Designing projects from the ground up: Insights and lessons from Ethiopia

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Designing projects from the ground up: Insights and lessons from Ethiopia

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

When it comes to the challenges in producing and selling food, no one knows them better than the farmers themselves. This is why, when investing in rural development, it’s essential to engage with them and their organizations. That way, we can get the problems and the context right from the start.

At IFAD, we take a community-driven, bottom-up approach to project design. This creates a sense of ownership for rural communities and governments alike, so they can work hand-in-hand for a shared purpose: making sure the right interventions and instruments are in place so the project achieves its objectives.  

A recent example from Ethiopia shows how government and communities came together to design investments in building resilience. The consultation process not only brought critical insights to the project, it provided valuable lessons on how such exercises can be productively conducted in the future.

Bringing diverse voices into project design

Over the past few years, Ethiopia has had to withstand multiple external and internal shocks. Although most of the COVID-related restrictions have been lifted, many challenges remain. The conflict in the country’s north, coupled with recurring droughts and floods and the outbreak of desert locusts, are having unprecedented effects on Ethiopian farmers’ livelihoods. Farming systems have been disrupted, some four million people have been displaced, and inflation is soaring. In this context, IFAD’s investments in strengthening domestic food value chains and helping the country’s rural poor build their resilience are more important than ever.

In August 2021, IFAD and the Government of Ethiopia began designing a new investment to increase climate-smart food production and productivity through integrated natural resource management, developing small-scale irrigation, and connecting small-scale producers to markets so they can build livelihoods.

We began by holding consultations in several regions of Ethiopia (Oromia, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, Amhara and Sidama) to collect first-hand knowledge and deepen our understanding of the challenges faced by farmers in this complex environment. Regional teams from the ongoing IFAD-supported PASIDP-II project played a crucial role in this process. They worked closely with local governments to reach out to local groups through representatives of the woreda and kebele (the equivalents of district- and local-level administrative units, respectively). Their efforts were cruicial in achieving a diverse representation of stakeholders in each region, each of whom brought in valuable knowledge and experience.

This meant that we heard the voices of farmers – both those who had benefited from previous IFAD-funded programmes and those who hadn’t, including women and youth – as well as government experts, whose grassroots expertise is often overlooked.

As Eshetu Worku, Senior Environmental Safeguard Specialist at the Ministry of Agriculture, said, “The participation of respected experts and beneficiaries gave us the real facts on the ground. It was very helpful in informing us about the opportunities for the upcoming project.”

What we did and what we learned

This experience was an opportunity to reflect on the importance of effective consultation and to draw lessons for future design processes across IFAD.

Through the government’s project design team (PDT), we fostered effective and efficient discussions by ensuring facilitators had the right tools and methods. The PDTs, with their greater amount of experience in designing projects, found structured tools (such as visioning, conversation starters, and focus group discussion guides) invaluable for facilitating discussions.

For our other participants, however, the facilitators took a different approach. Our participants come from diverse backgrounds, and many were unfamiliar with project design and its jargon. Facilitators helped fruitful discussions emerge by avoiding technical content, breaking participants up into small groups, and using local languages like Amharic, Oromiffa, Sidamo and Gurage.

They also encouraged participants to identify concrete examples of challenges they face, list them in order of priority, and share ideas for solutions, using a value-chain prioritization matrix.

Facilitators went the extra mile to involve people who are often less well represented and ensure all voices were heard, especially those of farmers and women. A useful way of doing this was to give women the first opportunity to speak, without interference from the experts in the room. PASIDP-II and IFAD teams shadowed the group discussions to ensure they were going as planned.

Still, we faced some challenges. The representation and participation of young women and men, although improved from previous efforts, wasn’t optimal. The consultations were so intense at times that we missed our chance to ask participants for their feedback on the process. This would have helped us better understand the difficulties they experienced in engaging fully with the discussions.

We could also have enforced quotas more strictly to ensure representation, held the consultations at locations closer to communities, and ensured that other vulnerable groups – like persons with disabilities and indigenous peoples – were better represented. This will be an area for improvement in future consultations.

As Markos Mekonnen, an advisor from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women and Social Affairs and a member of the project design team, later observed, “In future, including private sector representatives and people from vulnerable groups, like persons with disabilities, will give us a full picture of the facts on the ground.”

Lastly, our consultation process did somewhat feel the effects of the challenging situation Ethiopia is currently facing. The ongoing conflict caused delays in the consultation process, with consultation sessions in one region deferred. We therefore took a phased approach, beginning with some regions before scaling to others.

Leave no one behind

The participatory approach to designing new projects is certainly slower than business as usual. We’re not going to lie; it’s time-consuming and requires a lot of patience to ensure inclusiveness.

At the same time, participatory design is a testament to IFAD’s commitment to leave no one behind.

It’s hard – but absolutely crucial – to go the extra mile to make sure the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable people are heard, and full ownership of the project is obtained.

Indeed, in Ethiopia, IFAD staff, government officials and consultation participants found it an enriching and rewarding process. And when the project is implemented, it will have greater commitment and ownership from communities and officials alike.

Learn more about IFAD’s work in Ethiopia.