In the past year, I have been working as a volunteer with one of the most amazing NGOs (Non–Governmental Organisation), I have encountered in my existence. Started by a woman, Marianne Sebastien, who is primarily a singer (yes!) and who has integrated song into her basic development approach with amazing success, Voix Libres Works in Bolivia, with the most dispossessed of the poor on the planet: street children, the child miners of Bolivia (some start work at seven years old and are responsible for igniting the dynamite sticks in the mine and then running away so that the underground tunnels don’t collapse on them – which they sometimes do!), the very poor farmers of the Altiplano, the dispossessed of the large cities who live and sometimes are born and die on city garbage dumps and prisoners. Bolivia’s prisons are amongst the worst in the world. Frequently the whole family is imprisoned with the husband. Inmates can wait up to six years before being judged (many are poor farmers who planted coca), and they are not fed so the kids have to go out during the day to find food.
The approach adopted by Voix Libres is quite unique. It speaks of inner (personal) development as the basis of exterior (material and social) development, something I have never heard before in the development world where I was active 25 years. All the work of the NGO is based on the following qualities:
Love: This is the foundation stone of all Free Voices activities. In response to a document she had submitted to the UN presenting the NGO, she was told ‘one doesn’t speak of love at the UN’!
When one totally trusts the grassroots they respond by doing amazing things in all areas. Marianne loves repeating that the best specialists of poverty are the poor themselves, not the experts staying in four or five star hotels. But trust is an essential ingredient of relations with donors. Voix Libres guarantees that 100 per cent of the funds donated by grassroots donors are sent to Bolivia, the minimal administrative costs of the tiny full time staff being carried by membership fées (anyone can join the NGO run as an association.) The Voces Libres Foundation of Bolivia (its Bolivian organization) has received the Transparency Prize of the international audit company HLB.
Each person who receives something from Free Voices (e.g. training) is encouraged to share it with others. E.g. Nicanor, who was born on a city dump, received training from the association and went on to become a psychologist. He is now in charge of a kindergarten for children raised on the garbage dumps. Who could better understand them?
Alberto, who became a jeweler in prison, trained 10 apprentices in the context of the cooperative he founded when he came out of prison. Free Voices is the first NGO in the world to have started micro–credit loans for prisoners in jail. Inmates can spend 6–7 years in jail before coming to court – and sometimes of course are found innocent. Families frequently live with inmates in the prison as they are not fed by the prison and have to fend for themselves.
Self–esteem is essential to anyone who wishes to progress in life, especially people who have received none. Among the many tools used by the organisation to stimulate self–esteem are art and especially singing. After working for years at 3000–5000 feet underground chewing coca leaves to keep going, child miners have immense difficulty expressing themselves.With their parents, they ‘live’ in small stone houses with no electricity nor heating at 13–14000 feet, sleep on ‘mattresses’ of stone, their water polluted with arsenic and cyanide. So singing has an extraordinary way of freeing up their vital energy. To date, almost all the young children (around 5000) have been freed from the mines of Potosi, among the most derelict in the world. They also have ‘self–praise’ sessions, where a group of children learn to speak positively of themselves, and hère again the results are immensely moving. Marianne also gets all the prisoners of a prison to sing – an amazing spectacle.
Always emphasize the positive, the potential
Domestic violence (including sexual abuse) is one of the great social problems of the planet. Most programs against domestic violence have failed in the world, or worked only very poorly. In Bolivia, 85% of children and two thirds of the women are beaten.
Free Voices adopted a completely different approach: it started a campaign ‘For Good Treatments’. Husbands commit themselves publicly to a written agreement stressing positive behaviour and receive a good behaviour ‘vaccine’ in the form of a vitamin–C pill. The results have been amazing : a 50% drop in domestic violence in the first year. In the prisons, where the program was also started, prisoners commented that ‘No one has ever told us how to behave correctly’.
Empowerment of the grass roots
So many development programs all round the world have failed because they were conceived by an outside agency, and carried out in a top–bottom manner, with little or insufficient local grass roots involvement. Free Voices will not start an activity until it is certain the grass roots will carry it in the long run. It has a program called ‘Government of the children’ to empower the Young to assume leadership roles. All programs in Bolivia are run by individuals who came from the grass roots, like Nikanor who was born on a garbage dump and now runs a school. In a country run by male ‘machismo’, 100 percent of top leadership positions are in the hands iof women, and 70 per cent of intermediary ones.
Its impact has been exemplary: 800,000 individuals touched over a period of 19 years, women playing a leadership role, many of the most extrême forms of unacceptable poverty and exploitation eradicated in large areas, and above all thousands of individuals who begin to really trust in themselves and are empowered to run their own lives in a more autonomous and dignified manner.
© 2013 by Pierre Pradervand. For more info, see website : www.voixlibres.org (Scroll down at extreme right for English.) Those who wish to make a donation can either do it via the website : www.voixlibres.org or make a check payable to ‘Association Voix Libres’: Banque Cantonale de Genève; IBAN : CH08 0078 8000 A310 0731 0, SWIFT: BCGECHGGXXX;
Clearing CB : 788