All posts by Jessica Carter

Jessica Carter is a media and development professional recently returned from a year in Bangladesh. Currently based in Australia, she is passionate about community empowerment, particularly in the areas of youth and food justice. You can visit her blog at or view her portfolio at

Self-reliance in community development projects: a mirage or an oasis?

Aid is the past.”

This quote came from Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid earlier this month when Britain announced it would cut all aid money to India by 2015. The decision, while driven partially by Britain’s own economic woes, reflects the belief that India no longer needs foreign aid when it can support its own space program. Despite this, millions of Indians still live in poverty and many aid organisations and governments will continue to donate money and implement programs.

It raises an interesting question: how should we measure when a community no longer needs foreign assistance?

If the stated goal of most employees in this sector is to ‘work themselves out of a job’, then knowing  when we’ve reached the end-point of a project, program or entire funding relationship is essential to good development practice.

One response to defining that elusive end-point is the idea of self-reliance; a marker that should testify when a community is sustainably independent and in no further need of external assistance.

Although the idea of self-reliance has been around since the 1980s and a growing number of development organisations are making it the central tenet of their work, in practice, many communities are still grappling with what achieving self-reliance really means.

In the Brazilian Amazon, the Community Empowerment Network (CEN) is one organisation that has adopted the goal of self-reliance in its mission to end rural poverty in the Juá area. CEN supports an eco-tourism project there that creates jobs and contributes to local industries and culture by bringing sustainable tourism to the community.

At CEN, self-reliance is defined in three ways – knowing that people can solve a problem for themselves, ensuring that they have the resources and skills to do something about it, and granting them freedom from external obstacles. Identifying this tricky trio is only the beginning of the complex process of understanding what self-reliance actually looks like (let alone reaching it).

Self-reliance emerged as the core concept driving CEN after Founder and Executive Director Robert Bortner became frustrated with top-down development approaches that focused primarily on how much money had been given to a community as the measure of success. Instead, he wanted to take a more comprehensive approach that addressed the problems for the long-term. “Giving people money doesn’t necessarily solve a problem. If people aren’t interested in solving a problem for themselves, how are you going to change the situation?”

This question led the organisation to develop a method of teaching and learning called PRACTICAR, a mentoring model that works closely with community members to empower them to reach self-reliance through a focus on sustainability. In Juá, this means training community members so that they have the organisational capacity to manage and maintain an eco-tourism project. After skills are delivered in the areas needed, people form community groups to continue managing projects with their own funding and resources; part of their learning addresses income-generation.

While CEN considers its training programs for community members a success, Bortner says that the organisation, like many others, is still struggling to measure when self-reliance has been achieved. “It’s hard to define. Is it synonymous with self-empowerment? Superficially, it’s about giving someone something and then they can do it for themselves. But in reality, it’s a lot harder than that. It’s difficult to know when people don’t need any further help.”

For Emmanuel Ojameruaye, a member of the Urhobo community of Nigeria and Vice-President for Research and Program Development with the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH), self-reliance is difficult to measure precisely because it is usually only thought of as an end-point. “Self-reliance can be a goal, but it’s also a mirage. It’s something that cannot be achieved 100% when you’re dealing with very poor communities.”

But, assessing whether a community truly owns a project often can’t be tested until after the funding has stopped. Given the complexities of measuring when self-reliance has been achieved, economic indicators still tend to be used to determine when it is time for an organisation to withdraw. Ojameruaye argues that financial sustainability remains one of the most effective measurement tools. “If you are building a block of classrooms in a village somewhere in Africa and the community contributes 50% of the costs, then in five years they contribute 75%, until finally they can build a school without any support, then that is self-reliance.”

Bortner also feels that economic indicators are a useful measurement tool. In addition, CEN uses timeframes to determine when they will leave. In their work in the Amazon, communities are told from the start how long the organisation will be there for. “For example, if the entire project is eight years, then at the end of that timeframe, we will leave and we will have made that clear from the beginning. We’ll still be around to help – leaving the skills and networks for them to use – but we will physically be out. And in the last few years of the project, our involvement will be significantly reduced,” Bortner says.

This strategy exposes the organisation to the risk of leaving before the community has reached self-reliance, but Bortner defends it. He argues that in practice, self-reliance is a continuum. “You need an exit strategy, you can only do so much; you improve self-reliance, you don’t achieve it. There is a point where you must get out or you will have just perpetuated dependency again.”

But still, no-one seems to be quite sure of a hard-and-fast measure for knowing when the time has come to leave. When enough is enough.

Ojameruaye believes that in part the only solution is better governance from above. Although this would seem almost contradictory in the framework of self-reliance, he insists that it is necessary, as long as it takes place according to certain conditions: “The government must provide support and impetus on a continued basis, but they should do that while ensuring that the communities participate and have a voice.”

Perhaps it’s the idea of voice that provides the best measure of all – it’s time to leave when the community says so. Both Bortner and Ojameruaye admit that while the self-reliance approach has its flaws, its respect for community voices and autonomy is what makes it a useful approach for the development field as a whole. It is through this focus on people’s needs that they can get closer to challenging the question of knowing how much help is enough. According to Ojameruaye: “People don’t want to be dependent, at least not for a long time. The communities should be the masters of their own development – this approach is about ensuring that.”


For girls, there is more to empowerment than education

It was six months ago, and a small visitor had arrived at the doorway of our village hospital in northwest Bangladesh. She had walked a long way, and she needed help. Under her tiny clothes was a very round belly; her head was wrapped in a faded blue scarf. She was in labour, and she was nervous because it was her first pregnancy. She was twelve years old.

Her son would be born many hours later, but he would not live for long. He was malnourished like his mother, who had been married a year earlier to a man her parents chose. She was sad that her son had died, but relieved too. She was lucky to have made it through the birth alive. She was twelve years old.

October 11 marked the first International Day of the Girl. It was a brief moment dedicated to recognising the importance of having and upholding rights for girls around the world. Extracted from the categories of Women and Children, it invited us to celebrate and protect childhood, especially for girls.

Why girls in particular? Sadly, the story of the twelve year old mother, who came to our NGO’s health care centre married and malnourished, is not an exceptional case.

10 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year. In Bangladesh, for example, a staggering two-thirds of girls marry before 18. 150 million girls under 18 have experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence, and pregnancy is the leading cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19.

We need the International Day of the Girl (and a lot of hard work in between) to make sure people know about the challenges facing girls. But, how do we move from awareness to change?

At the moment, the girl movement is led by the catchy cries of the “girl effect”, whose campaign rests on the notion that if you invest in a girl, then “she will do the rest,” pulling herself, her family, her community, and her country out of poverty. It’s a promising claim, and one that has garnered plenty of awareness for the cause of girls across the world. Its aims have been amplified and expanded by conversations such as Plan International’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign or the One Just World Forum’s “Empower a Girl, Change the World” event in September.

In these and other discussions around changing conditions for girls around the world, ’empowerment’ is a frequently used word. Difficult to define and even harder to measure, the word’s meaning has almost become lost with overuse, and is often used synonymously with education. In other words, Educate a Girl, End Poverty.

The importance of education as a tool of empowerment is undeniable. Certainly, it’s promising that big improvements have been made in girls’ access to education. In South Asia, for example, the region’s total number of out-of-school girls dropped from 23 million girls in 1999 to 9.5 million in 2008.

But, enrolment alone does not equal empowerment, and neither does education. I wonder if the girl that I met – the twelve year old mother – would have lived a significantly different and ’empowered’ life with an education. As it stands, she might have gone to primary school. I didn’t ask. In her village, where it’s socially inappropriate for women to work outside the home, would she ever have been able to use her education for economic empowerment? In a community that respects mothers and married women more than childless and single women, it is little wonder that she got married and became pregnant.

There was another young woman from the same village who I met in my first months in Bangladesh. I had asked her what she wanted to be when she finished school and she proudly told me she was going to be a doctor. She’d almost finished her final exams. Months later when I saw her again, she was proud to have graduated and was now focused on her mother’s mission to find her a husband. Becoming a doctor was off the cards because her family didn’t want her to move to Dhaka alone, and they couldn’t afford to pay for it either.

Education, while important, is not a silver bullet. Building schools doesn’t build a pathway to empowerment anymore than tweeting about gender equality does. Both are just steps along a very long and windy path.

Andrea Cornwall, from the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, supports the idea that our current approaches to empowerment are too simplistic. She writes that they’re closer to ’empowerment lite’, stating, “It’s high time to ask whether and how development’s adoption of the term ’empowerment’ has offered women anything that they can use to empower themselves”.

Cornwall argues that existing strategies for gender empowerment still don’t do enough to tackle the structural inequities of our society. While she talks about women, it’s an idea worth considering for girls.

Even if we manage to provide a quality and safe education that gives a girl the skills and opportunities she needs for an ’empowered’ existence, where will she use those skills? How will she seize those opportunities if society doesn’t recognise her empowerment?

If, after she graduates, she can’t get a job where she can use her knowledge, if she can’t earn a fair wage for what she does, if she can’t choose marriage and raise a family on her own terms, has education really empowered her?

Perhaps because empowerment is difficult to define and measure, there is a tendency to equate tools for empowerment (like education) with empowerment itself, and while education offers a good tool, it’s far from the only solution.

Can empowering a girl change the world? Sure. But, it’s a big job, and our strategies have to be multi-faceted and adaptive. Empowering a girl with education needs to occur alongside activities that ensure her the legal rights and social status to embrace and practice that empowerment for the rest of her life. Importantly, empowerment for girls has to take place alongside empowerment for all children and all women.

As such, this is not just a question for the development community; it’s one that the feminist movement has been stuck on for some time. The big sister of girl power – seeking gender equality for women – is still struggling to find the answers in both rich and poor countries.

Recent news events, from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s self-defense against misogyny, the murder of Jill Meagher, and U.S Senator Todd Akin’s comments over “legitimate rape”, show just how far we are from a society that truly values empowered women, let alone empowered girls.

Achieving equality is much harder than raising awareness, but it’s great that girls are on the agenda. Let’s keep them there, and make sure that their empowerment is something that lasts.