How New Grassroots Organizations Might Begin

27 Apr

When you look at some of the big social movements in the global south, you have to wonder how they began, about what it was like when the first little group of utterly anonymous people got together to talk about possible solutions to the problems from which they suffered. Could it have been anything like the decision of a few educated farmers’ sons in the region of Thies to form a group called CADEL.

The acronym stands for Colectif d’Appui au Development Local, and it began, says Eliman Kane in 1994. “CADEL is, first of all, an initiative of the farmers. In fact we were a group who had the luck to go to school, who were educated up to a certain level, but who came from agriculture, particularly market gardening. So we were confronting a lot of problems there because we wanted to start up agricultural enterprises. We didn’t want to be the classic peasant farmers, selling just small amounts locally.”

This initial group of farmers, he adds, wanted to modernize, make their cultivation more efficient and productive, and to export. “We wanted to work directly with exporters,” he says, “who could sell our produce abroad for 10 or 20 times more that we were getting, but they said they couldn’t do that. We had to find out how to access these systems. So that is when we began to organize.”

Based in a small city called Sebikhotane, about 30 kilometres from Dakar, the group now has several hundred members with various forums, for farmers, for women and children, for artisans, and so on. It also has a dozen volunteers who work as animateurs, people who link the elected CADEL steering committee to the membership.

According to its treasurer Mame Issa Poeye, they look at a particular problem, make a diagnosis of it and what they can do to resolve it, then look for partners to help them out. On the issue of poverty , for example, they decided to start up a savings and micro-credit scheme, getting help from an already existing network of such caisses. For healthcare, they decided to set up a health mutual, Jappo Wer (meaning Union for Health) which today has almost 600 members.

It was set up only after more than a year of study, discussion and preparation, says Issa. “First, young people went out to talk to people, to the imams, the district leaders and local delegates, trying to mobilize people.” Part of the time they were doing this, in 2002, Senegal was preparing for presidential elections, “so many people thought we were just canvassing for votes or making promises on behalf of a politician,” he says. “So we said to ourselves, we must be realistic; for this to work out we have to give this project time. That’s why during this initiatory phase we really sought to have a good structure, a good social structure, a health structure, talking to the people, to the bases, we really tried to do that.”

This is also how the Mutual decided on the monthly quota rates of 200 francs, or 50 cents, a month per person. It was an amount the majority of potential members felt they could afford.

So does the endeavour to solve local problems themselves result in more action that they would get from electing sympathetic politicians?

“Since the politician doesn’t want to take charge of development at either the national or at the local level,” says Issa, “we have been able to act perhaps more at the rural level. Perhaps,” he adds, “through managing to bring about some local development, we can eventually achieve national development.”

“The ideal,” says Kane, “would be to elect someone who wants to animate development, who will carry out development, the ideal is that, but unfortunately, politicians are the way we just said, they plan over the top of things, they don’t see the reality. And the problems of development are a lot more concrete, there you study things and ask, will this work?”

Although the people of the region around Sebikhotane still have a lot of basic problems, participation in CADEL is slowly having an effect in bettering the conditions of their members. The health mutual is slowly growing and so is their savings scheme, but mostly what stands out in this organization is its conviction that local initiative and decision-making is one of the keys to making their development projects work.

“I used to be involved in politics myself,” says Kane, “but I prefer far more to be on the ground working with people than sitting up there listening to these interminable discussions.”

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