Models of Development and Experiential Learning in the Niger Delta

Editor’s Note: In this blog, Dennis Flemming discusses models of development generating impact in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. For a more detailed look at these models, read the latest Brookings papers on community-driven solutions to the development needs across the Akassa clan territories and agricultural entrepreneurship in Rivers state.

The Niger Delta region of Nigeria provides a unique context for development practitioners.  The juxtaposition of significant natural resources and immense wealth alongside abject poverty generates such competition for benefits in the region that it experiences regular cycles of violence and conflict.  Billions of dollars have been invested in development projects and initiatives in the region, but many of these investments have yielded little in the way of truly sustainable development impacts. Donors and practitioners constantly look for more effective development models to achieve better results.  Recognizing this, the Niger Delta Partnership Initiative (NDPI), the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative (AGI), the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER) and the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) created a partnership to understand and assess some models of development that are seen as generating useful impacts where so many other efforts have failed. 

The partnership, Models of Development and Experiential Learning (MODEL) project, started in 2013 with an assessment of two projects in the Niger Delta region—the Akassa Development Foundation (AFI) started by Pro-Natura International, and the Rivers Songhai Initiative (RSI), started by a partnership between the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) and Songhai International. The Akassa Development Foundation is an organization committed to finding community-driven solutions to the development needs across the Akassa clan territories in Bayelsa state. In neighboring Rivers state, the River Songhai Initiative is a state-initiated agricultural training center that promotes entrepreneurship in farming and equips local communities in Rivers state with the skills to better process their primary produce and reduce waste.

The case studies of these two models were recently completed and are being disseminated by a broad range of development institutions and practitioners in both the U.S. and in Nigeria. The significance of the MODEL research lies in the opportunity for development practitioners, policymakers and private sector professionals to compare and contrast these models with their own existing projects, to explore new opportunities to learn from what has been tried and tested by others, and to then build upon that learning. It is believed that the adaptability and acceptability of these models, if replicated by government, development partners and other key stakeholders within the region, can generate a multiplier effect that will improve the impacts and sustainability of development funding in the Niger Delta.

In particular, the Akassa Development Foundation offers useful learning for any development organization, regardless of where they work, about the value of truly community-driven development and the importance of genuinely inculcating participatory approaches into a development project. In the Rivers Songhai Initiative, there is useful learning for other states in Nigeria already considering adapting the Songhai agricultural development model within their own unique contexts. Rivers state has pioneered the adaptation of this model in a Nigerian context and can help others understand what needs, challenges and opportunities to look for in their own application of the model.

It’s important to recognize that no model of development is going to be universally applicable or even appropriate in a similar development context without some adaptation.  “Cookie cutter” approaches to development hardly ever work and, while it is very important to learn from what others are doing, one should always try to develop the ability to understand when, where and how to apply such learning to their own work, and resist the temptation to assume that what works in one place will automatically work somewhere else—even within the same country or area. Every location has its own unique dynamic of influences, needs and challenges that need to be considered and addressed to make a development project successful.

Does this mean that development models are not useful? Certainly not. Models help give us ideas about how to plan, develop and structure our projects and give us a useful menu of options to consider as we analyze a development context and figure out how to design a successful project or intervention.  But then we need to test the application of those concepts and determine whether they are achieving the kind of outcomes observed in other contexts.

It’s also important to recognize that ultimately a model is only as good as the people who are using it. One thing I have learned through trial and error is that the key to success is not so much in developing the right model, but building the capacity to develop and sustain an effective one, thereby bringing together the right mixture of people and partnerships that can learn how to make a difference together. The only places I have found where good development models work is where they are planted in the fertile ground of the right people in the right organizations, who find the right enabling environment to produce lasting solutions.

In other words, it’s not just about models. It’s about people.  I have seen this time and time again in my work. I have not only noticed that good models were useless if you don’t have the right people involved, but that the right people could often take bad models and find a way to continue to adapt them until they can make them work. This doesn’t just mean the people within the project team, but also the people involved in the unique partnerships that are formed when development organizations, communities and governments try to work together to produce better development outcomes. This is why the participatory approaches and capacity building efforts applied by the Akassa Development Foundation and the Rivers Songhai Initiative are just as important as the models they represent.