Learning from experience
In evaluating the degree to which the project objectives were attained, it can be shown globally that the lessons learned in each activity served to modify and improve subsequent activities. In fact, this evolutionary aspect of the project as a whole may be the single most important factor in its ultimate success. As obstacles were encountered, the project team worked with the trainees and women's groups to understand the problems and propose solutions. By discarding elements that did not work and focusing on those that did, the Food Production Liaison model emerged. The activities of Phase I and the "Interim Project" have now been completed and, in quantitative terms, outputs have surpassed the original goals. With 200 women peasants scheduled to receive training before 1990, 375 were actually trained. With 152 state extension workers and social promoters originally scheduled to receive training, more than 300 have benefitted. Credits to develop family gardens and poultry production have been pilot-tested and proven to stimulate interest and increase motivation, nutritional levels and incomes. Organizational strengthening at the grassroots has had a positive effect by building new leadership and increasing community development activity in the areas covered by the project.
With the Literacy Workers module, the lesson learned was that motivation and follow-up were vital to sustainable literacy activities. Many Literacy Workers stopped promoting their literacy circles after learning that they would not receive a subsidy. Just as important as the false expectations raised was the absence of much-needed technical follow-up and field visits from extension staff. Literacy circles fell apart when there was no one available to observe and support group activities or to distribute materials.
In the case of the Housing/Environment Liaisons, where the project team made the decision to halt training before the total number of targeted women had been trained, the women and the team learned that without appropriate resources -- either credit or materials -- women's plans were frustrated and activities either slowed down or paralyzed.
In the Women's Group Organizer module, the participatory process used to select participants and design training content and methodology was a lesson in patience, diplomacy and hard work for everyone involved. If the project team and the peasant organizations had not gone through this process and reached an agreement, inter-organizational disputes could have blocked implementation, or content and methodology might have been inappropriate for the groups' interests. Secondly, this module also taught the peasant organizations and the project team the importance of training women who are already connected to a base group, even if their educational or organizational capabilities are lower than desirable. Women without those grassroots connections have little or no commitment to passing on their knowledge and thereby multiplying the effect of their training. Third, this module reinforced the idea that full-time organizing work is not feasible without some type of motivation, either monetary or material. The full-time responsibility of the Women's Group Organizers was not compatible with their domestic and productive responsibilities and, since the average women's group was unable to support its Organizer, a high drop-out rate was the result.
The fourth module, which trained women as Food Production Liaisons, also encountered constraints, despite important improvements over the preceding modules. Two important lessons from previous modules were confirmed in this module. One is the need to supervise the selection of participants in order to ensure a multiplier effect in each Liaison's group once her training is completed. The second is the need to involve the family in each woman's commitment to training and leadership activities.
Lessons learned and assimilated in the execution of the project allowed its continued activity and ultimately contributed to its success. Chief among these is the need for participation, coordination, and flexibility in project execution and evolution. The flexibility of the FAO project allowed for an expansion of activities in order to address the needs of the women as these became clear. Unexpected activities of the project included: provision of credit for small livestock and agricultural subsistence production, follow-up training for productive activities, and FAO's financial support to the National Agrarian Institute for the hiring of a nutritionist to develop a participatory detection and treatment programme for child malnutrition among the families of all the women's groups.
The women's groups have grown and changed over the course of the project. Some groups have sought credit through the extension agencies or from the Rotating Fund for Peasant Women in order to initiate social and productive projects in addition to their subsistence activities. Some of the activities women have become involved in include the purchase of a motorized corn mill, planting of soy beans for soy milk nutrition programmes, bread-making and marketing to generate group funds, and establishment of community stores.
The women sponsor productive activities that reflect the traditional gender division labour of a farm household, but at the same time their status has changed. They are involved in the improvement of the quality of life for their families and their communities, and are respected for their roles.
During its first four years, the project encountered institutional problems in peasant organizations and state extension agencies, as well as cultural and economic problems in grassroots consolidation. Today the project's second phase is oriented towards refining and strengthening the training methodology for extension workers, women trainees and women's groups. Obstacles persist that could complicate or diminish the impact of the project. These constraints on future success are institutional, economic and structural.
The continuous turnover of personnel in Government extension agencies because of poor pay and difficult working conditions diminishes the effect of training on the field staff. Only 30 percent of the present staff of the National Agrarian Institute and less than 10 percent of the staff of the Ministry of Natural Resources have received training to work with rural women. Cutbacks in state expenditures due to structural adjustment policies also reduce the number of extensionists and social promoters who work with the grassroots groups.
Women's access to credit also will be limited in the future. The Inputs and Seeds Fund and the Poultry Fund provide one-time loans. Special community funds developed by women using the Inputs and Seeds Fund were employed for the first couple of years, but drought and other problems have made it difficult for the women to replenish the capital in these funds. The community funds generated from the Poultry Credit Fund will have to be treated with care by the women's groups in order to ensure that this Fund does not become decapitalized. As for the low-interest, preferential credit through the Rotating Fund for Peasant Women, the working capital has diminished over the years because of the large number of unrecovered loans issued in the early 1980s. Furthermore, charging only five percent annual interest reduces the real value of the fund over time, especially when the national economy is experiencing a much higher annual inflation rate. Once these various loan funds have dried up, women's groups will have to apply for credit under normal market conditions, increasing their financial responsibility and risk. Even through special programmes for low-income borrowers, current interest rates are higher than 30 percent, so rural women may have to avoid borrowing for social projects that do not offer monetary returns.
Structural constraints that could limit the success of the project in the future include the lack of rights for land access for single women under the Agrarian Reform Law, and the rapid decrease in peasant families' buying power as a result of structural adjustment policies implemented since 1990.
First, the Agrarian Reform Law allows only widows to be direct beneficiaries of Agrarian Reform. Thus, widowed mothers who have never married their companions, or single mothers abandoned by their companions, cannot benefit. With little or no access to land, women without companions often do not have even the space for a vegetable garden. With-out full equality under the law, landless women who participate in groups involved in agricultural production will be discriminated against in the long run.
It takes many years to develop personal and organizational skills and to train grassroots leaders. The tools that rural Honduran women have acquired under the FAO project have opened the door to individual growth and created group strength, solidarity and capability among thousands of rural women. Future sustainability and success of the women's activities depend on future access to economic resources. National economic conditions that make life harder inflation, cutting of subsidies, reduction of services, personnel reductions in government agencies -- also affect women's group and individual activities. If any one of these problems becomes a major obstacle to the realization of women's activities, a project that has supported change from dependency and poverty to autonomy and self-sufficiency could see its major potential contributions truncated.
It takes many years to build grassroots leaders.