Self-help best route to development in Africa

Hywel Meredydd Davies reports on a recent visit to Ethiopa

“We don’t need your money, but your help to open markets for our produce,” Brihan told me. Her living circumstances are poor in the town of Soddo in Ethiopia, but she joins with other women to attend a self-help group that aims to support the community by providing opportunities to sell coffee and put some money aside regularly. I was in Ethiopia to observe Tearfund’s partnership with the largest Presbyterian Church in the country, the Kale Heywet Churches and their seven million members, and to see how the self-help initiative is being rolled out to support the poorest communities.

At a time when disadvantaged communities in Wales are suffering the effects of the recession, and with cuts forthcoming in public services, I discovered that there is much we can learn from the positive and community-centred example of Brihan and others I met during my visit.

Ethiopia is one of the most impoverished countries in the world. It has a population of 74 million and has received millions of pounds in aid from the West over the years – with little long-term improvement in the lives of most of the population.

With the Kale Heywet Churches, Tearfund has established 6,000 Self Help Groups that have succeeded in making a real difference by promoting the production of local food, increasing personal income and alleviating the effects of HIV, Malaria and TB. The initiative aims to equip poor people to stand on their own feet with no central aid but with the help of experienced facilitators who promote initiative, self-esteem and hope among people living in poverty.

The self-help groups are based on the successful Indian Myrada scheme and foster a process of ongoing change in favour the rural poor communities. This process is sustained by the group through building and managing innovative local level institutions that are based on their rights and rooted in values of justice, equity and mutual support. The groups help to create self-sustaining livelihoods that are structured on a balanced relationship between the health of the environment and the legitimate needs of poor families. These are livelihood strategies that lead to increased food security, whilst also securing the rights of women and children as well as minority and marginalised groups.

I meet many people in Wales who are sceptical of oversees aid, believing it can create a dependency. However, I’m sure if they understood this scheme, they would be more sympathetic and supportive.

We visited schemes to support the rehabilitation of communities affected by hazards such as drought, programmes focusing on seed distribution and agricultural development. I also saw a drilling rig programme that provides boreholes and a surface water team working with communities to harness clean water from springs and pipe it to convenient tap points within a community. For each scheme a sustainable community management structure is established and the community is educated in hygiene and sanitation which includes the support of latrine construction.

The day I met Brihan we visited a scheme in Soddo which focused on raising awareness and educating people on HIV and AIDS, to reduce rates of transmission of the disease and reduce the impact on those infected and affected by it. Special attention is given to dependent children and those who have become bedridden. The programme works with the local church and community structures which provide volunteers to support the work. I heard how families were marginalised by their community before this scheme was started.

In Hawassa I experienced the generous hospitality of Abasach and her family. I stayed with them and heard how Abasach brought up her seven children with very little money and few possessions. Despite being left with four children of her own she had adopted three orphans and also cared for her 95-year-old mother.

Abasach, a member of the Orthodox Church, had benefitted so much from the self-help groups that she was able to address the Ethiopian Prime Minister on the issue of women’s rights during a recent visit. She is a kind hearted and hospitable woman, full of fun and very supportive within her community. The dogs outside kept me awake at times and a friend on the trip staying two houses away couldn’t stay an extra night due to the rats on her bed, but I was treated very well. The host family really showed generous kindness towards me.

Abasach had benefited from Tearfund’s Urban Development Programme to introduce and develop a self help approach to supporting sustainable livelihoods. This initiative brings 15  to 20 people together into a self help group (SHG). During the first 6-12 months the group is assisted in developing healthy relationships, setting up a saving scheme, opening a bank account, and establish rules on how they will operate. The selection of member beneficiaries is focused on the poorest in the community.

After 6-12 months the group starts to make loans to members for purposes agreed by the group. Loans are repaid in agreed time periods with interest. With ongoing savings, which increase over time, loan repayment and some other sources of income the capital of the group grows to allow larger loans to be made.  Loans initially are taken for both income generating activities and to pay for other costs such as school fees and health.  Over time the focus shifts so they are predominantly used for productive purposes.

In addition to savings and credit the self help groups are sanctuaries for members to come and discuss their problems. Together people identify issues and solutions to a whole range of issues and over time become confident and capable of realising change in their lives.  Depending on the priorities of the people involved support can be provided to address any needs through an educational focus.

Operating through thousands of churches. Tearfund’s mission is to fight poverty and injustice. It’s the spiritual transformation that brings living hope and purpose to mission. Integral mission, as Tearfund calls it – meeting the practical, social and spiritual need.

Of course, there’s always the unexpected with trips overseas – like being called on to address a congregation of more than a thousand people. Not quite what I’ve been used to on Anglesey for the last thirty years!

Hywel Meredydd Davies is Director of Tearfund Wales. E-mail him at: hywel.meredydd@tearfund.org

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