RPN 17 published August 1994

5. Bricks, biscuits and barrels of pigs' feet:  Liberian women refugees and credit schemes by Naima Hasci


Participation means that people are closely involved in the economic, social, cultural and political processes that affect their lives... It enables them to gain access to a much broader range of opportunities so that they may realize their full potential and contribute to the development of their community. (UNDP Human Development Report 1993)

This may seem a tall order. Is refugee assistance ever regarded as a matter of human development? How can greater participation be used as an overall relief and development strategy when humanitarian assistance to refugees is relief-oriented? In most cases, the success of refugee programmes is hampered by the lack of a human development dimension. The danger is that human development will become yet another catch-all-phrase unless it can be operationalised creatively in relief and development efforts.

A small UN agency, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the International Committee for Refugees (ICR) are trying to meet this challenge by funding a particular project supporting Liberian women refugees.


In the aftermath of the Liberian war, an estimated 13,000 refugees were brought to a site near the village of Budumbura, 25 km from Accra, where the Refugee Reception Centre was established in September 1990. The site is surrounded by 100 acres of fertile land, of which fifty were allocated to the refugees for farming. As most of the Liberian refugees came from urban areas, they had no farming experience but were very eager to participate in the Project's income generating and health education activities.

The project is designed to tap the skills of refugees. It strives to recognise, encourage and support the potential of the refugee women as teachers, traders, entrepreneurs, health workers and so on. The model dispels the old myth that refugees are a helpless homogeneous mass with identical problems and needs. According to the refugee women interviewed, the transition from relief to development begins when the refugees' socio-economic background, their specific skills, experiences, and initiatives are taken into account as an integral part of the project identification, design and implementation. For them a successful refugee project must be participatory and empower them to become socially and economically productive. The key to this approach lies in the degree of dialogue between project staff and beneficiaries, the level of flexibility in the project design, and the willingness to recognise the women's ability to find solutions to problems defined by themselves. Hence, participation is about listening, learning and looking for creative ways to ensure that people are agents of change rather than objects of preconceived relief and development activities. With these issues in mind, the following observations echo the voices of the refugee women in Budumbura.

The `hand-outs' myth

Contrary to the myth that refugees are helpless and reluctant to participate in project activities, the women were enthusiastic, energetic and eager to get involved. What has made this project so popular is also the project team's willingness to be guided by the women's evolving needs and to make the beneficiaries the central piece of the relief and development puzzle.

The project co-ordinators, Doug Nethercut and Diana Dubois, describe how the refugees reacted to the credit component:

We were pleasantly surprised at the degree of enthusiasm on the women's part to be actively involved in all the activities of the project. We have been quite impressed with their entrepreneurial drive and business know-how. Many of these women were urban dwellers with all kinds of skills in petty trading.

When the project called for the building of a women's centre and a dormitory for five female-headed households, the women were given the opportunity to be trained as builders and carpenters. The participants of this on-the-job training course received a communal lunch and a small stipend.

Refugees, community health workers and decision-makers

For most women the transition from relief to development seemed to start with the Women's Community Centre where they gather for their various meetings and workshops on issues such as savings and loans, micro-enterprise development, masonry, and community health care.

In the area of family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, ten refugees were trained as community health workers (CHWs). They visit refugee families, disseminate information and promote improved sanitation and hygiene practices in the refugee camp. In consultaion with the community elders, the CHWs assess the needs and identify areas of problems. On Wednesdays, the CHWs meet to evaluate their work and make any changes necessary. One CHW, Oma, shares her team's findings and makes suggestion on ways of coordinating the family planning acitivities with the environmental sanitation activities:

We need to train people about proper sanitation. For example, although the family planning programme seems to be running smoothly, people are being careless with the disposal of the contaceptives. The children find these things on the road and use them as toys, filling them with water and playing with them as water balloons; or even worse, drinking out of them.

As the women put into practice what they have learned in the community health care courses, the weekly meetings serve as a forum for further group consultation and coordination of health activities with project staff.

This dynamic process of training, consultation and flexibility in responding effectively to the communities fosters greater participation. It is a process which encourages the women's efforts to make informed decisions as they address day-to-day problems. By holding weekly meetings with the women, the project staff ensure that the women have access to adequate training and resources to do their job.

Providing credit to refugees women - a risky business

In collaboration with the Women's World Banking - Mutual SuSu Assistance (WWB-MASU), UNIFEM/ICR have ventured into an area that has traditionally been considered risky business: providing credit to poor women. For many bankers, providing credit to the poor is already an unsafe venture and providing credit to refugees is unthinkable. The WWB-MASU credit officer recalls her experience when she presented the UNIFEM/ICR proposal to her colleagues:

They just laughed at me. Some of them did not even want to consider the idea of giving a loan to refugee women. They thought I was mad and they joked about the idea for months. Until they saw it working... and working well.

The savings and loans scheme with its micro-enterprises component has proved to be the most exciting project component for the women. Although they participated in all the project activities with enthusiasm, they felt that more of this kind of assistance should be provided. As one of the women, Neilly, put it:

The training in basic book-keeping, business planning and management has been most useful. It builds on our skills and gives us something meaningful to do. I was a baker at home and now I make biscuits and take them to the nearby market where I can sell them at a profit... At first I made doughnuts. But they require too much oil so I switched to biscuits and now I make more profit.

A bank for modest businesses

Every Thursday afternoon, the WWB-MASU van brings banking services to the Women's Centre. This unusual extension banking service provides opportunities for savings, loans, business and financial advice to the refugee women. Could this really be the beginning of the journey from relief to human development?

Credit schemes, however, can be tricky development models. While some see them as a way of encouraging people to get involved in income generating activities, others look at them as a burden to some of the beneficiaries who may struggle to raise the membership fees. The women earn money by making cement bricks, baking biscuits and selling pigs' feet and are happy to have the opportunity to deal with a bank that meets the needs of their modest businesses.

Philomena explains the services provided by an institution like WWB-MASU:

To give loans to rural women is already considered financially risky and hardly any bank will venture into this business... Women often need just a small amount to start their petty trade business and we provide a safety net for this category of clients who otherwise would not have easy access to the traditional banking institutions.

For the majority of the Liberian refugee women entrepreneurs who participate in the scheme, it has made a big difference to their confidence, self-esteem and hope for weaning themselves away from refugee life altogether. The project staff are now working with the women and the bank to find ways of extending the credit scheme to include those who want to join the scheme but lack the money. Doug, one of the project co-ordinators, explained:

The credit component is fairly new and the project has put down US $1,000 at WWB/MASU as a collateral but now that it has become so popular, we will have to find ways of including everyone who wants to join.

Credit for the future

As the women succeed, more women and men want to join the credit scheme. Over 65 women have completed a course in micro-business management skills, including some women from the nearby village of Budumbura. As a result of the success of this project and a similar project in the Ivory Coast, UNIFEM is undertaking an African Women in Crisis (AFWIC) umbrella programme to assist refugee and displaced women from southern Sudan, Mauritania, Somalia and other countries. In collaboration with UNHCR and other agencies, this programme uses development-oriented strategies which maximise women's skills and capacities, reduce their future vulnerability and promote their active participation in programme development and implementation.

Dr Naima Hasci is a Senior Associate Member of St Antony's College, Oxford University, UK, and a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Programme.

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July 1997