Given the interconnected challenges poor families often face, many practitioners in international development believe that breaking the cycle of poverty in extremely poor communities requires a multi-faceted and participatory approach. In rural Ghana, researchers evaluated the impact of a community-driven development program on community members’ health, education, nutrition, livelihoods, access to finance, and local governance.
Very poor households often face a set of interconnected challenges that may keep them in extreme poverty. For example, malnourished children may have difficulty succeeding in school; families without financial services may turn to predatory lenders when cash-strapped; poorer, less educated households may be less likely to participate in politics and, in turn, gain political power. Given these interconnected challenges, many practitioners in international development argue that breaking the poverty cycle requires a multi-faceted and participatory approach, and that tackling multiple issues at once can have a “multiplier effect” and quicken the pace of development. Yet there is relatively little evidence on the effectiveness of these types of participatory community driven development programs.
The international NGO The Hunger Project (THP) implements a community-driven development program called the Epicenter Strategy in eight countries across Africa. It aims to mobilize rural communities to lead a series of self-help initiatives to reduce their own hunger and poverty. The multi-year program features four phases: an initial mobilization phase in which THP provides training to mobilize communities to commit to creating positive change, a construction phase in which communities partner with THP to construct the epicenter building, and the program implementation stage, and the transition to self-reliance stage.
Each epicenter building houses a clinic, a microfinance bank, a three-acre farm, a food storage unit, and either a kindergarten or library. To construct the centers, communities must contribute in cash or in kind, while THP provides some construction materials. Once a center is constructed, it provides community programs that address health, food security, education, agriculture, and household finance needs. After several years of operation, THP transitions out of supporting the epicenter with the goal that communities will fully take over its operation.
Researchers evaluated the impact of THP’s Epicenter Strategy on 36 outcomes in eight areas: community mobilization; gender equality; food security; literacy and education; health and nutrition; water, environment, and sanitation; livelihoods and microfinance; and governance. The evaluation took place in 13 districts in eastern Ghana in which THP had not worked prior to the evaluation.
Each district was divided into roughly eight clusters of about 10,000 people each. Fifty-five clusters were randomly assigned to receive the Epicenter Strategy via public lottery and 50 were assigned to the comparison group. Researchers randomly selected 20 households from two villages within each cluster in both the treatment and comparison groups (approximately 3,800 households) and measured changes in these households well-being over a five-year period.
The intervention consisted of active promotion of epicenters in the treatment clusters, in which THP conducted workshops and outreach activities with village volunteers, construction of the centers, implementation of programs, and transitioning to self-reliance (in which THP withdraws support).