By Ed Fletcher, Head of Fundraising & Communications
Empowerment is a word often used by charities, some might say overused. But what does it actually mean, and how does it actually change lives? A literal definition is the ability to give (someone) the authority or power to do something.
Here’s a question…if money was no object, would you rather use your donation to build a school or to empower a children’s advocacy group?
Based on experience, the answer most people give is a school. It’s tangible, you can physically see the results of your donation, and it’s something that almost everybody can relate to. Conversely, what is a children’s advocacy group? What does it do? What is the physical result of your donation, and how does that translate into an impact that can be easily understood?
A few weeks ago, I travelled to Ghana to visit our work in the rural communities of the North, a region that is vastly less developed than the more prosperous South. We have been working here for over 8 years with our local partner with the overarching aim of dramatically improving children’s access to education, and we’ve been incredibly successful at this.
Over 3,000 children are now receiving an education and laying the foundations for a better future. We’ve distributed school uniforms and text books to those whose parents can’t afford these most basic necessities, typical things you would expect to see in an education programme, as well as bicycles so that children aren’t forced to walk up to 15km in the baking heat to get to school in the first place.
And whilst tangible and easy to comprehend, it quickly became obvious that the long term impact of these activities paled in comparison to the Children’s Advocacy Group which whilst intangible and complex to describe is truly transformational for the children of these communities.
This all sounds great, but how does all this actually improve children’s access to education? What does the group actually achieve? This was exactly the question I posed when I met 12 members of the Children’s Assembly of Nanton Kurugu, a community supported by the project.
“Recently, we wrote about the new computers and the opportunities these will give other children”, he rather casually announced.
This revelation from Mr Chairman (his nickname after my attempts to pronounce his name in the local dialect failed with cries of laughter) prompted a river of further questions. I was sitting under a tree in 40-degree heat in a dusty community with an informal economy of roadside stalls where the nearest city was hundreds of miles away. Where did these children get computers? Where could they be used? How did they know how to use them?
Mr Chairman took my questions on board and explained that the computers had come from the local government – Ghana’s equivalent to the local council – and were the latest victory of the Assembly’s lobbying.
This in itself was hugely impressive although what was to come next blew me away.
Mr Chairman continued to elaborate that these computers were now housed in their brand new school building, which the local government had finished building a few months back.
“Sorry, a new school building?” I repeated back to him, half thinking I’d misheard.
With a smile on his face radiating pride, he pointed across to a very smart looking building 300 yards away. Through campaigning newsletters, regular meetings with district officials, and a groundswell of local support, this group of teenagers – this Children’s Advocacy Group – had successfully compelled the government to invest in their education and rebuild the community’s dilapidated school building. There was even a plan to staff this effectively, and make full use of the computers.
What was even more powerful than seeing the physical results of this seemingly innocuous activity, was the clear and obvious pride on the children’s faces as I gazed at them with total admiration. In the space of just a few minutes, I had truly seen what Empowerment looks like.
Not only has empowering these children resulted in a greater practical impact – a new school – than we could ever have hoped for, but this has been achieved at a fraction of the cost of building the school ourselves. Even more powerful is that the impact and learnings of empowering this Children’s Assembly will be passed on from generation to generation.
This is how to create generational change. This is the power of empowerment.
Next time, I’ll be discussing how Women’s Savings Groups are going to eliminate child labour, and drive gender equality in Northern Ghana. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself the same question I posed at the start.