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Legal rights for self-help groups

How self-help groups in Ethiopia campaigned for important legal recognition


A group of brightly clothed, smiling women and one man pose for a photo in a rural village setting in Ethiopia

Members of Shebidino self-help group in Ethiopia. Photo: Aaron Koch/Tearfund

A mixed group of smartly-dressed men and woman in Uganda sitting on the ground outside, partly under the shade of a tree

From: Community-led advocacy – Footsteps 118

Tools and ideas that communities can use to challenge injustice and change difficult situations

There are more than 20,000 self-help groups in Ethiopia, but until recently they were not legally recognised by the Ethiopian Government.

In this interview Mesfin Abebe, Tearfund’s Advocacy Coordinator in Ethiopia, reflects on why legal recognition of self-help groups is so important and how, after many years of advocacy, it has recently been achieved.

What are self-help groups?

‘Self-help groups have a very distinctive identity. They are for people who have the fewest economic resources in a community (eg women and people with disabilities) and little opportunity to contribute to local decision-making. They are self-governed in a way that is highly participatory, giving everyone in the group the opportunity to learn leadership and financial skills.

‘Each group is made up of 15 to 20 people from similar socio-economic backgrounds. They meet weekly to discuss issues, find solutions to common problems and build trusting and supportive relationships. 

‘Each week everyone saves a small amount of money. Members can then take out loans at low interest rates for household needs, or to invest in small businesses. Local facilitators show the groups how to effectively govern themselves, as well as providing small business training. As they grow in confidence, many groups begin to play an active role in their communities, including advocating for change.’

Why is legal recognition important?

‘For many years the Ethiopian Government has recognised that self-help groups are helping thousands of people to lift themselves out of poverty. But without legal recognition there is a danger that the core principles of the groups will be eroded, such as the importance of giving priority to the most vulnerable. This is because without a legal categorisation of their own, it is assumed that self-help groups are the same as other groups or cooperatives, even though they have been established for a different purpose. 

‘In addition, without legal recognition self-help groups do not have access to financial services or government support in the same way that other community groups do. One self-help group member said, “The value of securing legal recognition is priceless. Banks and other organisations used to look down on us when we approached them for services such as loans. But now we can hold our heads up high and the banks are treating us with respect.”’

A female baker from Ethiopia wearing a yellow dress leans over towards a sunlit window and covers three large metal bread ovens with a cloth

This Ethiopian baker has used small loans from her self-help group to expand her business. Photo: Will Boase/Tearfund

How did the groups manage to get legal recognition?

‘It started with many years of relationship building between self-help groups and local government representatives, facilitated by Tearfund’s local partner, Kale Heywet Church. More recently, research confirmed that legal recognition was needed to allow the groups to maintain their integrity and continue to serve the needs of the most disadvantaged in their communities.

‘Based on this research, we decided to initially focus on Oromia Region because it has a large population and is close to the capital city, Addis Ababa. What happens in Oromia usually has a large influence across the country as a whole.

‘Starting in the villages, self-help group members were encouraged to identify their own needs for legal recognition and then discuss these needs and aspirations with local community and government leaders. Supporting letters from these leaders then opened the way for similar discussions at sub-regional level and, eventually, regional level. 

‘This was a lengthy process, but it was important for the self-help group members themselves to take the lead and define the change that they wanted to see.

‘Following these discussions a draft regulation was prepared. This was approved by the Regional General Attorney. The regulation was then presented to the Oromia Labour and Social Affairs Bureau and, from there, to the Regional Cabinet. Finally, the regulation was approved into local law.

‘Self-help groups in Oromia Region now have the legal right to ensure that groups adhere to the detailed criteria set out in their by-laws before they can call themselves ‘self-help groups’. These by-laws include details around shared leadership, inclusion, respect, participation and service, all of which are crucial if the groups are to continue to bring local and regional benefits.

‘I am delighted to report that the local authorities in other regions of Ethiopia have decided to follow the example of Oromia, so self-help groups will soon have legal recognition across the whole country. This will strengthen their ability to influence their local communities, engage with local authorities and advocate for change.’

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