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Community Contribution

"I no longer consider myself poor" and Other Lessons in Sustainability

Mar 21, 2023
Sintayehu Mesele

People always say it best when they are describing the change in their own lives.

…now the community believes that women’s opinions matter…”

“…my living condition has totally changed. I was a woman who had nothing… The biggest change for me is that I no longer consider myself poor...”

“There are no miracles that Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) bring, but rather they change our perspective on being poor, and realizing what we have and our potential. I was one of those considered poor, struggling to cover my family’s food needs. … Now we have no worries about food; we have become self-sufficient …”

What’s remarkable about these quotes is that they represent how equality, incomes, and food security kept growing, even 6 years after the project ended. The Berchi project, also called “Be Strong – Claiming Rights and Promoting Gender Equality” ran from 2013-2015 in Ethiopia, with support from the Austrian Development Agency. It reached 11,000 households. At the end of the project, one woman said that the best benefit of the project was that “now we love each other.” Benefits have continued to pay off, even through COVID-19. In 2021, the team went back to see what was still working for communities.

The changes from the Berchi project weren’t just sustainable, they got better over time. Women and men speak powerfully about how the biggest change for them was their attitudes, and what the community believed about gender equality. Hope and a belief in equality are powerful forces. And those changes kept producing results even after CARE staff stopped hosting activities.

“...what Berchi did is to change our mind. We used to just wait on income generated from only one source, either from farming or food aid. Then we started to save a small amount of money [in Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs)] from the only income source we had. No one was sure this would work, but it did. Through this project, we used our own money to diversify our income…”

How is this happening?

  • People connect in savings groups. While women say that “There are no miracles that VSLAs bring,” they talk about how VSLAs are a place for them to come together, build confidence, build income, and change their perceptions. 67% of people are still in the same savings groups as they were during the course of the project. Furthermore, 45% of all people in the 2021 survey had joined a new savings group since the project ended. Thus, the VSLA groups have continued to grow and form. Many of the new groups were groups that community members formed themselves, because they were so inspired by the groups the Berchi project helped create.
  • Project participants are focusing on restrictive social norms. The project used Social Analysis and Action—a way to change not just individual attitudes, but also the way in which the whole community thinks and talks about equality. Those groups stayed active until they had finished their discussion series. Here is one quote that describes the change in overall attitudes: “ if you ask men why they represented women in the leadership or management position of their VSLA, they would ask you why you ask [such a question], given that it is the right of women to be represented...” The number of people who thought women could not manage meetings dropped from 55% to 5% since the Berchi project ended.
  • Women are gaining more confidence. “We do not just come and sit in the meeting covering our mouths with our scarves. That was what we used to do. Everyone knows now: women do not just sit in silent in meetings, but proactively participate and share constructive ideas...” Another woman tells this story, “One day, I just stood up without waiting for permission, and the men told me that I was not given permission to do so. I was offended and said I did not need permission to exercise my right. That day, our field agent was with us. I felt supported, so I shared my thoughts. The Berchi project provided us training on women’s rights, and raised our consciousness. This enabled me to resist when I felt my rights were being denied. The project enabled the women in our community to develop their capacity to say 'no' and resist violation of our rights.”
  • Project participants are working with religions and community leaders. In terms of social-norms, these people might be called 'norms setters/holders'. In a slightly different context, they might be referred to as 'reference groups.' It’s about what people think others will think of them if they behave differently. Working with community leaders, mothers in law, men, and the whole community changes what is possible, because it opens space for new behavior without fear of punishment. Here’s one example: “...most of the household now discuss their issues jointly. The behavior of the men is changed. They had never wanted to discuss every issue with women, or the rest of the household members. Rather, they used to yell whenever we requested discussion. That culture is now changed...”
  • The project is promoting a culture of discussion. The project opened spaces and habits where people could have a conversation when they wanted something to change, and where they could talk about what benefits everyone. That is making a lasting and growing difference in how community members are approaching their own challenges.

What changes lasted?

  • Income has continued to grow. Participant’s income grew from $80 at the end of the project to $137 in 2021. That is, at minimum, enough growth to keep up with inflation, so people were still benefiting from the improvements they saw during the project, when income doubled.[1]
  • People no longer see themselves as poor. Not only do people no longer see themselves as poor, as the quote at the beginning of this blog suggests, but 36% of project participants have graduated out of government assistance programs.
  • People are self sufficient with their food. Now, 65% of people can meet all of their food needs for 12 months, even during COVID-19. As one woman says, “…we had lost hope. We had never thought that we could move out this food insecurity status. However, Berchi first raised our hopes (...) and then helped [us] to become food self-sufficient. We still are now...”
  • Women are more involved in community decisions. In 2015, 72% of people said women were involved in community decisions. By 2021, it was 86%. 82% of women are now saying women can be good leaders, and 76% of people say the community is more willing to accept and support women leaders than they used to be.
  • Gender Based Violence has gone down. 93% of people say GBV has gone down since the project ended. The number of men who hit their wives for failing to do chores dropped from 13% in 2015 to 6% by 2021.
  • People are making decisions together. In 2015, 53% of people were making joint decisions between men and women. In 2021, this metric had risen to 85%.
  • Women have more access to services. Women’s access to health services rose from 71% to 86%. Their access to finance also rose from 66% to 83%. That’s because more people believe women should be able to control their own lives. As one woman said, “Now no one questions if a woman wants to engage in any type of business…”

Want to learn more?

Check out the post project study here. If interested, you can also look at all of the project evaluations.

 [1] Discrepancies here between income data in end-lines and the 2021 data have to do with the changing exchange rate between ETB and USD. USD conversions in this document were made on November 22, 2022.

 This blog is based on the Berchi post-project sustainability study, which was conducted by a team of consultants from PATH Development Consulting and Research. Namely, Mr. Eshetu Demessie and Mrs. Martha Nemera, of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The blog details one of a series of post project sustainability studies that CARE conducted in 2020 and 2021 to examine the impacts after projects ended.

About the authors
Sintayehu Mesele

Sintayehu Mesele is the Program Quality and Design Director at CARE Ethiopia.