the list of needs was that of being able to put new life into an ongoing project in danger of failure through a lack of foresight, that very rare commodity. A mere $50 saved a well for a village which miscalculated the amount of cement necessary. There was also a need to help multi-funded projects which still needed a few more items to get rolling. A town's input of $720 was complemented by a CATHWEL contribution of $75 for tables and benches.
The 'why,' therefore, has been made fairly clear. Now, 'what' constitutes a micro-project? What are its limitations; its potential effect?
First of all, a micro-project was arbitrarily defined as one costing up to $500. This was partly because funds in this range were the hardest to find, partly because most of the small requests we received fell within that limit, and partly because that was the most we could expect to be allowed to spend at our discretion. For the principle attribute of a micro-project is that it tends to pop up suddenly, unexpectedly. It is there, ready to be fed, and if not fed soon enough it dies very quickly. This doee not mean, however, that it represents hasty planning or a spur-of-the-moment idea. Usually, every possible source is tapped before the project is mature, when our contribution means the difference between life and death. There are times, of course, when we are presented with a hastily conceived idea. One young man thought rabbits could provide extra income for a village. The idea was good, but a little inquiry showed that he didn't know the first thing about rabbits, nor anything about the local potential for their sale. We gave him guidelines on the latter and sent him to some rabbit-raisers we knew of along with some reading material. In a couple of months he was ready. We provided the $14 necessary and the project was on its way. If he had never come back after the first meeting we would have spent the money on another project. Thus, we must underline the discretionary aspect of the fund. It is imperative that one be allowed to pick and choose, to modify and cancel.
While the need for micro-projects cannot be over-emphasized, they should never be considered as an end in themselves. It would be ridiculous to concentrate on micro-projects to the exclusion of everything else. They are useful only insofar as they lead to something greater. If they don't, then they have failed in their purpose, regardless of whether an individual project has succeeded in itself. This doesn't mean that all micro-projects have to be of a demonstration nature, even though some of them are. Three hundred dollars bought a team of oxen, a plow and a wagon for a cooperative which already knew how to use them. This had the effect of demonstrating their value to surrounding villagers, but the main purpose was to help the cooperative itself to grow and improve the local economy. In another case, $4 worth of paint was given to a village to dress up a maternity ward they had just built without any outside help. Of itself, this didn't demonstrate anything to anyone, but it was the beginning of a fruitful contact with an active village where we are now engaged in helping them to dig a well and build a road. Some micro-projects can have far-reaching results. A $300 project to purchase chickens and coops for five women's cooperatives succeeded so well that many other villages are copying the plan at their own expense, funds to start an additional twenty cooperatives have been obtained, and United Nations specialists are studying the project for possible use elsewhere.
Micro-projects - tiny projects that give the spark of ignition to larger ones; low-cost projects that teach and train and demonstrate the validity, or invalidity, of some ideas; simple projects that build self confidences and require self help - are a development tool which has proven its worth in over two years of field experience. The cost of failure becomes insignificant and the lessons learned are invaluable. The value of successes overshadows the input astronomically. Large-scale projects are vital to a nation which must compress centuries of technical advancement into a few years, but their utility is limited to the extent which their benefits sift down to the ordinary farmer. Micro-projects are one means of helping the farmer to lift himself up to where he can take advantage of modern technology.