Non-government organizations (NGOs) undertaking development programs must account for impact. They must assure donors and beneficiaries that the programs’ avowed goals and objectives are achieved, or that there is progress toward their achievement. In other words, NGOs must demonstrate sustained improvements in the lives of beneficiaries. And they can only lay claims to the impact of their programs with incontrovertible evidence. This is a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. Numbers must be crunched to show statistical soundness.
NGOs have struggled for ages in their quest for impact. Until now, they can only speculate about it. And here comes COVID-19 compounding this predicament. Making, proving, and measuring impact will never be more challenging than in the post-COVID-19 era.
Still, this discourse is instructive of the development programs NGOs must carry out to at least make an impact and recover as soon as possible from the unprecedented adverse effects of the pandemic. Here are anecdotal data on impact from the perspective of former beneficiaries.
Toward the end of the 1980s, it was established that villages adjacent to town centers were better off than those in remote areas. NGOs then decided to relocate to remote areas, including villages in the periphery of national parks. They wanted to make sure their beneficiaries were indeed the poor who needed assistance. It was at this time that the participatory approach gained traction worldwide. As a result, welfare or dole-out projects were discontinued, and infrastructure projects were discouraged.
These narratives are drawn from my serendipitous return visits to two typical poor villages. They were covered by a foreign NGO in the Philippines in the 1980s and ‘90s. One was a distant village adjacent to the buffer zone of a national park; the other was close to the town center or población. I interviewed several former beneficiaries, most of whom participated in projects. They were former community leaders or volunteers.
In the village along the buffer zone, the families were dependent on the resources of the park for their livelihood. They were engaged in slash-and-burn farming, poaching, and illegal logging. Among the projects of the NGO was a bamboo plantation to provide an alternative livelihood to villagers, as well as protection from encroachers. There was also a village pharmacy selling low-cost medicines and medical supplies. These ventures, for which training sessions were held, were envisioned as sustainability mechanisms. The beneficiaries regretted they did not prosper. When asked to mention the most beneficial project, they were in disagreement. But they were extremely proud that the municipal government would invite them as resource persons in town-level planning workshops.They were adept in the use of the NGO’s project design tool, which the municipal planning personnel had customized.
In the village near the town center, the beneficiaries were excited about their development experience with the NGO. They told heartwarming success stories. Completed infrastructure like the community center, pathways, school building, health clinic, water facilities, etc. were deemed highly beneficial, and these structures were still functional. Many young adults also completed vocational or college education; most of them now worked abroad. Their own families were financially stable, unlike their parents and forebears. They managed to escape from poverty, which was their aspiration. The association of family beneficiaries had folded up, but the village council whose members were NGO-trained was strengthened.
From the above, it is evident that the participatory approach builds the capacity of beneficiaries. The welfare approach, on the other hand, improves the economic well-being of individual families. Thus, the two approaches are complementary, and, more importantly, synergistic. This is significant, because the United Nations, in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, recommends both social protection and welfare programs for countries to hasten recovery from the onslaughts of COVID-19.
—————-Nono Felix worked for more than 10 years for a foreign NGO as corporate planning, monitoring, and evaluation manager for Asia. He lives with his family in San Felipe, Naga City, Camarines Sur.
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