In Africa, lives are improved without handouts

US-based charity Care For Life helps Mozambicans by supporting the goals of community leaders.

When Joao Bueno and his team of field workers first visited the dusty village of Inhamizua, Mozambique, they knew they had a tough sell.

They weren't offering money, food, or help to build houses. They wouldn't dig wells or pay teachers' salaries. All they could do, they told the villagers gathered under a mango tree, was help Inhamizua help itself. The audience of subsistence farmers, already accustomed to scratching a living from this flat swath of southeast Africa, was less than impressed, Mr. Bueno recalls. Some people even told the group to leave.

"They were very suspicious," he says. "Five other organizations had come before us, did lots of paperwork, and never came back. The community doubted we'd do what we said we'd do."

But months later, attitudes in Inhamizua are changing. Residents have built a bamboo school and community center. More than 100 women – about one-quarter of those who live in the village – are in adult literacy classes. As in other Mozambican villages where Bueno's organization, Care For Life, is working, living conditions here have improved. Villagers are repairing roofs, digging latrines, and clearing trash from their yards themselves.

"This is what happens when people realize that they can be self-reliant," Bueno says.

Care For Life, a US-based charity that is staffed primarily with Mozambicans, is at the forefront of what has become a new trend in foreign aid to Africa. After decades of large donor boondoggles – multimillion-dollar highways to nowhere, expensive water pumps that deteriorate after a few years – many aid groups are now focusing on smaller projects that are, at least in theory, designed and controlled by locals.

Large UN organizations like UNICEF and the World Food Programme regularly team with local nonprofits. In aid lingo, "handout" is out, while "capacity building" and "local control" are in. On a macro level, some donor countries – such as the Britain – are giving more aid dollars directly to African governments, with the idea that local officials best know their countries' needs.

"There is a changing view of Africa," says Rhyddid Carter, a spokesman at the UK Department for International Development. "It's not this sort of bottomless pit that you throw money into. There are ways of helping people invest in the communities and to help them from repeating mistakes.... You work with the local people; you work with the local governments."

But in practice, the meaning of "local control" and "sustainability" – two of the current buzz phrases – varies from project to project.

Care For Life, started by Arizona couple Blair and Cindy Packard, treats those concepts as goals.

Ms. Packard, a midwife, first focused on Mozambique after watching footage of the 1999 floods there – in particular, the famous image of a woman giving birth in a tree. When she read about the high child-mortality rate in this region, she decided that she and her husband needed to try to help. In 2000, she visited Mozambique; the next year, she and her husband set up their nonprofit.

At first, the mission was broad: They wanted to alleviate suffering while leaving a sense of self-reliance. (Although the Packards are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as are many of the volunteers with Care For Life, the organization has no formal ties with the Mormon church.) [Editor's note: the original version misidentified the Packard's church.]

The couple began their work in Maputo, the capital. But soon they shifted their operations to the port city of Beira, the capital of Central Mozambique's impoverished Sofala region, where they saw a greater need. HIV infection rates here hover around 37 percent; life expectancy barely hits 40.

At first, the organization handed out food aid, worked with orphanages, and basically tried to do all of the traditional aid organization outreach activities.

But many staff members felt the group was spinning its wheels.

"Before, we didn't have well-defined goals for the communities," says Ana Micas, who has worked with Care For Life since 2001. "So it was very difficult to monitor and see the results. We knew we were doing something, but it wasn't measurable. Everyone who approached us we tried to help, but there wasn't any concern about self-reliance."

Locals allowed to take control

In 2005, Bueno called a staff meeting to talk about how the group might revamp their strategy away from traditional aid donations.

"When I first got here, we used to distribute a lot of stuff," Bueno says. "We used to distribute clothes, food from the World Food Programme.... We've stopped. It's easy to start distributing things. Donors give you dollars, and you buy, and then you give things out. You can invite people to work and help themselves, but you're really sending the opposite message."

The staffers – most of whom are Mozambican – brainstormed and came up with what they called the Family Preservation Program (FPP), an organizational structure that involves a network of households, villages, and field workers all dedicated to goals chosen by the community.

While the staff helps guide community members through this FPP process, after three years in any village, they leave and let locally chosen leaders take over. At no point does the group give food, medical, or monetary aid. At most they offer "rewards" of building materials to families who have met their own goals – repairing their roof, for instance, or planting a vegetable garden.

The staff also discussed how to incorporate literacy and HIV prevention programs into the FPP model. (Care For Life's child-focused HIV curriculum, called Stay Alive, has received both criticism and praise for its abstinence-only approach. The Packards no longer run the organization – they are serving a three-year mission in Mozambique for their church.)

Care For Life started shifting some of its other policies as well. In December 2005, the group stopped distributing World Food Programme food aid to villagers; previously, it had been the WFP contractor for a number of communities. The move angered government officials, many local families, and even some staffers. But Bueno said the organization had become convinced that food distribution as a tool to alleviate poverty was counterproductive – an incentive for villagers to appear poorer.

(There is a longstanding debate about food aid – World Food Programme officials believe that alleviating hunger is necessary to reduce poverty.)

How one village was transformed

The first village Care For Life approached with its Family Preservation Program was Mbatwe, a low-lying village of about 240 families in the flight path of the Beira airport.

Today, a walk through Mbatwe shows a transformed place. Unlike most of the impoverished communities nearby, there is hardly any trash or overgrowth around Mbatwe's small huts. Many of the roofs have been changed from thatch to aluminum. Almost every home has a tarimba – a sort of counter where families can store their cooking pots off the ground – and many have separate kitchen buildings. When Care For Life first started working in the village in 2005, there were only 15 latrines for the entire population. Today there are 119.

"You have to accept that people can change," says Celestino Fombe, a Care For Life field worker. "When we first visited Mbatwe, people were going to the bathroom on the road. It smelled very bad. Now it is paradise – once they accepted that change was possible."

Some Mbatwe residents, such as François Moliowa, have even built flower trellises around their properties – something almost unseen in most struggling communities here.

Mr. Moliowa, a tailor, moved to Mbatwe five years ago, and now lives in a small plastered house with his wife, son, and nephew, an orphan they took into their home last year. Moliowa ducks into the house to grab a piece of paper on which he had written his goals for the past year: Build a kitchen hut; treat drinking water; improve roof; help a neighbor. He shows the check mark after each goal.

"It was a change after Care For Life came here," he says. "Before, there was garbage everywhere, there was no unity. Most of the houses had no doors. We never drank treated water."

Today, he says, the village is much healthier. And at this point, he adds, it doesn't matter whether the Care For Life field workers come or go.

"This is how we want to live," he says, "It is habit now."

Some other small nonprofits – such as the India-based Rising Star Outreach – have contacted Bueno with questions about how to use Care For Life's methods. And even the government has recognized the changes.

Maria Semedo, the Sofala director of the National Council for Combating HIV-AIDS spoke in Mbatwe in June and praised Care For Life.

"I would like to ask an applause for CFL," she said, according to a statement she released after the event. "I would like also to ask an applause for the community of Mbatwe that accepted the challenges. The community of Mbatwe accepted CFL proposals, and the government has no other thing to do than to keep encouraging you, as you do everything that is needed to support Mbatwe and other communities so they can find a better way to live."

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