“Helping Oneself”

Last week, I went on my first field visit to a self-help group in Adama, a calm and quaint city about an hour and a half outside of Addis. Though the visit was only for a day, it was a great learning experience that left me excited for future field visits that I plan to take during my time here.

Our group was accompanied by a field coordinator and a translator who interpreted the women’s messages from Oromo to English. It was great hearing from the women directly about the ways that they responded to the drought crisis that occurred earlier in the year. Many faced hardship but they attested to the benefit of being part of a support system like the self help group during the challenging period.

During our last focus group interview, one of the women discussed her methods of coping with the impacts of the drought. She mentioned that she thought an increase in capital from the organization could help her and the other ladies gain some footing while still dealing with the aftermath of the crisis. The coordinator, almost on cue, immediately told the women that the purpose of the self-help group was to indeed “help oneself” and that they should rely on their own potential, while avoiding asking for handouts from others. I did not feel that the coordinator was being cold or malicious in his response, and I understood that the organization may not have had the necessary resources at the time to provide them with an increase in capital, but I still struggled with his response. After all, the women were successfully following the self-help group model established by the organization, but it was clear that in the wake of the drought, it was not quite enough. It was obvious that the women could have used more assistance from the government or from their organizing institution. This could have ultimately improved their self-reliance by offering them a chance to increase their savings and support their methods of livelihood. I couldn’t quite agree with the “pull yourself up from the bootstraps” sentiment that the coordinator employed, it is never fairly applied. Of course, it’s easy for  someone who is well-off to rely on themselves, but it’s unreasonable to ask a woman who is identified as being economically disadvantaged, hence her involvement in the self-help group, to do so. The self-help group approach is definitely useful— I’m sure that every woman who is a part of one, strives to be economically independent (and many are well on their way), but it cannot be the single approach taken to economically empower women, helping yourself is a wonderful thing, but only possible when you have the means to do so and that usually requires a solid foundation. Some may need a little help building this foundation. Receiving such help, does not take away from one’s self-reliance, instead, it provides an opportunity for us to channel our natural potential.