Each month, we shine a spotlight on partners who are using budget advocacy to bring transformational change to their communities. This month, we talked with Astou Mbengue, lead data collector for the Senegalese Federation of Inhabitants (FSH).
The text was derived from a video interview that was translated and then edited for the purposes of clarity and brevity.
Q: What are the main problems you and FSH are working to address?
A: I live in an area that can best be described as an informal settlement. It is a precarious neighborhood that was built without clear planning, which makes it susceptible to flooding. Our parents developed this area, and my generation feels obliged to improve living conditions in the district by working through community organizations. In some areas we face sanitation problems, which are compounded by a lack of financial means to improve conditions.
Flooding is a particular challenge that has contributed greatly to the community’s degradation. Flooding causes sanitation problems because homes are not connected to formal sewage systems. Even if the houses were strong [flood-resistant], floods would still have a major impact on living conditions because rainwater mixes with wastewater, which creates a massive health challenge. Wastewater that isn’t handled properly is discharged into the streets and it affects the entire community, including children who end up playing with the filthy water. This can lead to skin disease, diarrhea, and acute respiratory infections. The problem of sanitation and flooding negatively impacts the entire community’s daily survival.
As citizens, we saw the problems getting worse and so we decided to take charge of our needs. [But] without authorization from officials, the situation is untenable. Even if the population takes charge of its development, there will always be blockages at the level of the authorities who must validate the initiative.
Q: What is your role in FSH and in your wider community?
A: I wear many hats because I am Bajenu Gox or a neighborhood auntie, a community actor, and a municipal councilor. Additionally, I am a data collector at FSH. We are motivated to be a voice for the voiceless and all those who live in the same precarious conditions that we find ourselves in. We have organized ourselves at the local level to solve the problems we all face.
The role of the Bajenu Gox is important. We were chosen following discussions of several neighborhood delegates. In the beginning, we were focused on Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 – reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, respectively. Combining this position with my role as lead data collector at FSH and municipal councilor of the commune has been a natural fit because both roles are focused on making the community better.
Being Bajenu Gox requires me to be on the ground working with the population. As a councilor, my job is to represent the population at the level of the municipal council, give budgetary orientations, report on the difficulties encountered by the population, vote on the budgets, and verify that resources are being used for their intended targets.
Q: What is your process of data collection?
A: FSH has certain principles, particularly principle number 3, which is to know one’s community. To achieve this, we must have data. We collect data by working with members of the federation group who are trained in data collection.
Data collection takes place at two primary levels: the group and municipal level. At the municipal level, data collection takes place between the federation and its supporting NGO, Urbasen, which has a mapping unit. By contrast, FSH uses a data collection manager. To collect data at the municipal level requires preparatory meetings with the mayor. We then analyze and validate the proposals and organize meetings with leaders, such as the neighborhood delegates, other notable people, and the municipal team. Then we train the people who collect the data.
Following training, data collection is done in four phases. The first phase is to define the perimeter of the district of the commune by GPS. In the second phase, we organize focus groups in the neighborhoods, bringing together notable people, neighborhood delegates, and all the targets to present themselves. The neighborhood delegates lead the focus group meetings and discuss and prioritize the difficulties the neighborhood experiences. In the third phase, we organize a small dissemination activity. In the fourth phase, we carry out the household surveys for each house in the area. At the end of this process, we meet with the mayor to elaborate on the thematic maps at the municipal level.
The basis of data collection is to self-identify as a community, since the state has not been able to do that. It is with a solid demographic base that we can justify the existence of this community. That’s the importance of collecting data that can help integrate vulnerable groups into policy. As the saying goes: whoever has information, has power.
At the group level, we conduct a survey amongst member organizations to determine each group’s constituents and answer questions such as: are they still members, have they undergone training, what are their income-generating activities, what are their savings? This is valuable data to combine with the municipal findings.
Q: How do IBP and FSP work together in Senegal?
A: IBP supports Urbasen and FSH. We connected with IBP through Urbasen and were introduced to the SPARK program, which has strengthened our budget knowledge and built our capacity. IBP opened our eyes to the value and importance of budgets and budget advocacy. Now we meet with women who have been trained in budget analysis and we understand how the budget is distributed amongst the population and sectors.
IBP has also been instrumental in introducing us to institutional actors and partners whom we didn’t have access to previously. It is not merely a financial partner; it accompanies us in our actions and gets close to the communities in which we work. This gives the communities an opportunity to get to know the organization that supports us.
SPARK has helped our advocacy efforts and facilitated our collaboration with the National Sanitation Office, through which we organized community mobilization and sensitization activities about the work being done to prepare for the rainy season, amongst other activities.
Q: What challenges does FSH face?
A: A major challenge is expansion. There is a lot of demand for help across many regions and departments but it’s not easy to expand while ensuring that the quality of our work remains high. We are therefore focused on expanding to regional branches with the same quality that we have become known for.
Q: How have you developed personally from working for FSH?
A: I have discovered that I have huge capacity to find solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges and I have seen how our work is having a positive effect. This has been a source of deep motivation. As a member of the community, I take pride in knowing that I am representing it, assisting it, and helping to improve living conditions. As a woman in Senegal, I also face socio-cultural barriers. My personal ambition is to assist our communities to have relief and fulfillment.