© Helvetas / Franz Thiel

Building a Community of Practice to Guide Rural Development

BY: Gloria Spezzano - 24. August 2023
© Helvetas / Franz Thiel

Rural development initiatives play a crucial role in uplifting the lives of people in remote areas and supporting agriculture production. But the vulnerability of ecosystems and rural communities is increasing due to an ever-changing landscape shaped by economic shifts, societal dynamics and the impacts of climate change. Within this context, certain groups, including indigenous communities, women, persons with disabilities and youth, are most affected since they are the most reliant on these resources to sustain their livelihoods. Environmental, Social, and Climate (ESC) standards in rural development are necessary to protect the environment and these groups’ well-being, as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

The government ministries responsible for rural development often lack the capacity and resources to effectively integrate environmental and social considerations, in addition to mainstreaming key topics such as gender transformation, youth, climate change and nutrition in their programs.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) recognized this challenge and developed the Social, Environmental, and Climate Assessment Procedures (SECAP) to mitigate the risks their projects and initiatives might bear for sustainable development. Through the SUSTAIN initiative, implemented by Helvetas, efforts are being made to empower governments and local stakeholders to understand, implement and adhere to these standards. By empowering national ministries, trainers and project staff to identify and manage these risks, the SUSTAIN initiative paves the way for equitable, socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable rural transformation. This can be achieved through a training curriculum and a platform that allows knowledge sharing and engagement. Collaborative efforts and capacity building can help countries move closer to a future where rural development truly aligns with the principles of sustainability and inclusivity.   

IFAD's SECAP: A comprehensive framework 

IFAD's SECAP is a holistic approach to integrating ESC standards into rural development projects. The framework consists of nine standards that governments should integrate into the implementation of agricultural projects. These standards cover a wide range of aspects, including biodiversity conservation, resource efficiency, cultural heritage, indigenous peoples' rights, labor conditions, community health and safety, resettlement, financial intermediaries, direct investments and climate change adaptation. SECAP also includes a mechanism for complaints that allows affected parties to voice concerns if the standards are not met.  

ESC integration within rural development projects is pivotal for multiple reasons. First, it safeguards the environment and prevents irreversible damage to ecosystems and agrosystems. Neglecting these factors can lead to deforestation, soil degradation, pollution and loss of biodiversity — all of which have long-term consequences on local communities and ecosystems. Second, ESC standards focus on safeguarding the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples, communities and laborers. Without these considerations, vulnerable populations can be marginalized and exploited, exacerbating inequalities. Lastly, incorporating climate considerations is vital for adaptation and resilience-building in the face of changing climate patterns. 

Overcoming challenges through the SUSTAIN initiative 

Implementing SECAP is not without its challenges. Many governments and agricultural ministries struggle to fully understand and integrate these broad and complex standards. The lack of capacity, awareness, prioritization and practice in applying SECAP's steps and risk assessment mechanisms hinders its effective implementation.  

When interviewed about SECAP knowledge, one member of the project management unit in India said, “So far, we do not have any understanding about SECAP. The communities are involved in farm and non-farm based livelihoods, so we have to understand how SECAP standards could be applied after systematically analyzing the risks." Many similar answers were collected, showing that the project management units possess limited knowledge and capacity in SECAP. Most know that the framework exists, and some even have access to the SECAP guidelines, but there appears to be an overall lack of understanding and practice using the steps of SECAP integration into projects, especially around the risk level assessment and risk mitigation mechanisms. This is where the SUSTAIN initiative, which is implemented by Helvetas, steps in.  

SUSTAIN's Approach to ESC Integration 

The SUSTAIN initiative aims to address these challenges and bridge the gap between knowledge and practice. SUSTAIN takes a participatory approach to raise awareness in all low and lower-middle income countries in Africa and the Asia- Pacific Region where IFAD implements projects — a total of 59 countries. The initiative trains and coaches (both face-to-face and online) 400 implementing government staff and 200 consultants and project implementing partners.  

© Helvetas / Chi Cao
An exercise at the March 2023 Design and Planning Workshop in Bangkok. The goal was to get to know each other and introduce the importance of being connected through the Community of Practice. © Helvetas / Chi Cao

By collaborating closely with stakeholders from the project's design phase, SUSTAIN ensures that the SECAP standards are not just theoretical but also practically applicable. Every stage of the initiative is carried out in consultation and close collaboration with stakeholders, including brainstorming the SECAP curriculum and creating a shared vision of how to best roll out future training. 

Training the Trainers and Building a Community of Practice 

One of the core strategies of the SUSTAIN initiative is the creation of a pool of SECAP-certified trainers who will cascade the SECAP training to other trainers and project implementation staff. This ensures the sustainability of knowledge transfer and capacity building. The first Training of Trainers event, launched in July 2023 in Johannesburg, served as both a training opportunity and a curriculum validation exercise. The insights gained from this process have led to adjustments in the training materials, making them more effective and relevant. Another Training of Trainers will take place in autumn for francophone African countries, serving as a starting point for the launch of SECAP trainings.  

In 2023, the initial group of countries undergoing training include Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos, Benin, Niger, Madagascar, Lesotho and Ethiopia. This training initiative aims to directly benefit over 100 project management professionals. In 2024, the scope of the training program will expand to encompass more countries. Supplementary ad-hoc online events and exchanges will also indirectly involve even more individuals in this capacity-building endeavour. 

© Helvetas / Franz Thiel
Introducing participants and their role in SUSTAIN through a game. © Helvetas / Franz Thiel
© Helvetas / Franz Thiel
Valuing everyone’s contribution through group work or open discussions. © Helvetas / Franz Thiel
© Helvetas / Franz Thiel
Discussing Inclusive Grievance Redress Mechanism within SECAP can be fun, too. © Helvetas / Franz Thiel

Recognizing the limitations of in-person training, SUSTAIN also employs an online component for knowledge development. Participants complete the first part of the training in an online course about the nine standards, which serves as a prerequisite for being trained in person at the SECAP training.  

However, the real strength lies in the formation of the SUSTAIN Community of Practice (CoP) — a group of enthusiastic trainers and project staff coming together to share experiences, seek guidance and exchange information on SECAP implementation. This collaborative approach ensures ongoing support and continuous learning, even after participants return to their respective working contexts. The CoP has recently been launched for the trainers of the Training of Trainers. It will be open to project staff in the initiative’s target countries and all stakeholders willing to contribute to a better future through sustainable and inclusive rural transformation.  

About the Project

SUSTAIN is an initiative of IFAD, launched in 2022 and implemented by Helvetas in collaboration with CLEAR Centres and the Value-chain Capacity Building Network (VCB-N). For more information, visit www.sustainsecap.org.

About the Author

Learning & Innovation

Building the capacities of staff and partners to effectively share what they know, to learn together and create effective solutions is crucial to our success.

Rural Access

Lack of transport infrastructure makes it impossible for the poor to escape the poverty trap. We help people get better access to markets, schools, and hospitals.