Using life histories to understand change—an example from my research in Tahoua, Niger

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A life history is someone’s first person account of his or her life, or an aspect therein. Life histories capture how things change over time from a respondent’s own perspective, so are well suited for longitudinal studies of complex and personal subjects. I used a life history approach to understand the impact of Concern’s community resilience programming in Tahoua, Niger, which I wrote about in a case study.  As I describe below, life histories offer a number of advantages and are well suited for complex social research.


Developing the life history study in Tahoua, Niger

In Niger Concern is focused on programming to build community resilience. Resilience approaches acknowledge the complex and dynamic nature of the world and are designed to help people bounce back/forward from when dynamism takes a negative turn in the form of a disaster, a death in the family, or any other harmful event. Since dynamism and complexity are central to resilience thinking, life histories can be a good tool for understanding how resilience works.



I collected life histories from three women in Tahoua, Niger. I wanted to find out whether households were able to ‘bounce forward’ from negative events, and whether Concern’s programming was having any impact on household resilience. I decided to collect life histories from two women that received long-term support from Concern and one that did not receive any support. Comparing the respondents could help understand general patterns of resilience for poorer women in Tahoua (men have very different livelihood and social patterns in Tahoua, as do wealthier residents of the area). Comparing the two Concern beneficiaries could help establish the range in utility of Concern’s support. Comparing resilience of beneficiaries/non-beneficiaries could help understand the impact of Concern’s work.


Developing the interviews

Because I was taking a comparative case approach to research a specific topic, I developed a semi-structured interview template to use for all three respondents. I started with a common introduction, explaining the objectives and structure of the interview. I then asked respondents to describe their current poverty level (including a subjective ranking and their current number of assets/expenses), how their levels of poverty had changed over time, and the reasons for those changes. I wanted to capture respondent’s personal views of poverty and change, so I left questions open, besides two specific question areas: the impact of the drought of 2009 (an event common to all three, and something that could make for a good comparison, especially given the high dependence on rain-fed livelihood systems in the area) and how they used the support from Concern.


Tahoua is a sandy dryland area and was trying to understanding fluctuations in poverty, so I decided to graph changes in poverty in the sand with the respondents. I thought this visualization would be a good check to make sure that I actually understood their level of poverty.



I was able to collect life histories of three women and use the results to write a short case study on Concern’s resilience work in Tahoua. The sampling mechanism and semi-structured interview format allowed me to compare respondents, while still being flexible enough to capture differences in life histories. The three interviews gave me some perspective on resilience and Concern, but not nearly enough to reach saturation point (something that I had expected). My efforts at graphing poverty levels in the sand were not really successful—I was rushed for time, only having around 10-15 minutes per respondent, so was not able to explain the process in enough detail. That said, I believe I was able to accurately construct a graph of poverty myself from the interview responses.


A life history approach has its advantages and disadvantages. In a lot of my other interviews I asked questions on poverty levels, impact of DRR programming, disasters, and other areas related to my research. A life history approach focused on poverty over time created a structured thread to construct an interview. The resulting narrative was useful as a story to help understand the context, and I believe it really helped keep power in the hands of the respondent, since they were the ones identifying important events to talk about. On the other hand, I was not able to use the life history approach to establish concrete causality—I relied on the respondents’ interpretations of why events had affected them the way they did, interpretations that may not necessarily be correct and reflected personal biases (even saturation point might only be saturation point of biases). Finally, life history approaches take a certain amount of resources. Since they are led by the respondent they require strong interview skills: the interviewer really needs to listen and know when and how to ask the right questions.   They also take some time to conduct since the process must be explained and it takes a while to understand a life.  Budget 20 minutes minimum per respondent.


There’s a few ways I would like to use life history approaches. Since life histories provide a highly-digestible version of history from an individual’s perspective, they would be great for any project focused on ‘peripheral’ histories of a place undergoing change—urbanization and growth of cities/slums, desertification in drylands, post-conflict recovery at household/community level etc. This work could be interesting in its own right (who doesn’t like alternative, people-centred histories), and could provide a bottom-up voice that is often absent in the world. Additionally, although I had trouble establishing causality for these life histories, I believe that life history approaches can potentially be used for understanding causality when coupled with quantitative measurements taken over time. Quantitative measurements can help establish what is happening in terms of a level of change, while life histories coupled can provide part of body of evidence of how that change is occurring.



What does it take to build community resilience? Evidence from Concern in Niger


Aaron Clark-Ginsberg

DRR documentation officer, Concern Worldwide

November, 2014


It is often stated that improving community resilience requires a holistic approach involving a mixture of interventions spanning time scales and sectors (Pasteur, 2011; reachingresilience, 2014). Temporally, this means providing shorter-term emergency response as a buffer against shocks and long-term development activities that help address the root causes of risk and extreme poverty (GHI, 2013; Hunt et al., 2013). Unfortunately, while the cry for disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and other longer-term resilience building activities is growing, the aid sector by in large remains focused on emergency response (IRIN, 2012; Sparks, 2012). To understand what it takes to build community resilience this case study compares the experiences of three poor and vulnerable residents of Niger—two that received long term support from Concern designed to improve resilience, another that did not.


About Concern’s work in Niger

Extreme poverty is common in Niger—it came in last in the most recent Human Development Index rankings (UNDP, 2014) and ranked 63 out of 76 in the 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI, 2014). Issues related to health, education, gender equality, and livelihoods are all pressing in the country. Drought, desertification, conflict, floods, pest infestations, disease, and other disasters affect large portions of the population. Droughts affected 3.5 million people in 2005, for example, and another 7.9 million in 2010 (almost ½ the country’s population). Drought has actually been constant since 2010, with rains below average for four years running.


Concern started working in the Tahoua district of Niger in 2003 and has, over the years, provided residents with a mixture of emergency support and long-term development. The organisation is increasingly focusing on community resilience, including the Irish Aid funded Integrated Resilience Programme, which is designed to “improve the lives of the most vulnerable in Tahoua by increasing their resilience, improving access to quality services, and enhancing livelihood systems and environmental protection”. The Irish Aid funded programme is multi-sectoral and multi-temporal, with key activities focusing on education, livelihoods, social protection, health and nutrition, gender equality, and disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation. Emergency assistance is provided when need emerges. Activities began in 2012 and run until 2014.

Testimonies of Shoulda, Agaisha, and Kakia
Shoulda with her son (farthest from right) and grandchildren.
Shoulda with her son (farthest from right) and grandchildren.

Shoulda is a resident of Zonga Meha, a village of around 100 households. She is a subsistence farmer and has seven children, one son and six daughters, of which four are married.


Her husband died in 2009 of unknown causes. Shoulda described the devastating impact of his death: “It’s easier to get food when there’s enough people to do the labour. My older daughters are married and cannot help me labour. Their husbands give some money but it is not enough. My other children are too young to work on the farm”.


In 2012 Concern selected Shoulda to participate in the Integrated Resilience Programme. She received agricultural training including composting training, which helps increase soil fertility and on how to construct half moon shaped irrigation channels that help trap water, direct it to crops, and help it permeate the soil, a proven technique for reducing drought risk. Shoulda also participated in cash for work schemes designed to provide enough money to get through the hungry season. Through these schemes she worked rehabilitate degraded land and protect the environment in exchange for a small amount of money.


Shoulda stated that “when my husband died I did not have enough food to eat. Now I can’t say that I am very poor because I have enough to eat”. She also noted that the cash for work “had gotten me through the hungry season”. She did however caution that “the year is long, and I might not have enough”.


Kakia, a resident of the neighbouring village of Kosoma, is also receiving support from Concern the Integrated Resilience Programme. A mother of 7, she and her husband are also subsistence farmers. When Concern first started the programme in 2012 Agaisha was in poverty: “I did not have enough to eat. I was not able to feed my children”. Like Shoulda, however, Kakia was not always poor: “20 years ago I had enough to eat. I had a number of animals. Over the years we had to sell our animals to purchase food. We had a few animals in 2009 but over the 5 year drought we have had to sell them to get enough to eat”.


Concern provides Kakia with training, agricultural support, and cash for work. Kakia participates as a member of one of Concern’s community garden, small gardens that serve as demonstration plots for how to raise vegetables. Concern started the gardens to increase food consumption and the economic level of households: participants consume the vegetables themselves and sell surpluses at local markets.   Participates also irrigate the gardens using well water, which helps provide a stable source of food and income during the dry season. Besides improving the volume of food consumed Concern has been using the gardens to improve nutritional diversity, moving households away from a diet mainly dependent on millet and toward a more balanced one that includes regular consumption of vegetables. As part of this Concern provides nutrition education including the importance of dietary diversity.


Kakia stated that “because of the gardens my family has now enough and can eat and eat more nutritious. Before we did not have enough to eat and mostly ate millet. I also did not know the nutrition information of the various vegetables”. While her and her family’s eating habits had improved, she also noted that “demand for many of the vegetables is low because most of the villagers are not used to these vegetables. Concern has provided some training to the village but more outreach is needed to create demand”.



Agaisha is similar to Shoulda in many ways. Like Shoulda she is a resident of Zongo Meha and a small scale subsistence farmer. She is also a single mother, having lost her husband around the same time, in 2009. The loss also put Agaisha in poverty, where she did not have enough to feed herself or her family. The chief of Zongo Meha describes Agaisha and Shoulda as being in similar situations of poverty and of vulnerability.


Concern’s budget is limited, so unlike Shoulda, Agaisha has not received support from the organisation. Describing what this was like, Shoulda stated “I have not been able to recover or change my position. I struggle to survive”.


comparison and conclusion

Figure 1 is a graph of the relative poverty levels of Shoulda, Agaisha, and Kakia from 2009-2014 and serves as a comparison between the cases.


Poverty levels of Shoulda, Agaisha, and Kakia

The figure shows that in 2009 until Concern’s support in 2012 all three women were on a downward trajectory; Kakia on a long slow trajectory because of drought, and Agaisha and Shoulda on sudden ones because of deaths of their husbands. It also shows the effect that Concern’s support has had since 2012, with Shoulda and Kakia gradually moving out of poverty.


Comparing experiences helps make a number of issues apparent. First, shocks and stressors affected all residents. All were affected by trends related to environmental degradation and drought. In terms of impact, Kakia was most affected by drought, a risk commonly discussed in relation to resilience, however Shoulda and Agaisha were both highly affected by deaths of their husbands, a shock that is not often discussed in resilience. The events show how hard it was for these three individuals at the margins of poverty just to maintain standards of living in the face of shocks and stressors—a common case for countless others.


The cases also provide brief glimpse on what it takes to build resilience. As seen by the changes in Shoulda and Kakaia’s lives Concern was making progress at reducing extreme poverty and risk, but that change was taking time, and certain issues were still not resolved. In the interim, the organisation’s cash for work was functioning as a valuable ‘stop gap’, a form of social protection to limit negative coping strategies and the decent back into extreme poverty. Clearly emergency response is a key component of building community resilience, as is longer-term support.


Concern’s Integrated Resilience Programme is in its early stages, but the work shows promise. Concern has given households initial the resources to escape from poverty. It has also supported the improvement of communities at the wider level. Changes are taking time to occur, but they are occurring. If all goes well residents of Tahoua district will eventually escape from poverty and do so in a way where they will not slip back. When this happens the organsation will be able to stop cash for work and other forms of short-term emergency social protection.

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