In February 2015, Nuevas Esperanzas embarked on a collaborative project with Project Gettysburg-León (PGL), a non-profit organisation from Pennsylvania which runs various projects in communities around León. One such community is Talolinga, a few hours’ drive into the mountains. Five years ago, PGL began implementing projects such as an art club for children and improving agricultural knowledge. Despite ongoing efforts, progress was uncertain, and PGL decided to evaluate the state of their projects. The organisation then approached Nuevas Esperanzas for assistance as the team has extensive experience in project assessment.

In order to understand the status of projects in Talolinga, Nuevas Esperanzas spent three days in the community completing a census. Members of the team visited every house in pairs of one man and one woman, ensuring people felt comfortable talking with the surveyors. Whilst collecting basic information about every resident, the surveyors also asked about PGL and the work that they had done. Once all homes were accounted for, the next step was to conduct a Participatory Rural Appraisal.

Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRA) are undertaken with the aim of understanding a community from the perspective of its residents. A PRA involves the team using open-ended questions in order to encourage unbiased answers from the participants. Using this method, organisations demonstrate a genuine respect for the community’s capability to analyse, interpret, and assess their own issues. The beauty of this technique is that, rather than starting with a problem, the process starts with the people.

The PRA in Talolinga involved informal mapping: a process in which a group crafts a map of their community using materials such as chalk, beads, and matchboxes. By noting what features participants include and what they leave out, the team gained a perspective no satellite image could provide. Participants were divided into groups of men and women, so that both groups would be able to express their opinions freely. In one group working outside, participants integrated the surrounding natural resources in order to create the map. Branches were used to carve the outline into the earth, and rocks were placed on top of matchboxes to represent important areas such as schools and parks.

Once the area was mapped out, the participating individuals were given nails to symbolize the issues in their community. Nails hold special significance in Nicaraguan culture as the word clavos (nails) is used to refer to problems. By listening in on decision-making dialogue and observing their choices, the team understood the primary concerns of the community. A similar exercise followed as participants were given beans to represent money for improvements. As they were told that the beans signified resources, a voice was heard from the back of the group proclaiming, “Ese es el problema, ¡que no hay!” (That is the problem. There aren't any!). The beans were distributed around the map and showed where the participants would allocate resources given the opportunity.

The appraisal in Talolinga highlighted two central concerns of the community: road maintenance and water access. During the rainy season, the roads flood and become impassable. During the dry season, there is not enough water for the community. While there was debate regarding which was the priority, there was a clear consensus that these were the two primary difficulties to be addressed.

Every solution in development must be context specific. A thorough understanding of the problems facing the community is essential, and provides the foundation for future projects. The PRA is a method of ensuring this is done effectively while including the vision of those who have the most at stake.

Though the community appraisal is over, the work does not stop there. Nuevas Esperanzas and Project Gettysburg-León are currently using the data and information collected to determine the work to follow. The Nuevas Esperanzas team enjoyed the consulting work and the opportunity to get to know another community. Collaboration between organisations is essential in accomplishing sustainable development goals and provides a wealth of benefits to all involved. Nuevas Esperanzas is looking forward to future opportunities to collaborate once more.