THE 6-S Association is a unique organization on the African continent. Based in Burkina Faso, the association, whose name in French stands for ``Using the dry season in the savanna and the Sahel,'' is active throughout the Sahel. A growing number of observers believe it points a new way toward a more efficient and less charity- oriented, Western-controlled form of aid. Nearly all the members of the 6-S General Assembly, the chief governing body, are peasants. ``Six-S is not only a model approach for Africa, but for the whole third world, because the decisionmaking process is really in the hands of the farmers themselves,'' says Paul Jubin, project chief of Lentenaction, a Roman Catholic private voluntary organization based in Switzerland. ``Northern NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] have to accept the fact that more and more our funds will be managed in an autonomous manner by peasant organizations themselves.''
Six-S channels the funds it receives from private and government donors in Europe to various peasant organizations and village groups without knowing what the funds will be used for. Instead of ``project aid,'' in which the payer too often pulls the strings, it is ``trust aid'': The donor (6-S) trusts that the recipient will spend the money wisely, and above all, in the spirit of self-help that is the cornerstone of 6-S philosophy. For village projects, the money is made available on a loan basis: The village has to pay it back with interest once the project pays off. By and large, the system functions remarkably well.
It is in great part because of this unique system of funding that the Sahel is so far ahead of other parts of Africa in terms of organized grass-roots peasant movements.
``We are 6-S,'' says Ibrahim Seck, a peasant organizer from Diogo, Senegal. Bara Biomb'el'e, the village chief of Dogani-B'er'e, adds, ``Six-S is for us a symbol of hope. With 6-S, we achieved things we never even imagined we could achieve.''
Ferdnand Vincent, founder of a Geneva-based NGO that establishes links between hundreds of peasant groups on three continents, says, ``Farmers never think in terms of projects, and the unique originality of 6-S is to have understood this and to have made self-management a reality at the grass roots.''
Typical of the spirit of self-help fostered by 6-S is the following story told by co-founder Bernard Bouedraogo: A village women's group received a small diesel-powered mill to grind grain. An elderly, illiterate woman suggested the following:
``Each woman who wants to grind her grain must pay something,'' she said. ``We will put the money aside in a special fund. When we have saved enough money, we will purchase a new mill and give it to a neighboring village. It will be a `daughter mill,' because in our villages girls marry outside their own village. We will then continue putting money aside till we have enough to buy a second mill. It will be a `son mill,' who will stay in the village (as our sons do), to replace the `father mill,' who by then will be ready for retirement.''
To date, dozens and dozens of villages throughout the Sahel have adopted this simple system of funding their own projects. It was invented by an elderly illiterate peasant - one of Africa's 350 million solutions.