Every day, community members across Africa are working towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In recognition of this year’s MDG week, we will be posting a story each day about how communities are working together to achieve each of these goals, leading their own development from the grassroots.

From the very first session of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), participants envision what the future of their community will look like – the challenges they want to solve and the goals they want to achieve. They also understand that the program promises to deliver nothing overnight, but rather to help them achieve their own goals by teaching them new tools they can use to lead their own development.

In Guinea-Bissau, the CEP is a key part of the government’s national strategy for the reduction of poverty, and aligns with efforts to meet the first Millennium Development Goal: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Achievement of this goal is a slow process of social change that builds over time.

This June, six months after CEP class sessions ended in the first 39 communities to go through the program in Guinea-Bissau, a delegation of government workers and Tostan staff traveled to each community to gather information on their progress. Towards the end of the program in late 2012, each community had been given a community grant of about $800 to manage. The delegation wanted to see if the communities were successful at using their new project management skills, learned during the CEP, to invest these funds in their own development.

In each village, the Community Management Committees (CMCs) were eager to talk about how much they had achieved. Each village had chosen different activities in which to invest the funds, lending some to local entrepreneurs as microcredit, planting collective fields, and purchasing goods in bulk to resell for profit. Overall, the communities were able to double the funds they had been given –in just six months the 39 communities together had generated a total profit of $32,360!

The links between the communities’ CMCs, which were forged throughout different intervillage meetings during the program, have remained strong in Guinea-Bissau, and they are now collaborating on the management of their funds. They share best practices and information they have gathered about the market, and they have even developed a plan for distributing small loans in the sector of Mansabá, where 13 of the communities are located.

In this zone, the CMCs use a house in a central town as their office. Five women from the CMCs manage pooled funds from the communities, distributing them to people who want to invest the funds in small business and undertake to repay them after a certain period. They use their math skills that they learned during CEP class sessions to keep track of the many loans they give out and calculate interest, bringing people from this area a source of credit and generating more money for them to use in the future.

This recent economic success is being used to improve life in the communities in many other ways as well. Nearly all of the 39 communities now run collective gardens. Some of the produce is sold in the market, but most remains within the community. This particular initiative is beginning to address food security needs for the participating communities, making sure everyone has enough to eat, and stay healthy.

Under the management of the CMCs, access to health care has also dramatically improved since the project ended. Each village runs a small health center, where a community member has been trained to diagnose common illnesses. At these health centers, the CMCs manage and sell a stock of basic medicines, using the profits to purchase more medicine and pay a salary to the person managing the center.

These results have already begun to expand to neighboring ‘adopted’ villages, communities with which the CMCs have shared their new information and skills as part of Tostan’s organized diffusion strategy.. On the initiative of the CMCs, a portion of the funds they have generated is now being redistributed to include these other villages.

Despite Tostan’s program ending in the 39 communities in January 2013, six months on, they have shown the sustainability of the program and the impact that leading their own vision of development can have on poverty and human security. 

Story by Matthew Boslego, Tostan