CHOICE holds a deep respect for the culture and communities it works in. Because of this, CHOICE employs and trains only local, in-country staff to be the economic development team for that region. Local staffers know the linguistic and cultural heritage, traditions, and religions of the communities in which they work. This is a fundamental aspect of the CHOICE model, and makes it possible for CHOICE staff to gain and maintain the trust necessary to effectively partner with the communities in which they work.
CHOICE teams are built first with an In-Country Director (ICD), who oversees all operations. This includes: hiring and training Rural Development Facilitators (RDF) to work with the villages, and guiding CHOICE’s operations on the ground.
RDFs work as the primary point of contact between developing communities and CHOICE. RDFs work with local leaders—women and men—within each community. Individuals who are well respected and who demonstrate both an affinity for development and an interest in the work. These are leaders who are committed to long term projects and economic growth for their community. These individuals become integral to the CHOICE development process, as experts-in-training for their communities.
Engaging the village leaders is essential in making sure the village takes ownership of their own development. The CHOICE model is a bottom-up approach, building local leaders to drive development from the community, rather than imposing goals and projects from a foreign office.
Once local leaders have been identified, CHOICE RDFs partner with them to review the village assets, both human and economic. What are their skills, their resources? What is the state of their infrastructure (quality of roads, access to water, power or medical care) and how well connected are they to their local government, other NGOs, or village neighbors? These resources and relationships help determine how ready the village is to engage in the Self-Developing Village Program, and where to begin.
Sustainable development must embrace local culture, existing political structures, social structures, and tradition. Externally driven development that neglects these factors will inevitably face significant challenges—the communities will not be fully bought into ownership and maintenance of the program. Allowing the villagers to lead the development vision, encouraging consensus building within the community, and completing shared projects and programs ensures that the entire process will be responsive to their customs and culture.
Village Leadership Development
CHOICE RDF’s work with village leaders to develop a formal village council, known as a Village Development Council. The council is composed of men and women of the village, who understand the needs and abilities of their families and communities. This council usually includes the leaders partnering with CHOICE RDFs, as well as other leaders among the community. Once established, this council is tasked with 5 key objectives:
- Identifying skills, strengths and resources within the village and then learning how to mobilize and leverage them:
- Developing the skills and tools for networking to gain outside support in the public, private and social sectors – government officials, business people, informal leaders and key stakeholders – who can become critical factors in the villagers’ development process;
- Organizing committees to review RDF aided findings and prioritize action plans for the 5 core areas of development: health, education, economic empowerment, environmental needs and cultural preservation;
- Defining council responsibilities, terms of service, goals and vision for their time in office. Positions on the council are determined by election or appointment depending on the tradition of the community - again respecting the cultural norms where CHOICE is working; and
- Training in good governance principles of transparency and honesty. Leadership must share and uphold community values, and be committed to representing the community fairly.
Long Term Strategy
Once a council has been selected and the objectives defined, the council's top priority is to establish and document a long-term, sustainable strategy for economic growth and development. This primarily focuses on building relationships with institutional resources such as local governments' ministries of education, health, agriculture, and other relevant agencies. These relationships are critical to achieving CHOICE's goal of $1 spending from CHOICE being converted into $5 of economic growth on the ground.
Another aspect of the long-term strategy is the development of partnerships with external agencies. Villagers learn how to identify and invite other NGOs, private business, and other groups or agencies in their area to work with them. Forming partnerships is a critical skill-set for a community to learn, and it is critical to maximizing the impact of the village’s development efforts.
CHOICE organizes collaborative teams of village leaders, development experts, generous donors, and other NGOs. These teams work closely with national and local government officials to facilitate the economic development of the region. This group acts as the village support team, with village leaders serving as the guiding voices in the process of problem-solving for their community.
Additionally, the council supports the development of a Community Savings Box Program, utilizing community resources to facilitate loans to micro-, small-, and medium-sized businesses in the community.
Having identified their own strengths and resources, the Village Development Council is established to strategically leverage and utilize them for sustainable growth. The key is that the community itself is directly responsible for the social, financial, and environmental sustainability of the initiative, not CHOICE Humanitarian or any outside agency.
The issue of sustainability is addressed up front and embedded in every step of the process. As projects are implemented, measures must be put in place to ensure sustainability over several years for the project to receive CHOICE support. Two examples include:
- Ensuring materials and equipment for teachers that have been committed by the Ministry of Education will be available
- A newly installed water system to have an organized fee collection committee, maintenance crew, and resources to resolve any unforeseen problems.
This type of forward thinking is critical in ensuring the long term viability of any development project. But there is always something to learn and improve, which is why it is crucial to evaluate the project outcomes.
Measurement and evaluation are integral to the CHOICE model. At the start of a community’s participation with CHOICE, in-country staff teach villagers how to collect and analyze data and, in turn, to measure their progress.
The CHOICE Self-Developing Village Model is a cyclical process that rural communities learn to use as an impetus for change, and a method for achieving on-going community-wide progress.
Over the course of 3 to 5 years, staff members work with the community on several projects, cycling through the model each time. This phase ends when villagers demonstrate the ability to organize and act as a cohesive entity, prioritizing their goals and sustainably executing projects for the community’s collective betterment without guidance or support from CHOICE staff.
Ultimately, the model leads villages within a given area to collaborate as a district, linking their efforts in common governance and economic development, more quickly and effectively reducing poverty and increasing quality of life.
To CHOICE the concept of "viral impact" means that the learning and knowledge in one village can spread to learning in surrounding villages. This is promoted by utilizing village leadership from a CHOICE village to train and mentor leadership in nearby villages.