Helping People to Help Themselves

Astrid Ramge
Astrid Ramge was in charge of Corporate Communications at MetaDesign in Berlin, Germanys leading Corporate Identiy and Branding agency, during the last ten years. Now she is getting involved in various projects concerning Web 2.0 and political, cultural and business changes.

 

Alexander Rausch
Alexander Rausch works as a consultant and system coach. His motto is to help people to help themselves no matter if the problems are private or business related. He serves a wide range of people within our society – unemployed poor families as well as succesful business people.

 

Ulrike Reinhard
Ulrike Reinhard, founder of we-magazine. Trained as an economist. Since she left university, she has been self-employed in various fields. 1987 she had her first e-mail account at The Well. The past ten years she has travelled the world extensively, always looking for better ways to think and act. She is deeply committed to the network she inhabits.

 

“We support Benin” (WeBenin) seeks to provide unbureaucratic effective assistance to people and initiatives in Benin, helping them to empowerment or self-responsibility and self-determination. WE spoke with the initiators of WeBenin, Ulrike Reinhard, freesoul and founder of we-magazine, and Alexander Rausch, creative coach and trainer, always on the look-out for new forms of moderation and group work, about their experiences and the lessons learned from this project which they started in 2008. The two of them hit on Benin because it’s one of the poorest countries in Africa but also because of the personal bonds tying them to the land: the late father of Ulrike’s son came from Benin. WeBenin is not an association or foundation but has consciously chosen a “formless” kind of outreach that relies on voluntary helpers, trust, donations, and campaigns and harnesses the power of networks.

 

In 2008 when you started your Initiative you spent two weeks in Benin and you returned there again in 2009. What are conditions of life like there and what challenges do you meet in Benin?

Alexander >
Benin is one of the poorest countries on earth. The cities are teeming with people who’ve escaped from the countryside in search of a better future. In the rural areas you find those typical African round huts with straw roofs and village wells. There’s no kind of infrastructure. Then you have the smaller towns most of which have an internet cafe and a power supply. The bigger villages like Aledjo have  at least a rudimentary infrastructure with a few public telephones but electricity only for a number of houses or huts and then only at certain times of day. Water comes in a bucket from a well. And internet access – when it’s there – is comparable to the time of the first modems in Europe.
Schools in rural areas are few and far between so the only children who go to school are those whose parents can afford to pay bus fares. Or children who can walk around 10 km a day to school and back. This means that education is a luxury beyond the reach of most people. The level of education throughout the country is very low and the majority of people can neither read nor write.
Language is another big problem. A legacy of the long period of French colonialization is that French is the official language of the country. Yet the rural areas and villages have a great number of very different dialects which often creates major language barriers.

When you started your WeBenin project in 2008, your networks here in Europe began collecting computers, cell phones and money to pass them on to people and initiatives in Benin. All this was under the slogan “Help people to help themselves”. How has your projected shaped up to present and what kind of experiences have you made?

Alexander >
Our vision is to network the people in the country so they can give one another mutual support and assistance and develop their OWN problem-solving skills and abilities, and their OWN ideas and projects which they can then share and pass on yet further. So that the country can awaken to new life from the inside and under its own steam, and so that the people themselves can live autonomous lives of the kind they want, of the kinds that match their own reality.
Even so, the lack of infrastructure I’ve just talked about meant that an internet-based project of the type we’d originally thought about was realizable only on a very small scale. Another factor we had to take into account was the very high illiteracy rate in the country which meant that any internet work would have to be limited to videos or podcasts. But videos and podcasts need fairly high data transmission rates – and they’re simply not around!!
All this wasn’t what we’d imagined and it certainly wasn’t what we’d been hoping for. It would have been great, for instance, to set up some form of partnership between schools in Germany and classes in Benin. But it was immediately obvious that this kind of option was a complete no-go. And it’s for similar sorts of reasons that we’ve had to put other international projects which we’d have loved to realize with the internet on ice for the time being – like exchanges with people in other poor parts of the world.
But cell phones are common in Benin as they are throughout the whole of Africa. And with the various different networks operating in the regions, people in Benin very often have several phones. We had no difficulty in distributing our cell phones even though our phone campaign was only a drop in the ocean! But it’s still true that the cell phone in Africa does indeed offer a viable – and very often the only – alternative for implementing e.g. educational projects.
And we did have our first small successes. In Aledjo we were able to set up a computer room where children, young people and adults too could make their first steps towards computer proficiency. And we could also establish the internet to a certain    extent through “mobile sticks”. We’re optimist that the internet problem can be solved – development continues apace and the sticks are only the beginning.
Another milestone was the support we were able to offer through our donations to the women’s organization ADRIA in Aledjo in setting up a regional project. We bought a quantity of sacks of fertilizer which ADRIA then distributed in the regions using a system of micro-loans. Another idea we had was to transfer ADRIA’s micro-financing model to the neighboring locality of Massi. So watch this space!
In line with our guiding principle “Help people to help themselves” it’s paramount for us to get people in Benin to provide mutual support and assistance for one another. No matter whether it’s the women of ADRIA who pass on their knowledge to other women, or individual computer experts like the “village admin” who develop their own skills and abilities and train others, the important thing is to have a multiplication effect in the out-reach.
Generally speaking, our greatest challenge was and still is education and building up networks and the internet in a country where the conditions on the ground aren’t particularly auspicious. Yet Benin does have the great advantage of being a politically stable country with a government which is very receptive to receiving outside help. In this sense we see great opportunities for driving our project forwards through continuous development of the technology and partnerships with other projects which have dealt with similar sets of circumstances.

Ulrike >
From the word go we didn’t want to adopt any “top down” approach and appear as the clever know-it-alls. What we wanted to do was to listen, to identify the actual pressing problems and then motivate people to use their own steam and their own sense of personal responsibility to help themselves.
In summer 2009 our initiative was able to place two volunteers from Germany in Aledjo, two young women who after graduating from high school took a year off for voluntary social work. I brought the two of them to Aledjo last summer and helped them get their bearings. They are now supporting Mme Abibai on the micro-credits program and working as German and French teachers in the school.
Unfortunately it quickly became apparent here that it’s not at all easy to familiarize volunteers and Europeans with just what “Help people to help themselves” actually involves. Even volunteers have a very highly ingrained sense of security and a hierarchical way of thinking. So, on their own initiative, these two young women sought out the local branch of the German Development Service (DED) in an effort, as it were, to get the official blessing and authorization on their current positions. This was a move that we certainly hadn’t planned for and which will probably lead to the projects we’ve started in Aledjo being staffed in future by DED volunteers – which will force us either to become entangled in bureaucracy and take us association status or to strike out in new directions. This is a rather unfortunate situation for us but it does serve to show once more how thinking on both sides – both people in poor regions and aid volunteers – still remains deeply colored by the dualism of “You’re rich and have go to help us” versus “We know what’s best for you”. We need to do a great deal more work to persuade people out of these ruts.

Personal relations, personal initiatives and personal relationships are very much at the forefront of your project. Can’t that sometimes also be an impediment when you’re trying to support people and trying to act in an equitable and impartial manner?

Alexander >
WE wanted to do something in Africa and we chose Benin because that was where the father of Ulrike’ son Tim came from. So right from the beginning we had a personal connection with the country. And we also involved the family in Benin – Tim’s uncle accompanied us for the most part of our travels. Then as now, what we wanted to do embody and live out our principle “help people to help themselves” through our own personal relations so that the people on the ground would understand this spirit and carry it forward.
Obviously justice is a very difficult thing to guarantee but it’s got nothing to do with personal relation-ships. The big NGOs can’t guarantee justice either. But our project had the vision that personal bonds and network building would somehow result in more justice. Because when a network widens, more and more people have the chance to take part in it so that ultimately everybody can benefit. Powered by self-responsibility and people’s own actions, it will have an impact over and beyond local boundaries and inspire people to take their own futures in their hands. Established NGOs often export their own view of things with what they believe are the proper courses of action to be taken. WE on the other hand want to get to know the personal connections, the individual worlds in which people live, and work from inside to motivate them to autonomous action.

What have you learnt about the needs of people in Benin? In the light of your present experience, what is the best way to support them?

Ulrike >
Given the staggering poverty there, it’s quite certain that 80% of the population are involved in a bare struggle just to survive from day to day. For women every day at sunrise this means trudging the long way to the fields with a child on their  back, another in their hand and a heavy weight of “baggage” balanced on their head. Day in day out without the slightest hope of change or improvement.
It wasn’t the poverty that shocked me in our travels through the country. No, the people might be chronically poor but they have a tremendous zest for life – something that is lacking in us here. What depressed me and what depresses me still is that there are countless numbers of people there who simply don’t see any chance of a better future. They’ve almost resigned and accepted their lives as they are without the slightest hope for the future. We’ve been into schools and gazed into faces that I shall never forget for as long as I live: emptiness, emptiness, sheer emptiness. Not a trace of pride or dignity. Possibly just the hope that when whites appear they might be given a handout. But that is precisely not the way to do it! These people don’t need handouts and they don’t need someone to show them or tell them how they can best survive in their own country. They know that already!
We have to reawaken to new life everything that has been destroyed by long decades of development work and the behavior of the former colonial masters. We have to restore these people to their dignity and recognize them and view them as our equals in the ecosystem of the earth. We can help them sustainably and for the long term – if we only let them be themselves.
My dream is to hear more people in Benin saying “Yes, we can!” and to see more people like Mme. Abiba take control of things with her own two hands and get them done. You can help them to find their own way but then you have to let them go it alone. And that will only happen on a broad basis if WE say to them “Yes you can do it!” If we give them back their dignity and treat them with respect and are willing to learn from them the whole host of things that they can do and we can’t!
And it is important – even if it’s very hard when you look into the empty faces of the poorest of the poor as an affluent European – it’s important to say to them “We haven’t got any handouts for you. You have to do it by yourselves – and you can do it!”
That’s the only way we’re going to make a permanent change for the better!

From the very beginning you’ve relied heavily on the mechanisms of the network, both for those giving and those receiving. Calls for donations on the Web, in blogs and so on. How is your network now shaping up on both sides?

Ulrike >
For us the internet is the key instrument, on the one hand for enabling education and on the other for promoting and building up the networks internal to Benin across the world. That is a vital basic requirement that’s needed if the people in all the countries of this world are to gradually build a form of life that makes life livable for all. This is a development that the governments of the world are going to have to come to terms with over the next few years. The internet has turned the world into a global village.
In Benin we’ve created the first node. How this will develop in future depends solely on the people there and how relevant network content is to their daily lives. The network is tremendously useful for our work in terms of donations and information, and it also brings us into contact with similar kinds of projects. As we’ve learnt, it functions extremely well!

And what does the future look like for WeBenin? What’s the next step you’re planning?

Ulrike >
I intend to return to Benin in early August. With two main things on the agenda: firstly, we want to find out how we can use the Free Radio Network there to build a network infrastructure, and secondly we want to start preparations for building our library in Aledjo at long last. If everything goes according to plan, the architects Johannes Hucke and Barbara Quentin will be coming with me and we’re going to talk with the people on the ground on how to take further measures to promote reading and writing in the region. The idea is to start with a group of about 20 women in Aledjo and to work out a way with them how they can best teach the other inhabitants of their villages to read and write.

Do you have any connections now to similar projects in other countries?

Ulrike >
No, this sort of connection doesn’t exist in any physical sense even though it’s something we’re very much thinking about. We do think that projects that have been successful in other countries – including countries outside of Africa – could be transferred to Benin. We don’t mean classical development projects but rather those initiatives mainly sponsored by private individuals which start out on a modest small scale and which like we do subscribe to the “help people to help themselves” principle. Projects which make people strong in their dignity and which put them into a position where they’re able to build something themselves – projects that I call “enablers”.
In particular, I’m thinking about the Cinema Jenin project which is also discussed in this edition of we-magazine. So why not build a cinema with a media square in Porto Nuovo or Naittingou? This would have the advantage that the partners in Jenin certainly have all the know-how needed to set up a project of this kind in Benin and we can simply learn the lessons of what they’ve done in Jenin. Film in Africa is a huge topic.
We’ve also been following a project in Winneba, Ghana with very keen interest. Winneba is a town about 100 km west of Accra on the coast where what is known as a NIC or Network-Improved Communities was set up with help from the Free Radio Network from Berlin and an initiative from Taiwan. The technical infrastructure comes from Berlin while on the local level people are schooled in using PCs and networks by Taiwanese students. The people who’ve had their training then go on to train others so there’s a snowball effect.
The Free Radio Network enables many small units to share the low network costs which means they can be connected to the Net. Such a structure could be applied to Aledjo and enable communication between various localities without any of them being linked to the internet backbone. When you think how hard it is for most people just to cover the 20 km to the next village, it’s easy to see what kind of benefits such a system would bring with it. Both Winneba and Nigeria too – in places where these NICs are now part of everyday life – have seen a considerable rise in the living standards of the  stakeholders in terms of educational level and income.

People everywhere are now seizing initiatives off the beaten track and fighting for a better and more livable world. There’s an uprising among the culturally creative. Would you label yourselves as such? And do you see any signs of an emerging new trend or movement comparable with the environmental movement?

Ulrike >
I don’t like being put in boxes! But I do indeed think that you can speak of the formation of a movement that bypasses the traditional channels of development aid. In my view it’s exactly the same phenomenon we can see in politics, education or in enterprises: if something can’t make a breakthrough in its proper system or just takes an incredibly amount of time about it, it goes ahead and builds its own  system. And that’s much easier to do nowadays than it was 10 years ago, thanks in great part to the advent of the Internet. On the one hand having    access to the Internet means that people can now clearly see and hear those previously unknown and oh so remote places, while on the other new media also enable the rapid and effective networking of all those who want to get active.

To what extent has the WeBenin project changed your outlook or your reality? Do you view the world differently now to the way you viewed it two years ago?

Alexander >
For me personally my view of things has changed because I now know what it means to have lived out Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the world is a global village” in my own person. The internet and the network have shown us that there are a great number of people out there ready and willing to give immediate and “easy” help and support. The blogs didn’t just ask for donations, they also spread the news about us and this attracted more and more new “helpers” to swell our ranks. Ulrike too has had a lot of instantaneous support and feedback per Twitter from Los Angeles and other parts of the world. To keep it short, this is the first time that I’ve really understood the network principle on such a huge scale and I’ve really “caught the bug”. Network communication is ultimately the very best means of helping people and of hopefully creating a better world.
I always used to be aware that I myself bore sole responsibility for the kind of life I wanted to lead. WeBenin has now shown me that we can reach the whole world with the internet and that by working together in networks we can slowly but surely take more control over what our lives should look like. The opportunities it offers are breathtaking! Many many people are now using them and their numbers are continually growing. Since Benin, all my thinking is along the “open tracks” of self-organization, networks, the global village. So WeBenin has changed my life as a whole by changing my way of thinking. It’s a wonderful feeling even though it does give you a very stark view of the degree of (personal) responsibility you bear for the whole!



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