April 24 & 25 2012, Chancho and Sululta, Ethiopia–Heading just 40 km north of Addis along another set of hairpin mountain roads to the villages of Chancho and Sululta. Goal is to visit with our partner ISAPSO and the CFTC-sponsored children and their guardians whom CFTC is supporting with Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and saving and credits schemes.
A stunning view of Addis Ababa lies below to the west for much of the drive, but it is the women walking down the eastern side of the road who catch our attention. They are the poorest of the poor, women who gather wood from the forest and then carry huge bundles of it on their backs all the way down the winding road to Addis. And then they walk back many kilometers to do it all again. Despite all of the progress we are seeing during our visit, this is a sobering reminder that Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world.
ISAPSO (Integrated Service for AIDS Prevention and Support Organization) was founded in 1997 with the mission to support prevention and education on HIV/AIDS to commercial sex workers. This was at a time when HIV/AIDS was growing in Ethiopia. However, they quickly recognized that these women needed alternative livelihoods to sustain themselves and their children and ensure better living conditions. So, since ISAPSO’s first years, they have applied a capacity-building and development model to address broader issues for women and vulnerable children.
We are being hosted by Executive Director Beletu Mengistu, a warm and wonderful woman who has some of her senior team on hand to support the visit, along with their local program staff. We have the privilege of meeting some of the most vulnerable children (“orphans and vulnerable children,” or OVCs) who have been selected by the community to participate in the CFTC sponsorship program.
These are children from some of the poorest families, often women-headed households. Many of them are high achievers in school as a result of the encouragement and resources they’ve received through the sponsorship program. It is great to have the opportunity to ask them what is their favourite course and hear: “environmental science”…”languages”… and of course, “sport!”
We also have the opportunity to speak with the guardians of some of the sponsored children: mothers, grandmothers, stepmothers, aunts, adoptive mothers and other caregivers who are participating in the CFTC-supported Self-Help Groups (SHGs).
Each SHG is comprised of 20 women. With ISAPSO backing, they begin with training in basic bookkeeping, business management, and education on what it means to save. Saving is a new concept to most of them who have spent most of their lives living hand to mouth.
Each woman in an SHG selects a trade in goods or agriculture and is then provided with a small loan — some “seed money” (in some cases, literally!) — to begin their trade. The women meet weekly to discuss social issues, business concerns, address conflict – and also make a deposit into their savings account within the SHG, which the SHG then holds in a bank account.
Many of these women begin by earning 15 to 20 birr a day (and remember that $1 US = 17 birr) so they are living in extreme poverty. And yet they will still find a way to contribute two birr a week – and from this fund will take loans which they will pay off through their savings, and will continue to save.
Some stories are modest. One mother started a home-based coffee and tea business and is now able to buy new clothes for her children.
Some are more ambitious. One grandmother began to grow vegetables and then diversified into chickens and goats. She is now able to pay the costs for all of her children to go to school and to put a new fence around her yard in the home she rents.
Some stories are incredible. A mother with three children lost her husband years ago when her children were small – but with child sponsorship covering the costs of school for her children added to the SHG support, she found the courage to set up a market stall, and then to diversify the goods she was selling. Just recently she was able to buy and build a new house for her family.
Gebriel Galatais, CFTC’s Country Representative in Ethiopia, tells us that building a new house would cost between 5,000 and 10,000 birr. That is impressive for a woman with three children formerly living in extreme poverty on 15 birr a day. “I am happy with my life now” are the simple words she uses to describe the benefits of participating in the program and the incredible changes in her life and those of her children.
What is most noticeable during this visit is the supportive presence of the local government. Officials from the ministries of education, women and children’s affairs, finance, labour, microenterprise and development share the day with us – and are quick to speak to the merits of the work underway by ISAPSO for their local communities and to the government’s ongoing support for these kinds of integrated community development initiatives. The local government has provided valuable land and support for many projects in alignment with the federal government’s national development goals.
In Ethiopia, we are seeing first-hand a great example of what is required for sustainable development: funding from committed donors, creative and transparent initiatives from locally-based organizations, along with a strong and committed governance framework within which development can thrive.