In March 1995, just before Utange Camp closed, I spent two weeks with the social services team of the Kenya Red Cross Society/International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (KRCS/Federation). My brief was to assist them in documenting their approach to promoting selfreliance for especially vulnerable refugees. Their frame of reference was communitybased social services. My purpose in writing this article is to point out the educational value of such an approach, both for individual participants and for communities. This article is my personal reflection on that documentation, from the perspective of an educator. It is not a statement of the KRCS/Federation.
When we think of education and training for adult refugees, we should work with the activities that refugees organise themselves. Encouraging refugee initiatives has been the approach of the social services team of the KRCS/ Federation in the coastal camps of Kenya. With the support of the team and various donors, dozens of small selfhelp projects have provided the setting for women and men to learn manual and managerial skills. They have also augmented their incomes, though marketing products has usually been difficult. Indirectly, and most importantly, they have learned through experience that they themselves can take initiatives and manage their own affairs in partnership with, rather than total dependency on, an aid agency.
In December 1993, to take a typical month, there were groups practising the following skills in one or more of the four coastal camps: × firefighting × first aid × tailoring × tie dyeing × accounting × mat making hat making × crocheting/embroidery agriculture × wholesale business × child care × kitchen gardening × environmental protection × scouting × sign painting cultural dances × photography × library training.
In the first place, the participants in these projects were refugees who had been identified as 'most vulnerable'. In some cases they were also the refugees who had taken the initiative to form their own groups, like the youth associations.
The first and largest of the coastal camps was Utange, established near Mombasa in 1991. After Utange had been running for two years, KRCS/IFRC started a programme of communitybased social services. Working with zones established since the camp had begun, they selected and trained a staff of social outreach workers to gather information about the needs of each household and to distribute to the households information about resources and programmes that could help them.
The skillbuilding groups were organised from the bottom up. In the camp there was a system of social outreach workers, refugees who had been trained and were paid to visit each household in their zone, gathering and disseminating information. The social outreach workers were taught certain criteria for vulnerability, such as being alone without support, being part of a minority group, having mental or physical disabilities, and having suffered violence. These factors might be balanced out by other factors, such as having a job or business, receiving aid from abroad, or already having access to a specific community service.
They invited groups of such persons to propose a project which would enable them to improve their skills or their income or both. The participants in each group lived in the same zone and had something in common (for example they might all be widows, young single women, out of school youth, men with disabilities). Each group had its own objectives, monitoring system, and budget. These budgets were relatively small in comparison to other camp expenditure, and donors both local and international often found it convenient to support single projects.
Trainers were first sought within the refugee community and then from the local Kenyan community. Sometimes a Red Cross staff person led the training, as in the case of an agriculture course and first aid courses.
Writing proposals for the project was often the first skill learnt by the participants. The social workers gave them general guidelines for the proposals, and then negotiated the terms with them. Once accepted, that proposal was the guide both to selfmonitoring and monitoring by a staff member, the 'objective outsider' whose duty was to guide them in evaluation, reminding them when necessary of the objectives they had set and of any responsibilities they had assumed in relation to donors or community.
In our documentation sessions, the organisers reported that some participants were motivated by the social aspect of the groups. It was good to have a responsibility, an activity to go to where they had a part to play, a skill to learn or to teach, a little money to be made.
It is often difficult to involve the most vulnerable persons in selfhelp projects, while the ones who need them least may be most eager to participate in them. These are the selfstarters. One of the first projects proposed in this programme was put forward by a woman who had run a successful business in Mogadishu. She first proposed a gym and beauty salon, but when persuaded that these would be most helpful to those in least need, she and her group agreed instead to put their strength behind training preschool teachers and opening a preschool.
Another project involved a shoemaker who trained seven young apprentices in return for the provision of a machine for sewing shoes. A third project was mat making, a traditional skill which involved many women. The Red Cross made an initial investment in dyes and fibre. After that the women operated a revolving fund, selling the mats in the market, then buying more raw materials.Thus they developed accounting skills as well as others. Some used their savings from this activity to start a small commerce in the market.
Though the demand for mats was high, marketing other handicrafts was a recurrent problem, and some participants were frustrated. Two young women showed me the fine embroidered traditional hats they had learned to make. When asked about selling them, they simply shrugged. Nevertheless, they were proud of their skill. Acquiring raw materials was also difficult. When refugees depended on the 'procurement department' of the staff, a kilo of blue dye for example might be delayed for months in the face of more urgent demands.
When I refer to community learning, as in the first paragraph, I mean to call attention to the changing consciousness and behaviour of the various communities, within a camp or quarter.
Part of the documentation routine was a series of meetings with elders (mostly men) in each of the four camps, to get their opinions on the importance and impact of the projects. We also talked with other 'opinion leaders', more often women. In general the elders used the occasion to press their requests for more capitalintensive projects, for jobs, a hospital and resettlement. It was difficult (at least for the most vocal of them) to acknowledge the significance of these modest projects targeted at the poorest. Teachers and women's leaders, on the other hand, were in general enthusiastic about the value of the projects and backed them with their own participation and advocacy.
Another valuable part of the documentation was a meeting with representatives of each of the departments of the KRCS/Federation operation. Their staff, not only social services staff, acknowledged the importance of raising the profile of activities to promote selfreliance. It was suggested that this could be done through exhibits and displays, and also that the social outreach workers (refugees) might meet regularly with the elders. Another proposal was to organise workshops for refugee traditional leaders and others to explore the evolving situation of the community and to share information about methods of leadership and community organisation. These workshops should be designed to be a bridge toward understanding for the staff as much as for community leaders. Staff readily admitted their need to counter the dependency that aid structures had fostered.
The social service staff described the selfreliance projects as inexpensive, labour intensive, and high impact. In the process of providing training for the selfhelp groups, this design made good use of the human resources of social outreach workers, who required and benefited from much training and supervision.
This experience of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society in Mombasa provides one of many important experiences in the dynamic integration of community organisation, income generation, and skills training. The young Kenyan staff who are now experienced in this approach form a valuable resource for further Red Cross work, whether with refugees or their own compatriots. The Uganda Red Cross social services programme in Koboko was set up along the same lines as that in Mombasa. Federation delegates from diverse situations, including many from exYugoslavia, shared their experiences of supporting refugee initiatives in a workshop on communitybased services in June 1995.
Ann Avery works in Geneva as a freelance consultant in refugee education.
Return to Top of Page