Village Life: empowering local communities to realise their own change

For more than 20 years, the team at AOG World Relief has been empowering people and transforming communities in central Vietnam. Through providing training and support for children, families and whole communities, their goal is to break down the barriers that prevent people from participating in, and ultimately determining, their own development.   

Today, the team – led by ACCI field workers Paul and Deb Hilton, and Kelvin and Rebekah Windsor –partners with more than 150 of these rural villages, journeying with them as they work towards a set of goals they have each identified as being vital to their own development.

This process of community transformation begins with a Community Development Workshop, with key government and community leaders, as Paul explains: “It is these CDW intensives that are the foundation of all future project activities and it is it is during these workshops that … the community is empowered to discuss and establish plans that they can implement themselves to bring about the very changes they want to see in their area.

“Once communities identify their felt needs, prioritise which areas they want to address first and discuss existing and possible opportunities for resources, we are then able to connect with each community on possible project activities that we have available to them that could help them work towards their development goals.”

These project options include livestock and agricultural training and/or seeds, revolving (monetary or animal) loan schemes, water and sanitation training and infrastructure, medical training and equipment, life skills courses, and training on topics like road safety, disaster relief, financial planning and parenting, just to name a few.

Importantly, as well as workshopping ideas with leaders in the community, AOG WR takes time to meet with local people who aren’t in leadership positions to ensure their voices are also being reflected in decisions made. “This helps us ensure the regular members of the community are involved in the development process, with the decisions not only being made at ‘the top’,” Rebekah says.

When the time comes to get projects off the ground, community members are always part of the solution – through either partly funding costs and/or providing labour for any new resources. “If we’re putting in clean water, for example, we might fund the installation of the equipment but community members would have to dig the trenches and provide the labour … and the government might have to print out some of the water, sanitation and health training materials,” Paul says.

This results in communities which not only feel a greater sense of pride and ownership of any new infrastructure or resources, but also local people who realise the role they have to play and the value they have within themselves.

“When you’re allowing them to lead and you come in and just be the gap filler, rather than be their answer, there’s a respect they get within themselves,” Deb says. “When you visit them, their countenance is different than when you go into a village where you’ve done everything.” “We are merely the ones to connect, train, equip and empower them to do what is in their mind to do,” Kelvin adds.

Furthermore, training and equipping people to meet their own needs – rather than simply providing the solutions – creates space and opportunity for those who have been disempowered to realise their own voice again. The impact of this can be seen in the way many communities, which AOG WR has worked with, start to find ways to fund and resource their own projects, or to provide more assets for larger scale work.

Government leaders are also being empowered to lead change in their communities and in many cases, are now delivering training themselves, as Rebekah explains: “With our Maternal and Child Health, Food Plant Solutions (children’s program) and Water Safety training for instance, we are equipping local members of the community to be the ones to facilitate these programs,” she says. “This is the best possible scenario because it is both empowering and sustainable.”

Eventually, the communities AOG WR partners with find themselves at a point of self-determination and no longer require support. “From here, we can then begin to partner with other communities who are at the beginning stages of their development journey and thus start the process all over again,” Deb says. “From our point of view, this is true development.”


In practice: empowering farmers

Despite long days of work and a strong work ethic, many rural farmers in Vietnam struggle to grow enough food to feed their families, let alone excess to sell in the marketplace. Barriers like limited access to markets, lack of water, poor farming tools or a focus on low-income crops leave them in a cycle of poverty that’s difficult to break.

For communities which identify this as something they want to address, AOG WR simply comes alongside local farmers – who already have the skills and know-how to grow crops – and help fill the gaps that might be preventing them from realising their goals.

In the case of a community in the Dai Tan district of Quang Nam, AOG WR provided seedlings for fruit trees, with the local farmers’ union supporting farmers to grow their new crops, as Deb explains:

“The community’s plan was to select 20 farmers who had school aged children, had land and who personally wanted to look at ways to change their own economic situation. These farmers were invited in for a discussion about the pilot program … In that meeting, the farmers were educated on the benefits of growing alternative crops.

If the farmers were in agreement, then they would choose what they believed would work for them to increase their personal family income. In the case of this community, it was fruit trees. Based on their decision, the local farmers’ union then worked with the farmer to give the necessary guidance, advice and further training to ensure the success of their additional agricultural endeavours.”

And the results?

“My family situation is better now,” one of the farmers involved in this program says. “Now that the seedlings I have received from AOG WR have grown, I now earn 150,000 VND ($9 AUD) per season on each tree … my family income is higher and our quality of living has also increased.

“Since we joined the program, our family environment has become more enjoyable. We have also learned many new skills that we didn’t have before.”

Since 2013, AOG WR has assisted more than 70 farming families from two provinces in Central Vietnam in fruit tree cultivation, while distributing more than 5,400 seedlings.