Solutions to our challenges can come from unexpected places

13th March 2023

Niger is an interesting country. It is a democracy in a challenging neighbourhood, sharing borders with Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Algeria. It is on the list of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries. More than 10 million people in a population of 25 million live in extreme poverty. Despite 80% of its land being in the Sahara desert, its economy is based on subsistence agriculture and the export of raw commodities.

Niger is also grappling with an influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in Nigeria and Mali. In this unpromising context, the government of Niger has a national programme to help women, most of whom have no education and are non-literate, to diversify their income-generating activities. Recently the government worked with an interdisciplinary team of scientists to run a large-scale field experiment to test the impact of adding psychosocial interventions to this national cash transfer programme (see the latest issue of VoxDev.org).

The programme uses the methodology of BRAC, an impressive nonprofit organisation that began in Bangladesh fifty years ago, and now works around the world, including in seven African countries served from their regional office in Kenya. Beginning with micro-finance, BRAC has developed a wide range of programmes including what they call “ultra-poor graduation”. This is a holistic programme of enterprise training, coaching, healthcare, savings, a capital grant, and small monthly stipend over a limited period.

To test the psychosocial intervention, the team offered group-based life skills training to one group of women in addition to the whole ultra-poor graduation, and to another group they offered it instead of the capital grant component. The training took place over seven half-days and aimed to strengthen their aspirations for economic mobility, their self-worth, and key life skills such as goal-setting, leadership, problem-solving, decision-making, and communication.

They knew that building women’s personal sense of efficacy and skills without the support of their husbands, local leaders, and other people in their community would have limited impact on changing behaviour and economic outcomes, so they showed the entire village a twenty-minute fictional film that told the story of Amina, a woman overcoming economic and interpersonal challenges to start a new business. Then a social worker facilitated a guided discussion to relate the film to their experiences, values and aspirations.

Over 18 months, adding the psychosocial components to the other interventions increased household revenue by approximately 70%. Offering it instead of the capital transfer component of the existing programme led to similar outcomes, but at half the cost of the capital grant. There are several lessons in this. One is the main finding that psychosocial interventions can have a substantial positive effect on the economic and psychological welfare of poor people. I expect the same is true for many less poor people too. When a nation or a company is feeling heavy, it needs lifting emotionally. Helping us feel empowered and encouraged is an intervention in the economy, encouraging small businesses to survive and thrive.

Then there is the finding that targeting the whole community boosts the effect on individuals. There are further lessons. One is that governments can do great things when humble enough to work with experts searching for creative new solutions. Another lesson is that we can learn from countries like Bangladesh and Niger, countries we may consider less developed. In South Africa maybe Eskom and our long list of dismal failures will teach us humility and openness to such lessons. No doubt companies that compete globally should learn from developed economies like the USA. But for work with microenterprises run by people who may not be literate or numerate, we need to find lessons elsewhere. Sometimes those lessons come with very sophisticated thinking, and it would be tragic if hubris blinded us to their lessons and leadership.

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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