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Investing in humanity


In Burundi, the power of volunteering is helping many communities out of poverty, aid dependence and food insecurity.

One of the areas most affected by the 1993 ethnic violence and the subsequent years of civil strife in Burundi was the north-western province of Bubanza. The area’s proximity to Kibira forest — a source of food and a good hiding place for the warring parties — exposed many people here to painful times that they wish to forget.
“Utter pain and desperation,” is how 30-year-old Habonimana Floride sums up life in Bubanza during the years of fighting.

Now a Red Cross volunteer in the Munanira local unit of Bubanza province, Floride works with 51 other volunteers to bring back a measure of hope and food security to a countryside that was once one of Burundi’s breadbaskets. “We realized that we could not moan over our losses forever and had to pull our collective efforts together for a greater impact,” she says.

With the help of National Society’s provincial staff, they formed a Red Cross unit and started planting cassava on farmland donated by one of the staff members. They sold the first harvest and from the proceeds bought three goats. “Who would have ever imagined that three goats would be the window of greater cohesion for a community with such a dark past of division and the curse of poverty?” asks Floride.

From those first three goats, another 16 soon arrived. Impressed by the commitment and volunteer structures put in place by the Munanira unit, Burundi Red Cross headquarters donated another three. “This gesture encouraged us to start an income-generating initiative,” says Floride.

The group then began leasing land where it now farms pineapples on a larger scale. “The manure from the goats also came in handy in improving the quality of the pineapples,” she adds. “The land in Bubanza is not very productive and needs manure in order to obtain a good harvest.”

Sales of pineapple have led to better nutrition for families. And the venture’s economic benefits have meant that parents can afford school fees and materials, and can therefore send their children to school. “We are proud because we started with three goats and now have 36,” says Everiste Shaban, vice president of the Munanira Red Cross unit, which now donates goats to other Red Cross units.

The fruit products, meanwhile, are sold in local markets. “We sell more than 500 pineapples at 2,500 Burundi francs [US$ 1.7] each,” Shaban says. “With the proceeds, we can assist the most vulnerable in our community and improve the living conditions of our units’ volunteers. We also have plans to buy more goats so that everyone can get their own.”

There is still much to do, such as lobbying for the donation of more goats or cows to provide milk for children and manure for the farms. But hope and social cohesion have sprung up along with the crops.

The heart of change
Though the steps may be small, they are significant economic and social achievements for communities struggling to recover from conflict, drought and long-term poverty. And these successes didn’t come about by accident.

In the absence of any large-scale international or government funding, the Burundi Red Cross and its partners have made the development of local, community-based volunteering a key priority. Now, the Burundi Red Cross has more than 300,000 volunteers in all regions of the country and is being recognized internationally as a leader in volunteer development as a means to build up community resilience.

This is a huge achievement for a National Society that eight years ago employed only four people at the national level and had very limited reach at the colline or community level. There are roughly 2,850 collines (hilltop communities) in Burundi, each with about 2,000 to 3,000 residents. Today, roughly 98 per cent of collines have Burundi Red Cross volunteer groups made up of 50 to 500 volunteers, according to a 2011 IFRC report that evaluated the National Society’s efforts to build its capacity at the branch level.

“At the heart of this change is a belief that poverty and vulnerability are not a barrier to hundreds of thousands of Burundians organizing themselves to address the needs of the most vulnerable,” the report points out.

Although Burundi has a rich tradition of neighbours helping neighbours and community volunteering, a culture of aid dependence developed in the country during and after the years of fighting. “Initially identified as ‘another NGO’ come to hand things out, the National Society has succeeded in becoming identified as an organization that catalyses and supports locally owned community action rather than a provider of external resource,” the report concludes.

With 300,000 Swiss francs (US$ 320,000) of seed funding from the IFRC’s Capacity Building Fund, the National Society signed on to an entrepreneurial approach being piloted by the IFRC. Instead of following a top-down model, the project focused on local traditions, as well as community ownership and leadership of the process.

The challenge now, according to the report’s authors, is how to attract financial support so that this network can grow, while maintaining “the approach of local self-help and local resource mobilization in the long run”. In other words, is it possible to manage “external financial investment in ways that do not damage this spirit of community ownership and enterprise?”

Volunteerism in Burundi may also be bringing some new social cohesion to a country with deep ethnic divisions, which in recent history led to two events (in 1972 and 1993) that were later classified as genocides by United Nations inquiries. Today, the local Burundi Red Cross groups attract both Hutu and Tutsi men and women, young and old. “As the groups got used to working together, a level of social cohesion began to return to communities which had been destroyed during the civil war, rebuilding links between members of Hutu and Tutsi communities,” according to the IFRC report.

All smiles
As humanitarian organizations and donors look to develop and support locally owned solutions, the Burundi example could serve as a model. In many of the collines now, some volunteers who were once vulnerable people themselves are now in a position to help others.

“I have seen hard times but now there is a ray of hope for the future,” says Ngerageze Judith, a volunteer with the Burundi Red Cross who, along with 21 other women, has helped create a vegetable farm as an income-generating initiative.

67-year old Nzinizirira Angeline hugs her granddaughter Habineza Agnes outside her new home, which was built by volunteers of the Burundi Red Cross when Angeline’s old house was near collapse. Photo: ©Nancy Okwengu/IFRC




















“Who would have ever imagined thatthree goats would be the window of greater cohesion for a community with such a dark past of division and the curse of poverty?”
Habonimana Floride,
Burundi Red Cross volunteer






The volunteer group has hired a piece of land where they grow vegetables. After harvesting, they divide the vegetables into two portions: one for their own use and the other to sell the rest. “We always have a ready market and in a good harvest we can get more than US$ 400,” she says. “We use the money to buy seeds and fertilizer for the next planting seasons and share the remaining profits.

“I can now support those who can’t support themselves especially through training them,” she says. “I owe this to the many training courses conducted by the Red Cross; they have made me food secure; I eat healthy food and have the strength to work. This has alleviated dire poverty from my family.”

By Nancy Okwengu
Nancy Okwengu is a communications delegate for the IFRC.

Web extra!

From refugee to life-saver How Burundi Red Cross volunteers helped Biriho Edward find a home in helping others: “For a country with an ugly past of division, Red Cross principles have found favour among us… These principles unite us,” he says.


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