The person at the center
Recognizing the centrality of the person has been a crucial issue for AVSI, all along its 46 years of history and even today continues to be pivot of all its activities and projects, regardless of the changing winds in international development cooperation.
This process is capable of bringing about real change. So much change and “success” that lately this approach has been almost "hijacked" by others actors, including in the business world, who discovered the ability to move the market with a person-centered approach.
For us it means starting from the knowledge and recognition of the actual need of vulnerable people, who always equipped with unique resources. It means to build a development / enhancement project with and for the "vulnerable" person, in an equal relationship—the project and the “beneficiary”.
The specific goal of women’s empowerment for us becomes part of this foundation: when integrated with all the other objectives of the 2030 agenda - and here we want to highlight Sustainable Development Goal 16 (Peace Justice and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions) - it requires a new relationship among people (beneficiaries, cooperation actors and donors, institutions, businesses). Such relationships can be equal when they are based on an integral awareness of onese. lf that the person, even the most vulnerable, can and must discover.
A person aware of his/her value
We are going to listen Teddy Bongomin and Felicity Acan, two strong women from Uganda with different life histories but a similar message: they are both going to witness to us through their lives and their networks of relationships where an effective process of women’s empowerment originates and how it is built.
AVSI has already learned from them that the starting point of every empowerment process is regaining awareness of one’s own value: the recognition of oneself and one's dignity as a good that can never be stamped out or reduced, that no circumstance in the world (not even poverty, violence, abuse) can define, overwhelm or remove.
AVSI has seen this time and time again in all countries where we operate: nothing can stop a woman who has discovered her own value, because such a discovery makes her generative, capable of setting in motion a development process, investing the whole community. It cannot be stopped.
I could see it travelling in the deep villages of Burundi, Mozambique, Uganda or Kenya: I am thinking of the village level savings groups that are often proposed as an integral part of our projects.
These women are eager to take a step forward for themselves and their children; they attend the savings groups meetings regularly and do not give up.
1,625 village savings and credit groups have been set up in Uganda as part of the SCORE project, with a total of 37,000 members who saved together nearly $4 million US dollars (3,889,055 million dollars). The protagonists of this work were 80% women.
The aim of the SCORE Project (Sustainable Comprehensive Responses for Vulnerable Children and their Families) was to seek sustainable responses to the needs of vulnerable children and their families: 208 thousand people involved, 34 thousand families reached, 50 partners for the implementation of the project, over 200 staff members engaged. Funded by USAID and implemented by AVSI Uganda and a consortium of NGOs, SCORE’s goal was to develop internal relationships within the communities, fostering linkages with local institutions, rather than focusing on the mere distribution of goods or services.
Women have been the actual protagonists of this highly successful project that proved the effectiveness of the graduation model: customized support to the person on her path towards independence.
I have been traveling in the field for over two decades, and I can say I have very seldom seen the happiness and satisfaction I saw on the faces of the women who were “graduating” out of the SCORE project. In general, a beneficiary fears exiting a project, because s/he thinks that she will lose a cover, a protection and necessary support. Instead, through this graduation model of empowerment, these women were eagerly looking forward to graduation. Graduation meant they were ready to start their own business activity, to become masters of themselves and protagonists of their destiny.
I believe that women’s empowerment that begins with women, and that cannot exclude partnerships with all the components of society, can be defined as a generative process because it includes in itself the keys of development: i.e. conceiving something new, giving life to it, and then letting it go for the good of the whole community. Three steps that implement other processes of development.
Thus a positive empowerment and dignity process radiates from the experience of a single empowered person.
From bottom to top: advocacy and experience in the field
In all this there is however a fundamental corollary: it is the common theme of our meeting today. For any advocacy or work to influence policy, we must start from the bottom, as the women who walked with us always say.
There are countries that have excellent laws obtained after long battles of advocacy at the table of important institutions. But these laws do not always work if there is no cultural change in the community.
The fact is that this change cannot be imposed exclusively from the top. No communication campaign will succeed in replacing the direct personal experience of a project that involves the person to the last fiber and makes her discover that she can do it.
The point is to support women to discover their value in the field, in the villages, where they are victims of abuse or are only intended for roles conceived in patriarchal systems.
We must always work on two levels - advocacy and concrete projects in the field - starting from the bottom, listening to real needs on a parity level.
There is no longer any “us” and “them”. The achievement of each of the women we meet is our achievement.