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Strengthening community cohesion through VSLAs.

Lantaa Nur or “togetherness” is the name of a new village savings and loan association (VSLA) in the village of Tabier in Ghana’s Upper West Region (see Photo 1).  Group members say the name represents something they never thought was possible.  Their VSLA provides not only a platform for collective savings but also a sense of solidarity and space for collective action.  As one of 22 communities targeted by USAID as part of the USAID West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (USAID WA-WASH) Program, Tabier’s 44 farming households faced life-threatening problems in their daily lives, including scarcity of clean water, poor sanitation, food insecurity due to shortened rain season, and social structures that prevented them from working together to solve local development problems .

By introducing an innovative VSLA approach, the USAID WA-WASH program provided women, men, village chiefs and district assembly representatives the opportunity to unite for the first time to strengthen social cohesion.  Weekly VSLA meetings are used as a forum to promote a spirit of volunteerism that encourages members to help one another build latrines, adapt their crop production methods to the changing climate, and increase local community-driven funding to maintain the local water and sanitation services they lacked before.  Moreover, with additional funds saved through VSLAs, parents can now afford health insurance and pay their children’s school fees .

The VSLA approach was a core component of a deliberate approach to help communities identify and address their own problems.  The USAID WA-WASH Program begun in October 2012 with a series of consultations with community leaders and local government representatives to better understand their problems and design a mix of interventions that empower participating communities, including marginalized women, while using locally available resources.  In accordance with Ghana’s “no-subsidy” sanitation policy, USAID WA-WASH used the community-led total sanitation (CLTS) approach to spur communities to action.  Orientation sessions led to several “trigger” moments in the 22 intervention communities.  Families realized the shameful practice of open defecation had to stop and that building their own latrines was necessary to improve the environment.  They began handwashing at home and in schools to prevent sickness.  Efforts quickly spread to another seven villages.  In less than two years, 1,040 households in 29 communities had constructed latrines without subsidies, using the funds they saved through VSLAs.

USAID WA-WASH also worked with communities to put in or rehabilitate 50 to 90-meter-deep boreholes with hand pumps as nearby clean water sources.  Women and girls no longer have to walk several kilometers to the river to fetch dirty water three or four times a day, thus further improving health conditions and freeing up their time to actively participate in other productive activities at home and in school.  Partnerships were formed with local men and women through water and sanitation committees that meet every month to ensure community ownership and management of their vital new assets.  Moreover, community members, including local latrine artisans, were trained to assume the responsibility for delivering basic services and to ensure long-term sustainability.

When you are alone it is difficult to move forward, but that changes when you become part of a group,” says Veronica Bagri, a mother of six and leader of Lantaa Nur (see Photo 2).  There are five VSLA groups in the village ofTabier, and every household has a VSLA member.  “Before, men did all the talking,” Veronica says.  “Now, women speak up.  We are now part of the community.”  Times have changed, says Saabom Sebastanin, the village chief.  “Before, if a woman wanted something, it led to quarrels.  Access to loans through VSLAs and giving women their own land to farm have led to better living conditions and reduced quarrels” he says.  Now that everyone in in the village of Tabier realizes the dangers of open defecation, the village protects itself through vigilance and rules.  Offenders are sent to the chief and fined 100 cedis ($23).  “We’ll seize their motorbike until the fine is paid,” Veronica says.  Those payments are added to a collective fund that supports annual borehole maintenance.