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