Lifting people out of extreme poverty? It is possible!

To lift the most vulnerable people out of their misery, it takes more than just providing them with resources and broadening their knowledge. Good self-esteem and belonging to solidary communities are crucial as well. Auto-Développement Afrique successfully applies this holistic approach in Rwanda and Burundi.

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Sewing people in a row with sewing machines


UPDATE January 2023: positive evaluation

The LIVE project (Lutte Intégrée contre la Vulnérabilité et l'Exclusion) discussed in this article has been the subject of an impact assessment that shows very positive results of a multidimensional approach to lifting the poorest rural households out of poverty. The assessment included interviewing some 650 beneficiary and non-beneficiary farmers.

Most relevant conclusions :

  • LIVE has had a wide and significant impact on food security, economic situation, resilience, and well-being of very vulnerable farmers
  • LIVE also had a positive impact on the lives of less vulnerable farmers due to the trainings received, even though this impact was lower than for the very vulnerable farmers
  • In relative terms, LIVE beneficiaries suffered less from the COVID-19 crisis
  • LIVE has contributed to the adoption of responsible environmental practices within the communities supported, making a significant impact in terms of soil preservation
  • LIVE has fostered gender equality and women’s empowerment within households and communities
  • The changes observed tend to be sustainable and the spreading of positive effects towards the people in the neighborhood has the potential to continue into the future

Claudine was living an isolated life, ashamed of her situation. She had no cattle, no home and not even decent clothes. Today she looks radiant in her self-made tunic. ‘I have a sense of dignity,’ she says. ‘I can buy food, lend money to the neighbours and make clothes for my family so that they can feel good. This makes me really proud of myself.’

No poverty

Béata also hardly left her home and did not talk to anyone. She felt too ashamed about her poverty and lived completely on the margins of her community. ’I lived alone and couldn't even buy a bar of soap. The social workers gave me confidence again. Thanks to them, I had the courage to meet my neighbours again. Today, I feel good. I do interesting things and even dream of having my own boutique.’

Esron lived in a straw hut and had no means to feed his family properly. He had no cattle and could not even cultivate his land, as he had no rake, seeds, manure or knowledge. Today he has overcome his problems. ‘I feel worthwhile and proud. Within my community, I have become someone. When I was still in my straw hut, I never dreamed of living the kind of life I live today.’

Woman with paper bag

Once Béata hardly came outside, but today she feels very well. © ADA

Paralysed by shame

How do you lift people out of (extreme) poverty? These 3 witnesses, all beneficiaries of the Belgian NGO Auto-Développement Afrique (ADA) in Rwanda, mentioned it already. Giving them resources and knowledge is not enough. Poor people often have very low self-esteem. And that keeps them from changing their situation.

ADA specialises in assisting the most vulnerable people. The NGO noticed that this group is very often left out. These people tend to live on the margins of their community, to such an extent that they do not even qualify for a “normal” development project. Their miserable situation makes them too ashamed of themselves. Often, they are even too afraid to attend mass or a village fair.

Development projects usually start from a base: in many cases the participants should have something to start with. For instance, some projects focus on the (small) herd of poor people, but that implies owning a herd. Others support cooperatives to process agricultural products, but then the members have to have some farmland at their disposal. Extreme marginal people don’t have anything.

ADA also found that the most vulnerable people often do not have the strength to get started. They are old, malnourished, ill... As a result, they are unable to take part in a traditional development programme.

Finally, they have hardly received any training and they face social and psychological problems.

Man with wool

Once Esron could not feed his family properly, but today he has become someone in his community. © ADA

Solidary communities

These highly marginalised people clearly need a different approach. ADA was inspired by ATD Fourth World. This movement has been working with the poorest people for over 100 years, in Europe and all over the world. According to ATD, people living in extreme poverty must unite in solidary communities in order to find the means to leave poverty behind. As they are among equals, it is easier for them to get rid of their shame.

They have to think together, help each other and create a common savings pot. In doing so, they can undergo a personal and social transformation that allows them to overcome their reflexes of fear and exclusion.

There is, however, a weakness in this vision. These extremely vulnerable people are supposed to find their own resources, as ATD does not provide them. And that makes it a long process with sometimes indistinct results.

Community works together in field

In solidarity-based communities, extremely vulnerable people support each other. © ADA

Holistic approach

For that reason, ADA developed its own approach. It combines training and material support with psychosocial counselling, both for the individual (problems at family level…) and for the collective (animation of solidary communities, mediation, helping each other, as well as common projects).

These solidary communities appear to be remarkably sustainable. Even after completion of the project, people continue to help each other. Moreover, these groups can grow into fully fledged agricultural cooperatives that function impeccably.  

ADA’s holistic approach can be summarised in 3 key points:

  1. Resources:

Access to production resources that are necessary to make the most of farming and to become financially independent. For example: land, small-scale livestock farming, tools, seeds and manure. But also diversification: focus on various products (vegetables, cattle…) in order to spread risks and play safe…

  1. Knowhow:

Not only professional agricultural training, but also training with regard to all possible aspects of the beneficiaries’ daily life: health and hygiene, rights, women's rights (gender), reproductive health, a balanced diet... It is crucial that the beneficiaries know their rights and know that they can claim them. Ignorance and lack of education are important factors that condemn them to vulnerability.

3.   Will (social skills):

Social assistants continuously assist people in boosting their self-esteem. Vulnerable people need to become aware of their self-worth, to feel that they are in no way inferior to others.

By working around these 3 points, vulnerable people can grow into powerful people full of self-confidence. As a result, they feel confident about their ability to achieve a goal. This is often reflected in the form of leadership and entrepreneurship. Many find a way to generate their own income. They go through a remarkable transformation and become more resilient. They are now able to cope with setbacks (illness, climatic hazards, family problems...) and have lifted themselves out of vulnerability for good.

ADA's method proved to be extremely successful and has quickly led to sustainable results. As such, the NGO has found a niche in which it complements NGOs such as Broederlijk Delen, Dierenartsen Zonder Grenzen and Entraide & Fraternité. But also the local administrations in Rwanda and Burundi greatly appreciate its projects.

Lifting people out of extreme poverty? It is possible!

How does ADA approach the most vulnerable people?

‘In other projects, the agronomist or the veterinarian is the most important person, however, in our project it’s the social assistants,’ says Nathalie Rucquoy, responsible for ADA.

It starts by identifying the most vulnerable people. To do that, the social assistants consult the local health centres and the local authorities. For example, the health centres keep lists of malnourished children.

Then they present the project in a village meeting chaired by the village chief. As a result, the people in the community are well informed and can help to decide who is eligible. ‘That prevents jealousy,’ says Rucquoy.

Once the list has been drawn up, the social assistant contacts the vulnerable people selected. Usually they accept to participate. Then the social assistant brings together 12 to 15 vulnerable people from the same village who then meet regularly.

The first training is about “living in peace with oneself and with one's environment”. Rucquoy: ‘The participants learn to forgive themselves as well as others. They become conscious that, even when they are very poor, they have a value and identical rights to other people. They also understand that they are stronger when they unite. Furthermore, participants receive training in mediation, non-violent communication and the importance of words.’

‘The assistants organise regular meetings and often do home visits. This way they become more like a big sister or substitute mother. During the first year, the participants gradually lose their shame. They feel more at ease during social interactions. They are no longer afraid to go to church and are even invited to a wedding, for example.’

‘The majority of the vulnerable people are very happy to participate,’ Rucquoy concludes. ‘Yet the project does not appeal to 4-5% of the people because they struggle with severe mental problems as a consequence of the genocide.’

  • Minister for Development Cooperation Meryame Kitir has put the eradication of extreme poverty at the centre of her policies. Eradication of poverty is also the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG1).  

ADA is a partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation.