Vincent Mwangi, MAMA HOPE’s Community-led Partnerships lead, recently visited our partner United Hearts Children’s Center (UHCC) in Ghana. He writes how change – not charity – places communities at the center and invests in their potential to make a sustainable difference.
Bawjiase, Ghana is a lively town. Your arrival is met with a vibrant beehive of activity. Locals go about their business, catering to daily needs and playing their part in building the national economy. A newly tarmacked road leads you to the town center, alongside it are shops, food kiosks, barbershops, and salons. Trotros (minibusses), okadas (motorbikes), trucks, ferrying passengers and goods. One can’t help but notice the huge role locals are playing in developing their local economy and how they are able to change their lives based on the resources they have.
Within Bawjiase, before reaching the town center, there is a dirt road that has been christened ‘Pastor Elisha Road’. It leads to United Hearts Children’s Center (UHCC) a community-led organization. The first thing that captures your attention is the colorful storey building that hosts the United Hearts International School.
UHCC’s founder and director – from whom the road leading to the school gets its name – is Pastor Elisha Asamoah. A kind and composed man whose reputation precedes him; small children revere him and elders seek his counsel. Pastor Elisha left Ghana’s capital city Accra to establish a prayer center in Bawjiase. Having made his home among them, locals affectionately call him Osofo (Pastor). Although he is not always serious, he cracks jokes, and is seen as a man of the people.
“We started under some palm trees in our old house,” remembers Pastor Elisha, pausing to scratch his chin. “Promise and his mates would go to the local public school. I started with three children,” he shares. Promise Asamoah, who was amongst the first children to enroll at the school, is currently the UHCC’s Administrator.
Looking at UHCC today, you can easily understand that what has been achieved didn’t happen overnight. It’s been through hard work, resilience, and trust from organizations like MAMA HOPE; that have chosen to walk the journey with change agents like Pastor Elisha. Currently, UHCC rivals many public schools in Ghana. Last year they were among the schools that produced the highest grades, earning the rank as a Grade 1 institution in the district.
Community interventions have traditionally been treated as a ‘one size fits all’ by the global development sector, with visionaries like Pastor Elisha being left out or facing insurmountable red tape and restriction while seeking access to resources for serving communities.
However, like many of his contemporary visionaries, Pastor Elisha has his community’s interest at heart, and desires to see them flourish. When asked Pastor Elisha what unrestricted funding meant to him, he was unhesitant to say, “These are funds that are needs based.”
When funds are flexible, much is achieved. Local leaders are able to channel funds to urgent matters within their communities or choose to invest in their long term visions. Rather than having to spend an entire grant on a specified project, they can invest in their communities holistically.
When funds are restricted, it can often mean there is no money for staff salaries. It might mean that when a school bus breaks down, it can’t be fixed because while the community organization has some money, it’s not a problem that a particular funder’s mission seeks to solve. Restricted funding certainly means there’s no money available to set up an income generating venture, stagnating the long term growth and sustainability of the organization. More often than not it’s the distance and the disconnect between the funder and the community leaders doing the work that creates these funding barriers.
Which is why since 2011 – when MAMA HOPE first partnered with UHCC – we chose to listen first to Pastor Elisha, following his lead to know what his community and his organization needed most, then availing funding for that. Our partnership has been built on trust, and as Pastor Elisha shared, the funding is need-based, meaning it has been flexible. When funds are flexible, there is a guaranteed return on investment on the overall health of the community surrounding the organization.
“We want change, not charity,” says Pastor Elisha, understanding that unrestricted funding enables community leaders, like himself, to achieve change for their communities, above all else.
WHY CHANGE NOT CHARITY?
Charity is a short term intervention that lacks sustainability, and fails to address the deep rooted issues that communities have faced for decades. Charity fails to recognise that communities are an asset, whose growth and potential needs to be nurtured. With charity, outsiders hold the power, leaving members of the community out of the picture.
On the other hand, change is broad and bold. It places community change agents at the center and invests in their potential to make a difference in their communities. Change seeks redress when met with challenges, and is not afraid to have community leaders at the forefront of decision making. Change understands that systems need to shift for sustainable community development to be realized. Channeling funds directly to grassroots organizations and trusting community leaders to do what’s needed is that shift.
The Bawjiase community smiles at the change UHCC’s presence has brought to them. Children have access to quality education, all community members have access to clean water and to electricity which Pastor Elisha worked hard to see connected.
“People will go to the local hospital, and they do not have money. The doctors and nurses will call me to pay for the bills. I will do that, because I do not want to see someone stuck in the hospital because of lack of funds,” Pastor Elisha shares, pausing to dip his banku into the spicy okra stew as we break bread during our recent partner visit. “UHCC also provides food for children in the community, and even passersby going to their farms.”
From its humble beginnings, UHCC has never given up on its dreams. It boosts a full primary school, with qualified, passionate teachers and 2 school buses. They have a pure water processing unit, with high level machines – an income generating activity that MAMA HOPE has supported. They have farms where they plant food items for consumption at school, and for income. On our last day at UHCC we watched them play and win a friendly football match with a neighboring school.
There is silence, it’s getting dark and human activities have receded, but the crickets are singing. As we left it was hard to imagine that all of this started with 3 children under some palm trees, but that’s the power of community-led development and UHCC is just one example of why championing community-led change is important.