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Strengthening village and neighbourhood organisations: Safety networks for the vulnerable
Authors: Alex Bush
Issue 46: Household energy and the vulnerable

Renforcer les organisations villageoises: des résaux de solidarité pour les personnes vulnérables.A partir d’un projet mis en oeuvre dans le district de Karagwe en Tanzanie, cet article décrit les défis auxquels font face les personnes agées. Traditionnellement, les nouvelles générations reçoivent des precédentes les experiences positives par exemple en matière de preservation et distribution des ressources. Ce modèle est en train de changer et les personnes agées sont maintenant considérées comme une charge quand bien même elles supportent nombre d’activités domestiques. Cet article passe en revue l’ énergie domestique, et émet des propositions afin de rehausser l’image des personnes agées notamment à travers le concept de capital social communautaire.


Situated in the north of Tanzania, Kagera Region is one of the poorest in the country with income levels around 50% of the national average (Figure 1). Karagwe District is a hilly area in the northwestern tip of the region at an altitude of 1100-1800m with substantial rainfall (1000mm in two seasons). The population is around 400 000 and is overwhelmingly rural. The district has extensive cash cropping, mainly coffee beans and bananas, so despite relatively fertile soils and good climate, food is scarce.

The majority of the population are smallholder, largely subsistence, farmers. People depend on an environment that is becoming increasingly uncertain. In the last two years there has been severe drought, followed by some of the worst flooding for decades. While life has become more
difficult for ordinary people, such difficulties tend to be magnified for older people who are generally more vulnerable to change and are armed with fewer coping strategies.
Figure 1: North-west Tanzania

This article describes work being carried out in Karagwe District, where a programme of work with vulnerable elderly people has been carried out through the SAWATA Karagwe Older People’s Programme (SKOPP) project. This project has been implemented by Saidia Wazee Tanzania (SAWATA) Karagwe and HelpAge International, supported by the UK Department for International Development (DfID). The research that forms the basis for this article was looking at social capital and social ‘safety nets’ as they relate to older people. However the energy-related components of the project do shed some light on these issues.

Basic needs

Older people report that they are finding it more and more difficult to satisfy their basic needs. They receive less help in areas such as cultivation, water and firewood collection. Basic items are now much more expensive. Environmental changes have taken their toll, resulting in previously plentiful resources now being scarce and difficult to obtain.

Land disputes are a serious issue for older people. An influx of refugees into the region has increased pressure on land and created opportunities for new land to be brought into production with a pool of cheap labour available; adding to the disputes over land use and inheritance identified by older women in particular.
Older people have an important role in the community, but in recent years this role has changed significantly. In the past, older people were the guardians of traditional practices and had the responsibility of advising the younger generation and making sure they grew up fully conversant with traditional practices. One of these roles was in resource allocation and conservation e.g. controlling tree felling. Deforestation is perceived to be a major problem in the areas close to the former refugee camps.

The programme identified two interventions to address the problem – the introduction of fuel-efficient stoves to reduce the amount of fuelwood used in a household, and tree planting around homes to increase the supply of fuelwood. After piloting several prototypes, the programme chose an approach using local resources for stove production, so there is no cost of production except in time and labour. Similarly, tree nurseries use local varieties of trees and seeds are collected rather than purchased.

Initially a stove was used that had one pot-hole; later an improved design was made with two pot-holes and a chimney to channel smoke away from the cooking area. The new stoves have two disadvantages compared to three-stone fires: they do not give out as much light or heat
(because they are more efficient). The heat problem has been addressed by sweeping the hot embers out of the stove when cooking is finished.

There was some scepticism among older people initially, and staff needed to persuade them of the benefits. However, there was resistance from older women to hearing such information from young outsiders (the ‘fuel launchers’ as they were known) and a programme of identifying and training older people to serve as village-based ‘fuel promoters’ was substituted.

Over 400 volunteers were trained in making stoves and would then work in their neighbourhood, demonstrating and persuading other older people of the merits of the new stoves and assisting in their manufacture. They also distributed tree seedlings for home-based tree nurseries following negotiations and discussions with villagers about the importance of tree planting for fuel (Figure 2). Improved stoves eventually achieved quite a wide acceptance and using older people to introduce new technology had a significant impact on the status of the older
people in the community.

Many men were reluctant to allow land to be ‘wasted’ in this way. Collecting firewood is not their work and they would not benefit from the time saved in having more accessible sources. The programme had to diversify into providing seedlings for trees for use in construction – the men’s preference – as well as the original varieties, in order to get the men to agree that some land could be allocated for fuel trees.

SAWATA committees also worked hard to get agreement that villages would establish communal woodlots for use by older people. Latterly, these were replaced by more localised woodlots.

Social capital

It is becoming recognised that increasing a community’s social capital is a good way to support vulnerable people. Social capital describes the connections which people build with others through family, friends, community groups etc. There is clear link between how vulnerable a person is, and the quantity and quality of their contacts with other people. This appears to operate as a vicious circle – greater vulnerability creates less social contact, which in turn increases vulnerability.
Figure 2: SAWATA tree nursery, Karagwe, Tanzania

In supporting the growth of social capital for older people, it is essential to recognise that each person contributes in some way. HelpAge’s experience of work with older people has highlighted the fact that the contributions of older people (as possibly with other vulnerable groups) are
largely underestimated, unseen and undervalued. This may mean that the relationship is seen to be one of dependence and little mutual return. This in turn changes the rules and norms that are applied to older or vulnerable people and results in them being judged by different standards.

The contribution of the elderly

Contrary to the myth that older people (and vulnerable groups more generally) are simply passive dependants of the more active sectors of society, most older people in Tanzania are actively engaged in a variety of work to make ends meet and produce food for themselves and
their dependants. Respondents in this research continued to work on the farm into extreme old age, with those in their eighties and nineties putting in several hours per day.

One aspect of this perception is lack of recognition by the community or even of self-recognition by older people of their contribution to the social structure. In the course of this research a person in Bisheshe village said: ‘My mother does nothing…Well, she cooks, cleans, looks after the children, she does some weeding – but it is me who looks after her because she can’t do anything’. A group of elderly women in
Zanzibar claimed to have 7 hours resting per day, but on further probing it emerged that in fact they spent this time doing housework, cooking and watching the children

Important facts which emerged

Vulnerable elderly people in Tanzania face a variety of problems. Some of these are common to many vulnerable groups and some are specifically age related. Several important facts have emerged:
  • Older women are more likely to be vulnerable than older men.
  • Older people see their vulnerability in terms of health issues, economic issues, lack of basic needs and family and social problems.
  • People are not either vulnerable or not vulnerable, but their situation varies with time. The key factors which affect elderly people are family, economic and social issues.
  • Failing health makes people more vulnerable, and there is clearly a strong belief amongst older people that once you have lost your health, it is gone forever. Older people do not realise that they may be able to improve their health.
  • Village leaders and other key people do not recognise the importance of health issues to older people (Tuberculosis, eye problems, diabetes and rheumatism probably affect over 50% of older people). All of these problems are magnified for very vulnerable older people – the housebound and the sick – who are forced to be highly dependent. Being housebound also increases the risk of smoke-related illnesses.

Stressing their basic needs, village leaders fail to recognise the useful roles which older people undertake. In order to build up social capital, individuals need confidence that their contribution to the group will be recognised and accepted.

Ways of supporting vulnerable older people

Respondents in the research were asked to describe where they found both day to day support and support in emergencies. For the vulnerable older person, the family is far and away the most important source of practical support.

However, friends and neighbours, the clan and a variety of village level organisations make important contributions. Some of these organisations are particularly male-biased, notably the clan and village co-operatives.

Interestingly, and despite the presence of several development agencies in the area, not one of the 150 older people interviewed mentioned these external bodies as sources of support. It seems likely that it is the local agents of these organisations that are perceived to be important. The level of internal social capital within the village appears to be a key determinant of vulnerability.

From these responses and other discussions HelpAge has tried to draw some tentative conclusions. For group support to be successful, the following key points have emerged:
  • External agencies need to attend both to the needs of older people and the social links of which they are part (or from which they are excluded).
  • They will need to look beyond the membership of targeted groups (such as community organizations) to those they exclude from membership but with whom they have contact.
  • They must avoid destroying social capital by creating resentment amongst those excluded from direct assistance.
  • They must find a balance between targeting groups and communities and working with households and individuals.
  • They must support vulnerable individuals to form substitute relationships where family ties have been lost.
  • People from within groups and communities are the key to strong networks of support for the vulnerable.
  • Vulnerable people themselves should be directly involved in setting objectives for support

The household energy component of this project had partially succeeded in this by using older people themselves as fuel promoters and by recognising some of the key linkages within the community. Other components, notably one providing paralegal services and conflict resolution
within the community had achieved rather more success.

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Last edited by Miriam Hansen .
Page last modified on Thursday 12 of August, 2010 11:13:02 GMT. @HEDON: DHRB

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