Designing Out Vulnerability: Evaluating Household Resilience in Somalia

Designing Out Vulnerability: Evaluating Household Resilience in Somalia

MDES student Carly James has new and exciting directions to take her research on the road in the upcoming J-term as a result of advice and connections from Loeb Fellow Brett Moore. She'll be sharing her progress in the LOEBlog.

What does success look like to you? With a new wave of impact investment eclipsing traditional foreign aid in the developing world, investors are demanding that local organizations demonstrate the ways in which their money is having an impact. Impact assessments are a way to understand the change an intervention, for example a development project, has made in a community. Typically, they are conducted at the close of a project, when practitioners look back to see how the baseline data and their original intentions line up with the local community’s current experience. It also has a forward facing perspective that inherently provides lessons learned to inform future projects. Conventional methods for understanding impact are donor-driven, following a framework that attempts to isolate impact and asks how the project has generated it. The impact measurement and evaluation tools we have now tend to be rigid and formal, and yet they are rarely used the same way twice. Rather than validating the routine activities of a project, how can design take on the agenda of telling the human story of impact?

It was over a September afternoon coffee that Brett Moore and I discussed our shared interests in design as a mechanism for social impact. We discussed potential opportunities for collaboration, considering our parallel experiences working with designers in Australia and in the developing world. When classes began in August, I had just made a cross-continental move to Cambridge from Canberra, Australia, where I had been working for a strategic design firm called ThinkPlace. ThinkPlace specializes in complex systems design: using a design thinking approach to improve the human experience.

I began working at ThinkPlace shortly after finishing a Master’s degree in anthropology. My Master’s fieldwork had taken me to East Africa, where I conducted months of ethnographic research that looked at debt as a social category rather than an economic one— what does it mean when a friend grants a favor now to be repaid later? Understanding debt as a form of social capital led me to consider how it could also signify resilience. During my research, I had crossed paths with a ThinkPlace employee who was based in Nairobi. I became fascinated by her stories about how design could be used to solve complex problems, such as making communities more resilient. Moreover, I saw how design could activate and apply anthropological research–that is, what it meant for immersive human research to inform ”good design.”

Because my pathway to the MDes Risk & Resilience program was through systems thinking and human-centered design, I was hoping to continue researching the capacity for finance to enhance resilience in people’s lives. In order to do so, however, I began thinking about how the slippery conceptual terrain of resilience itself could be better defined, and if it could in fact be defined, how it could be assessed in practice.

Brett and Arif Khan, another current Loeb Fellow, have both been actively engaged with the Risk & Resilience track students since the start of their respective Loeb years. Our modest cohort of 7 is fortunate to have their guidance as we navigate our diverse interests in risk (managing risk, working in high-risk contexts, communicating risk) and resilience (evaluating resilience, applying resilience thinking, designing resilient systems). Brett’s role as Shelter, Infrastructure and Reconstruction advisor for World Vision International has been especially fruitful in opening up research opportunities we would not have originally thought to consider. Brett has generously leveraged his connections to help me carve out a new path for my research.

After hearing of J-term research funding opportunities from the Harvard Center for African Studies, Brett began discussing with me how the World Vision team he had worked with in Somalia several years ago was gearing up for an impact evaluation of their shelter reconstruction project for the internally displaced populations in Puntland and Garowe. The project’s aim was to provide durable solutions that would contribute to household resilience. After communicating with the local team and confirming that they would be interested in having a student help design the research tools for the impact evaluation, Brett invited me to jump on board.

With a successful funding application, I eagerly began planning my time in East Africa. The shelter reconstruction project is multi-sectoral, with economic development, education, health, water and sanitation and gender empowerment components. The project itself was completed in 2013 and World Vision is now ready to begin a series of evaluations into the effectiveness of this work to ascertain how it has contributed to longer-term resilience goals. For instance, what is the relationship between what a house is and what it enables? How does the household enable livelihood activities that contribute to resilience? What are the proxies that help us identify a resilient household? These types of questions are complex, involving many compounding factors; we must approach them with caution. Like impact, resilience relies on a baseline understanding of the state of a system or context before anything was disrupted. While it may be impossible to fully understand the ways in which households tolerate shocks and threats, designers have a role to play in crafting the tools that allow us to probe subjective and objective claims of resilience. As a post-conflict context saturated with humanitarian actors, Somalia represents a challenging environment in which to do this.

Primarily, this J-term fieldwork represents a mutually beneficial opportunity between my academic interests and the priorities of international agencies around the salient concept of resilience in reconstruction contexts. In particular, I will focus my attention on the financial and livelihood aspects of the household. The following questions are central to the evaluation.

  • What has been the medium-term impact of the shelter program and associated activities on the wellbeing of beneficiary families in Garowe and Butinle? What evidence exists of enhanced resilience against future shocks and stresses?
  • What is the role of household debt, remittances and social connectedness in a crisis? How do savings groups serve as a contingency? How does the diaspora contribute to local resilience by financing risk reduction activities and enhancing household safety nets?
  • What is the role of enhanced sharecropping and fodder production to household assets?

While the project is located in Somalia (and the evaluation, of course, must take place in situ), the evaluation will be conducted before I arrive in January. Instead of being in the field, I will be working with the World Vision team in their Nairobi office to analyze the data and synthesize insights. In addition, I will also use participant observation and contextual inquiry to conduct a meta-analysis of the evaluation process within the organizational culture of a humanitarian organization. This will help me answer questions around how resilience is understood within the organization, the cultural perception of success versus failure, the appetite for participatory evaluation processes, etc.

Since this project was completed another major initiative, Somalia Resilience Program, has begun to be implemented. SOMREP is a consortium of eight international agencies working on a range of livelihood, environment, training and infrastructure works, with World Vision as the manager. While in Nairobi, I will also interact directly with the SOMREP team.

As I close my time in Nairobi, I will present a series of infographics and a written report of the evaluation data. I have also offered to conduct a feedback session in which the local team and I reflect on my work there, discussing new questions and the future trajectory for this research. Upon returning to Harvard, I will present my findings to the Loeb Fellows for their feedback as I plan for summer fieldwork.

While this J-term engagement will allow me to engage in the development and implementation of an evaluation, I hope it will provide World Vision with insights into the success or failure of improving household resilience in peri-urban environments through the construction of permanent shelter in Butinle and Garowe in Puntland, Somalia. Moreover, none of this would be possible without the assistance of the Loeb Fellows and their efforts to extend not only the reach of the Harvard community worldwide but also the reach of their shared purpose in creating more just, inclusive places worldwide. This research will be a launching pad for continuing to explore questions around the human story of resilience.

Map courtesy of the United Nations
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