Through experiential learning, Notre Dame students explore poverty solutions in Nigeria

Communities across northern Nigeria are chronically stressed by conflict and climate change. In 2018, for instance, 40 percent of residents lived below the international poverty line, making less than $2 per day, and another 25 percent were vulnerable to poverty. How can policymakers help them prepare for economic shocks? 

Notre Dame students have researched answers, providing insights that can empower households and communities and inform global poverty-fighting policies. 

Emma Hokoda, Colleen Maher and Nancy Obonyo recently completed a project through the Keough School of Global Affairs’ Integration Lab, in partnership with Catholic Relief Services. In June and July of 2023, the master of global affairs students, who are pursuing concentrations in sustainable development, surveyed more than 1,000 households to evaluate the impact of the $17.6 million USAID-funded Feed the Future Nigeria Livelihoods Project. 

The program, which aimed to strengthen agricultural-based livelihoods, was implemented by Catholic Relief Services from 2013 to 2018. Team members finished their project in February by presenting key findings and recommendations at the Keough School Washington Office. They briefed an audience that included representatives from Catholic Relief Services, USAID and the International Food Policy Research Institute. 

Ultimately, the team found that some interventions were more successful than others, and the program can make improvements through strategic investments.

Key recommendations included:  

  • Embracing a holistic, systems-strengthening approach focused on foundational interventions that facilitate the success of future interventions; 
  • Incorporating resilience measurement in development projects and future resilience studies in Nigeria; and, 
  • Strengthening monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning systems for future projects. 

The team evaluated program interventions, which focused on four areas: 1) agriculture and livelihoods, 2) income diversification, 3) government-strengthening activities and 4) nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene.

As part of their project, Nancy Obonyo, Colleen Maher and Emma Hokoda worked with Catholic Relief Services partners in northern Nigeria to study and strengthen household resilience.

Students found that during economic shocks, program beneficiaries relied most heavily on agriculture and income activities to survive. Additionally, they confirmed that diversifying income streams beyond agriculture helped households better weather adversity. And they found that government-strengthening activities had the most substantial and statistically significant positive effect on household resilience. 

Ultimately, students said the experience helped prepare them for policy-relevant careers.

For Hokoda, it was a window into how development projects unfold. “We wrote a proposal, prepared the institutional review process, created a financial plan, conducted field research and wrote recommendations based on our findings,” she said. “Being an active contributor from start to finish helped me understand the big picture and gain insight into how humanitarian projects are developed and assessed.” 

Being an active contributor helped me gain insight into how humanitarian projects are developed and assessed.”

For Maher, it was a master class in qualitative research. “Through this project I discovered a really deep appreciation and enjoyment of qualitative research,” she said. “This past fall, I went on to attend the American Evaluation Association’s Conference in Indianapolis, where I had the opportunity to network and discuss this kind of research in depth.” 

And for Obonyo, the experience reinforced the importance of holistic thinking in solving problems. 

“Through my experience in Nigeria, I learned that people struggle or succeed as part of larger, interconnected communities, and there are many factors that help them prepare for and adapt to economic shocks,” she said. “So we can’t talk about household resilience without talking about foundational interventions such as education and healthcare as well as peace and security. And we can’t talk about household resilience without talking about community resilience. Having access to things like good roads and adequate drainage in these communities affects each person’s ability to thrive as well as the success of future interventions.”

Top photo: From left, Emma Hokoda, Colleen Maher and Nancy Obonyo are seen with Austen Moore of Catholic Relief Services. The students worked closely with Moore on their project for the Keough School’s Integration Lab.

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