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close this bookAfrican Consultants International: 'Poles of Excellence' (UNAIDS - Best Practice Digest, 2000, 3 p.)
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African Consultants International: ''Poles of Excellence''

Summarised from ACI’s Poles of Excellence Approach for Community Mobilisation: Promoting Reproductive Health by Strengthening the Skills of Community Organisations. Case Study prepared by Dr Fatim Louise Dia and Gary Engelberg. August 2000.

For additional information contact: Gary Engelberg or Dr Fatim Louise Dia. Tel: (221) 82483 38; E-mail: aciannex@enda.sn Mail: Africa Consultants International, BP 5270 Dakar Fann, Senegal

Poles of Excellence is an approach designed and implemented by the American NGO, African Consultants International (ACI), in Dakar, Senegal. With initial funding from the USAID-financed AIDSCAP/FHI project and subsequent support from Lutheran World Relief, ACI aims to strengthen the reproductive health-related skills of a variety of community development organisations and associations, with a particular emphasis on HIV/AIDS, STIs and adolescent reproductive health. Activities began in March 1997 and have been concentrated in five regions: Dakar, Kaolack, Louga, Thiand Ziguinchor, reaching over 50 organisations.

Studies have shown that for improved sexual and reproductive health (SRH) care to be fully and properly used, we need to reach beyond health facilities into the communities themselves, and to provide men and women with the information and awareness they need to take control of their lives. The Poles of Excellence approach builds on and strengthens the skills of NGOs and grass-roots associations that play an important role in raising awareness and improving understanding of health-related issues among the population.

The Poles of Excellence response began as a response to the numerous requests from participants in a series of HIV and Development training seminars that ACI organised in collaboration with AIDSCAP/FHI project and CONGAD, a consortium of non-governmental development organisations in Senegal. There was clearly a need for follow-up to training. Participants’ organisations needed SRH learning materials, particularly films and documents in national languages, additional training on specific subjects, communication techniques, guidance and reflection on strategies and suchlike. Any solution to this need for follow-up would have to be relatively low-cost and sustainable.

Objectives

The objectives of ACI’s training follow-up activities were to:

· Increase the operationality and improve the effectiveness of the various organisations’ activities

· Develop the full potential of each organisation

· Transform certain organisations into resources for other structures

· Improve relations among community organisations and services in the same geographic zone or those having similar or complementary interests

And as a result:

· Improve responses to the SRH needs of adolescents
· Reduce the incidence of STIs and HIV infection
· Increase the use of SRH services

It became clear that ACI would need to concentrate on a limited number of groups that would, in turn, have a multiplier effect and serve as a resource for others.

Poles of Excellence

The solution was to identify and work with selected groups that had already become actively involved in AIDS and STI-related activities and had demonstrated the will and/or potential to assist others to do this. They would be called Poles of Excellence. There are also secondary groups.

With the funds available, ACI recruited five community organisers or educators who had already participated in ACI’s HIV and Development training. Each consultant would cover a region of the country familiar to him/her, and within that region would be responsible for a certain number of "cases" – NGOs or CBOs or associations. They work in collaboration with several of ACI’s more experienced senior consultants.

To begin with, caseworkers visited each Pole of Excellence every two weeks. They worked with each to identify and prioritise specific needs for materials, training and other types of assistance. At the same time, ACI identified, acquired, tested, adapted and developed a stock of proven SRH learning materials.

Strategies

Strategies used included:

· Providing materials for learning and facilitation. Organisations’ trainers and facilitators attended instruction and practice sessions on using these materials. As well as providing essential information on SRH, these included more process-oriented, participatory activities that promoted the development of the critical thinking necessary to analyse health-related situations and problems. This is a first step in discussing and reflecting on individual and community-level solutions.

· Short training session. Emphasis was placed on the important role of non-medical community members and organisations and their collaboration with government health facilities and services.

· Building on strengths. Caseworkers worked with association members to create a monitoring and evaluation reflex, and the constant questioning and reassessment of the effectiveness of their activities. Groups were also encouraged to identify their successes and reinforce them so as to increase their self-confidence.

· Networking

· Public relations, including the development of brochures, videos and fund-raising activities.

The impact

To date, 86 structures (33 Poles of Excellence and 53 secondary groups) have been reached in five of Senegal’s ten regions. Poles of Excellence have received an average of 30 visits each. Hundreds of modules, documents and films have been distributed to facilitators from the Poles of Excellence who in turn lend them to others. Trainers and facilitators from the Poles have shown significant improvements in several areas, including their understanding of issues and facilitating group discussions. Many groups have improved their status in the community, and the overwhelming majority of organisations reached by this approach have increased the number and quality of SRH sessions without waiting for outside financing. There is considerably strengthened collaboration between groups and organisations.

Obstacles

ACI has encountered several obstacles which include:

· Some organisations’ territorial approach which makes collaboration and sharing of material difficult

· Traditional mistrust between NGOs and government

· Conditions of insecurity created by armed conflicts in southern Senegal

But the Poles of Excellence are becoming increasingly autonomous community-based centres if skills and resources. In the long term they will continue to ensure the sustainability of activities to promote better health. The approach has demonstrated that major changes in the quality and frequency of SRH activities by NGOs and CBOs can be achieved at relatively low cost. It shows the effectiveness of an organic approach which is facilitating, enabling and reinforcing rather than prescriptive, and the value of ongoing, periodic, sustained human contact and input with step-by-step improvements in materials, techniques and skills.