by Jeffrey Helzer
Since starting our work nearly a decade ago, CEN has empowered individuals and communities in the Amazon and around the world to improve their quality of life and build self-reliance.
With very limited budget and an entirely volunteer-based staff, we accomplished a great deal over the past 10 years. For example, we developed a comprehensive development approach for building self-reliance in communities, as well as developed and evaluated a unique learning approach called PRATICAR Learning ApproachTM. The results of our pilot project utilizing PRATICAR in the Amazon were very promising. More than two years after the project ended, community members continued to apply the strengthened critical thinking and problem solving skills they developed during the pilot to address challenges faced by their families and communities. PRATICAR offers CEN and our peers important new tools for strengthening the soft skills and mindsets that are are key for building sustainable and empowered communities.
We are also proud of the progress we and our partners have made in the Eixo Forte, where we helped mobilize communities of the region and led a participative planning process involving hundred of individuals from 16 communities. Through this two-year-long process, residents of the communities created a master development plan reflecting their own vision for their communities' economic and social future, that will be led by the by the communities themselves.
Taking Steps to Boost our Future Impact
Despite these significant accomplishments, our limited resources have greatly limited the numbers of individuals and communities we've been able to benefit. Until now, we've partnered primarily with local organizations to implement the projects on the ground. These local partners understand the local environment and are trusted by local communities. Managing the projects and keeping partners engaged from afar, however, requires a tremendous amount of time and energy, including frequent travel that is impossible given the small project budgets. We also have spent a huge amount of time just trying to raise the funds necessary to support the projects. We've come to realize this approach just isn't going to deliver the large scale of impact that we seek.
In response we have decided to shift our approach somewhat moving forward, by collaborating more aggressively with larger international development organizations to contribute our specific areas of expertise, such as strengthening soft skills using our PRATICAR Learning ApproachTM, using information technology and renewable energy to empower communities, and micro-savings programs, to much larger projects. For example, by sharing our experience with PRATICAR, we hope to improve the effectiveness of youth mentorship program by providing mentors the tools and experience they need to evaluate and strengthen the soft skills of the youth they mentor.
What this means for us from a practical perspective is:
- We will phase out our partnership in Brazil with Eunice Sena and Paulo Melo on the Eixo Forte Community-Based Tourism Project.
- We will hand off an increasing share of the responsibility of managing, as well as raising funds, for promising projects such as the Rural Family Home and Suruacá School Electrification Project to the local communities themselves, while continuing to reach out to strategic donors such as Rotary International to support these projects.
- Develop business partnerships with international development organizations that have existing relationships with donors. In fact we just submitted our first concept proposal for such a collaboration with a Washington, DC-based USAID contract and are in the process of developing another one for a Ghana-based microfinance organization.
- Finish publishing and sharing the results of our documentation and evaluation of the rotating savings fund, Banco da Mulher. By doing so, we hope to make it easier for local associations throughout the region to learn from this innovative project in order to create vital sources of capital to fund the entrepreneurial efforts of their own members.
- Continue to leverage our online retail experience selling purses and products from the Amazon and communities we serve to directly benefit the rural populations and continue to allow them to develop their own sources of income.
Our commitment to empowering communities to become more self-reliant has not changed, but rather than working directly with local partners, this approach should permit us to focus more resources on executing projects rather than spending so much time and energy raising money for the projects on our own, as well as simplify internal operations. In this way we hope to scale up our work and benefit more people and communities faster than in the past.