Rachel Helm: Lessons from Rwanda on empowering communities through entrepreneurship | TheUnion.com
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Rachel Helm: Lessons from Rwanda on empowering communities through entrepreneurship

Rachel Helm
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Back in May, Pastor John Rutsindintwarane stopped by Peace Lutheran Church to provide church members with an update on the work he and PICO International have been doing in Rwanda.

Pastor John, as he is known, attended seminary in Berkeley so he has long term ties to Northern California and Peace Lutheran is just one of the Lutheran churches in the region that support his and PICO International’s activities. PICO (People Improving Community through Organizing) also has ties to Northern California having been founded by an Oakland based Jesuit priest, Father John Baumann, in 1972.

PICO is a faith-based organization whose mission is to develop local leaders who can exercise the power needed to build a more just and equitable society. A central part of this mission is to help grass-roots leaders learn how to be entrepreneurs. This includes learning how to organize local communities around critical projects that the community membership believes are critical to improving the quality of their lives. Ultimately, the projects not only result in material improvements to local quality of life but also function as a fulcrum that binds the community together.



All the decisions are made at the local level; starting with determining what the project should be, what skills are needed, how to obtain the skills if they are not indigenous and how to finance the project. PICO staff teach local leaders how to build a business plan and how to approach external entities including government agencies and external businesses for needed outside investment. But all the actual decisions, the work and the interaction and negotiations with those external entities are done by the local community. Moving forward, they use these critical skills to drive future community projects and further development.

… Pastor John emphasized how essential it is for individual citizens to always hold themselves accountable before primarily relying on government to determine what they need. Self-determination is always a better starting place.

Pastor John, who is now Deputy Bishop in the Lutheran Church of Rwanda, played a central part in implementing PICO’s organizing initiative in Rwanda. Most readers are aware of the horrific genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 when corrupt leadership systematically targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Over a million people were killed. Certainly the country still bears scars but the Rwanda people have worked hard to rebuild and eliminate ethnic differences as a source of division. In sync with that, Pastor John’s update at Peace Lutheran focused on recent development projects PICO has been involved in.




The first initiative was in a town in southeast Rwanda called Mumeya, where Pastor John had conducted workshops on the PICO community-building development model. Workshop attendees ultimately decided that a healthcare center was their top priority. They defined their business plan, organized their own labor and resources, gained supplies and medical staff from public officials, and in 2009 opened their first fully functioning health center. This facility now serves over 30,000 people. Through the process of building the center, stronger ties were established between villagers and regional political leaders. Mumeya was then able to use these ties to more effectively get the government services they needed, which included getting the government to build a good road that links them to the district capital city, Kirehe.

Since then, additional communities have leveraged the PICO initiative to define and implement community projects and business opportunities. In Nyange, community members decided their most critical priority was to build decent housing for themselves. The primary building material in this area is clay bricks. This community not only organized a thriving construction business but also built a regional manufacturing business that produces bricks from local clay.

Throughout his discussion, Pastor John emphasized how essential it is for individual citizens to always hold themselves accountable before primarily relying on government to determine what they need. Self-determination is always a better starting place. He raised concern that in many urban areas in the US today, citizens seem to not be able to follow that important tenant. I share that concern. The poverty rate in America since the inception of the Great Society initiative under Lyndon B. Johnson has not substantially declined.

Focusing on growing opportunities at the local level including building skills that lead to employment, helping small businesses to grow by eliminating oppressive government regulations and improving access to capital is a better strategy for empowering citizens out of poverty than perpetuating the perception that they are passive victims in a game that leaves them with no recourse but permanent sole crushing dependence on big government.

Rachel Helm, who lives in South County, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinion is her own and does not reflect the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Contact her via EditBoard@TheUnion.com.


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