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Going to Scale with Village Association Development

Building blocks of agricultural development success (Mali)

Over an eight year period, 1992 – 2000, USAID made sustained investments in the development of village associations in the Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger, Mali, and in the process transformed the norms of agricultural development practice in the country.  At the outset, the notion that financial institutions and input suppliers would supply credit and negotiate contracts with independent small-holder farmers engaged in rainfed agriculture was unthinkable.   Nevertheless, through an evolving capacity-building strategy USAID investments led to just such an outcome.   Implemented by CLUSA, the first phase of USAID’s investments employed a Peace Corps-style approach of posting young Malian field agents in rural areas where they served 5-6 villages.   Beginning with adult functional literacy training, these field agents guided the nascent association villageoises (AVs) through a process of acquiring the basic skills – literacy, numeracy, accounting, group leadership management, business development, contract negotiation – that allowed them to not only respond to the initial skepticism of those in the commercial banking and supply sector, but to ultimately achieve a level of success undreamt of at the outset of the project.  An assessment report prepared for CLUSA in 2003 (Bingen, 2003) documented that over 200 AVs had formed an apex body which was mobilizing over 1.2 million dollars annually for its members, while maintaining a repayment rate of over 98%.  In a neighboring region, the para-statal cotton company attempted to replicate this success, but without making investment in basic capacity development.  There can be no more poignant illustration of the importance of investing in local capacity development than the fact that in the year the CLUSA assessment was conducted the AVs supported by the cotton company defaulted on over 1 million dollars in loans, while those in receiving CLUSA support repaid over 1 million dollars in their loans.

The investment by USAID in Mailian AV development dovetailed with a downsizing in the governmental extension service, and the implementation of a larger governmental strategy of transferring greater development responsibility to civil society. The AVs supported through the project became, and continue to be, the principal points of contact with the governmental services, bilateral donor projects and domestic NGOs, none of whom could have achieved the impact they have in their respective efforts had the investment is establishing a backbone of local capacity not been made.

So what has happened to this important initiative twenty years since it was initiated and ten years since the last assessment?  Despite the tremendous early success, no one within USAID or the larger rural development community is aware of the fate of UGOA apex structure or the majority of individual AVs.   A field visit in the project area conducted by the author in 2007 suggests that some of the individual AVs have ceased to function through internal divisions and the loss of key members of the AV leadership.  If so, such experiences will provide important lessons on preparing local organizations for the challenges of maintenance and self-renewal, as well as on the type of support that public extension systems need to be prepared to provide if long-term benefits are to continue to be provided.  To document these and other lessons, the case study will first elucidate those central elements that lead to the initial success of these AVs and, secondly, trace their evolution and fate as they aggregated into larger apex bodies for lessons on sustainability of future investments in local capacity-building and relations with different external EAS providers.  A key reference point in the field work will be to return to five villages were CLUSA field agents prepared their own case studies in 1992 (Bingen et al., 1994; which the proposer guided while conducting his Ph.D. field research), and trace their experiences over the intervening 20 years.

Author: Brent Simpson, Michigan State University

Case study to be conducted in April 2012 (tentative)