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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Health

A Self-Help Model to Empower Youth: A Pilot Project


This report presents the results of the pilot project, A Self-Help Model to Empower Youth, conducted by Dr. Helaine Daniels while on an eleven-month assignment in the Republic of Djibouti with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH).  Dr. Daniels conducted the nine-week project with unemployed, out-of-school Djiboutian youths between February and June 2010.

This report provides qualitative and anecdotal feedback on the use of the self-help group development methodology to enhance self-esteem, group participation, and listening skills among older youth.  Originally conducted in French with twenty-one youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven, the project demonstrates an effective collaboration among UNFPA, IFESH, and the Community Development Center of the Fifth District in the city of Djibouti.



A quiet revolution took place in 2010 among youths in one of the bustling neighborhoods in the city of Djibouti.[i]  Quartier 5 (the Fifth District) offered warm congratulations to eleven of its own computer-literate youth who are now trained and ready to organize and conduct meetings, discuss serious topics[ii], listen carefully to others, create action plans to bring about changes in their life circumstances, and solve problems within their neighborhood.  These eleven, unemployed, out-of-school youth were the first to earn their certificates among the twenty-one neighborhood youth who started the pilot program, A Self-Help Model to Empower Youth, at the Community Development Center of Quartier 5 (the Fifth District) in the Republic of Djibouti in February 2010.

Sponsored by a collaborative effort of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH)[iii], the nine-week project combined training in the self-help group development methodology with publication writing and computer literacy.  The training was conducted by an IFESH educator from the United States assigned to work with UNFPA on this project.

Historically, self-help groups have combined peer skills[iv], consensus building, positive reinforcement, networking, information sharing, and consumer action with advocacy.  This process has been shown to facilitate community development and create infrastructures at the grassroots or village level in a number of documented cases in Sub-Saharan Africa.[v]

Dr. Daniels’ vision in the design and implementation of the pilot project in Quartier 5 was to demonstrate that the self-help group development methodology can work particularly well with older youths (average age twenty-three) because it provides a safe space for them to come together to express their ideas, articulate their concerns, share information, and form coalitions to create change in their life circumstances.  The youth participants contributed to the design of the pilot project through feedback they gave during a needs assessment conducted as part of an introductory series of three workshops in December 2009.

The pilot project was anchored on the idea that self-help groups contribute crucially to the development of strong, independent thinkers capable of adapting to change and able to seize opportunities that arise.  The expectation was that the use of the self-help group development methodology would help raise participants’ self-esteem as they improved their skills in communicating, organizing, planning, problem solving, and computer literacy.



During the early 1990’s, the IFESH volunteer (Dr. Helaine Daniels) served as Deputy Director of the National Black Women’s Health Project (NBWHP), the leading organization of its time in women’s health advocacy for African-American women.  The MacArthur Foundation awarded NBWHP a three-year grant for its international program, SisteReach.[vi]  SisteReach was best known for transferring the self-help group development program from women in inner-city USA to Nigerian, Cameroonian, and Brazilian women who embraced and effectively utilized the techniques to bring about change in their respective communities.

The project in the Republic of Djibouti examined the use of this particular method of consciousness raising and networking as a tool to empower women and men with greater skills to confront issues of oppression, poor health, and low economic productivity.  It is within this context that the following report hopes to contribute to the body of knowledge on the use of the self-help group development methodology with one of a variety of different social groups.  This report focuses on the use of the methodology with coed youth in Djibouti between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven who are unemployed and out of school.

Background on Djibouti

The population of Djibouti is characterized by its youth.  Sixty percent of the population is between one and twenty-four years old.[vii]  It is estimated that up to seventy-one percent of the population of Djibouti is unemployed.  Within the capital city of Djibouti, the unemployment rate is estimated to be 59.5 percent (sixty-eight percent for women).[viii]  In the remaining part of the country, unemployment reaches as high as eighty-three percent.

Among the unemployed, sixty percent are youths between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.  According to a 2009 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the state of human development in Djibouti indicates a situation of relative poverty and extreme poverty affecting 74.4 percent and 42.2 percent of the population, respectively.[ix]

Adolescents and young people are increasingly vulnerable due to unemployment, school dropout, illiteracy, HIV/AIDS, and violence.  Drought, environmental degradation, and impoverishment in the interior districts and rural areas require special attention.  The Republic of Djibouti hosts the only US military base in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Conceptual Framework

The social cohesion and bonding among members created as a result of their group interaction and mutual support were found to be valuable gains of involvement in self-help groups. Tolosa Bezaboh[x]

Self-Help Groups

The purpose of the pilot project was to provide activities for youth that serve to increase their knowledge and skills for individual and collective action.  The self-help groups were utilized as a tool designed to empower group members by helping them develop the skills they need to be forces for change within their own communities.

Finding One’s Voice

This intervention was anchored upon the power of group participation.  Utilizing the self-help group development techniques, young people came together and shared ideas through talking, listening, and writing.  When members of the group came to agreement on a common issue, they could choose to make a plan for how to address this issue.  Then, they could implement the plan.

The philosophy behind this type of group participation is that when people come together and share their ideas on certain topics, several results can occur:

1.     The person telling the story gets positive reinforcement by being listened to.

2.     Those listening who may have had a similar experience can find commonality with the person telling the story.

3.     Where there is a commonality of experience, the group can create a plan for action.

4.     When there is agreement that action should occur, the group can organize itself

into a coalition for change.

The Power of Dialogue (Paulo Freire)


Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, spoke to the issues of group participation and finding one’s voice in his discourse on the community mobilization programs he initiated in Brazil.  In his successful literacy and political consciousness programs, Freire noted the value of a dialogue approach in which everyone participates as equals and co-learners to create social knowledge.[xi]

Freire’s principles fit neatly with the self-help group development methodology.  When Freire speaks of “open dialogue”, it brings to mind the self-help groups where each person has the opportunity to share his/her ideas, without interruption, for a certain period of time, without judgment or criticism and in full confidentiality.


The World Bank defines empowerment as “the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.”[xii]  Linda Mayoux (1998) suggests that empowerment is a process of internal change, or power within.  It is an augmentation of capabilities.  Self confidence and self-esteem play an essential role in change.[xiii]

The idea for the project was to strengthen the capacities of young people through the practice of knowledge and skills that can improve their ability to advocate on their own behalf.  The time and attention spent with this targeted group of youths on capacity-building activities may serve to provide a “halo effect” in which the youths will feel better about themselves and ultimately do better for themselves and the community as a result of the time and attention given to them.



The training included intensive work in small groups, the creation of a publication, and computer literacy.  In addition to increasing their ability to communicate with each other on serious topics, the youth participants practiced skills in planning, problem solving, organizing and managing meetings, and active listening.


Pilot Project Objectives

1.    To introduce the technique of self-help group development to a community of youth as a tool that they can utilize to bring about change in their daily lives and in their communities;

2.    To target communication activities that have been shown to enhance the ability of youth to communicate with their peers on serious topics;

3.    To produce a publication focused upon human rights, gender equality, sexual  and reproductive health, and many other subjects from the perspectives of the youth;

4.    To provide training on the computer at individual levels of need for all youth participants.

The youth were required to meet the criteria, as presented graphically in Figure 1 below, in order to successfully complete the training program:


Elements Of Self-Help Group Development

Self-help groups are organized to provide each member with the opportunity to talk about what is important personally, to be heard, and to get positive reinforcement, as outlined in Figure 2.  It is important for group members to keep in mind the ground rules of active listening, confidentiality, and non-judgment.  Self-help groups increase their utilitarian value to their members as each participant improves his/her skills in oral expression and sharing.  It is important that the role of group leader rotates among all of the members.




To facilitate data collection on the project results, a survey instrument was designed for completion by the participants.  The survey instrument, titledQuestionnaire Pour L’Auto-Evaluation, provided a structured process for collecting and analyzing feedback on the project from the participants.  Given the relatively small number of responses/participants, narrative comments have been tabulated, analyzed, and presented below. The responses were aggregated according to theme.

The participants responded overwhelmingly that the training brought added value to their lives.  In answer to the question, “Did the training improve your daily life?” One-hundred percent responded affirmatively.    Here are a few of their comments:


“This training has supported us well and provided us with the courageto change our lives.”

“I can now communicate without fear.”

“There is an improvement in communication within the group and in thecohesion of the group.”

“The training allowed me to debate ideas and concepts and to agree and disagree with a good 

spirit.  I like that criticism is valued.”


One-hundred percent of the respondents indicated that the training is of vital importance.  The participants enumerated their reasons as follows:


“It is of vital importance because it provides training to many who have never had it. ”

“The training was of vital importance for one’s health or for combating diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.”

 “The training was of vital importance in communicating with a group.”


One respondent indicated that “the training provides an interesting opportunity but that it will take time to really discover it.”


In giving examples of how the training improved their daily lives, one respondent said that the improvements are primarily in his ability “to discuss and exchange ideas and to have the courage to express myself.”  Another mentioned improvements in mutual respect and decision making.  Another youth said somewhat humorously, “If we also add a successful dinner on the evening of the closing ceremony, I have never felt so comfortable and relaxed.”

Since the Awards Ceremony in July 2010, one group reports that its self-help group membership has increased to twenty members.  While this size group may be cumbersome and cause the meetings to be especially long, it also represents a strong interest and enthusiasm for the self-help group development technique.  The same group maintains its own Internet website to promote communication and sharing at the virtual level among its members.

The first edition of La Voix du Quartier 5 (Voices from the Fifth District) was printed and distributed on September 8, 2010.  It is a thirty-page publication of writings by the youth participants on topics such as human rights, gender equality, sexual/reproductive health, war, violence against women, hygiene, absence of leisure activities, and many other subjects from the perspectives of the youth of the Fifth District.  The creation of the manual provided an opportunity for reflection and writing among these young people as they shared their ideas with other audiences.


[i] Djibouti is the capital of the Republic of Djibouti, located in East Africa in the “Horn” of Africa.

[ii] Serious topics include discussion of the implications of contracting life-threatening diseases, war and other conflicts, infringements upon human rights, hunger, and the eradication of poverty, among others.

[iii]The overall goal of the collaboration between UNFPA and IFESH is to contribute to the improvement of reproductive and sexual health among adolescents and youths, and to assist in the creation of a favorable environment for the promotion of gender equity, human rights, and sexual rights.

[v] Anderson, John, 1971. Self Help and Independency:  The Political Implication of a Continuing Tradition in African Education in Kenya. Nairobi:  University of Nairobi, Oxford Journals:  AFRICAN Affairs, Volume 70, Issue 278.

[vii] Strategic Plan for Promoting the Health of Children and Adolescents from 2008 to 2012. UNICEF–Situation Analysis, 2007.

[viii] Djibouti, Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper Progress Report, International Monetary Fund Country Report No l. 04/152, May 2004

[x] Bezaboh, Tolosa, 2007. Assessing the Socio-Economic Impact of Self Help Groups:  A Case to Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church Nazreth Integrated Urban Development Project. Ethiopia, School of Social Work, Addis Ababa University, Social Work Thesis Research