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Photo: Alexander Rausch
Helping People
to Help
Themselves
IhIervIew by AsIrId Ramge
oo1s1 we¸specIal¸o1o/1
tags > 8ehIh, developmehI aId, selI-orgahIzaIIoh, WesI-AIrIca, Aled|o
Astrid Ramge
Astrid Ramge was in charge of Corporate
Communications at MetaDesign in Berlin,
Germanys leading Corporate Identiy and
Branding agency, during the last ten years.
Now she is getting involved in various
projects concerning Web . and political,
cultural and business changes.
Alexander Rausch
Alexander Rausch works as a consultant
and system coach. His motto is to help
people to help themselves no matter if the
problems are private or business related.
He serves a wide range of people within
our society – unemployed poor families as
well as succesfull business people.
Ulrike Reinhard
Ulrike Reinhard, founder of we-magazine.
Trained as an economist. Since she left
university, she has been self-employed in
various fields.  she had her first
e-mail account at The Well. The past ten
years she has travelled the world extensi-
vely, always looking for better ways to
think and act. She is deeply committed to
the network she inhabits.
oo1s2 we¸specIal¸o1o/1
Alexahder >
Benin is one of the poorest countries on earth. The
cities are teeming with people who’ve escaped
from the countryside in search of a better future. In
the rural areas you find those typical African round
huts with straw roofs and village wells. There’s no
kind of infrastructure. Then you have the smaller
towns most of which have an Internet Café and a
power supply. The bigger villages like Aledjo have
at least a rudimentary infrastructure with a few
public telephones but electricity only for a number
of houses or huts and then only at certain times of
day. Water comes in a bucket from a well. And
Internet access – when it’s there – is comparable to
the time of the first modems in Europe.
Schools in rural areas are few and far between so
the only children who go to school are those whose
parents can afford to pay bus fares. Or children who
can walk around  km a day to school and back.
This means that education is a luxury beyond the
reach of most people. The level of education
throughout the country is very low and the majo-
rity of people can neither read nor write.
Language is another big problem. A legacy of the
long period of French colonialization is that French
is the official language of the country. Yet the rural
areas and villages have a great number of very dif-
ferent dialects which often creates major language
barriers.
“We supporI 8ehIh” (We8ehIh) seeks Io provIde uhbureaucraIIc eIIecIIve
assIsIahce Io people ahd IhIIIaIIves Ih 8ehIh, helpIhg Ihem Io empowermehI
or selI-respohsIbIlIIy ahd selI-deIermIhaIIoh. WE spoke wIIh Ihe IhIIIaIors
oI We8ehIh, UlrIke ReIhhard, Ireesoul ahd Iouhder oI we-magazIhe, ahd
Alexahder Rausch, creaIIve coach ahd IraIher, always oh Ihe look-ouI Ior hew
Iorms oI moderaIIoh ahd group work, abouI IheIr experIehces ahd Ihe lessohs
learhed Irom IhIs pro|ecI whIch Ihey sIarIed Ih 2oo8. 1he Iwo oI Ihem hII oh
8ehIh because II’s ohe oI Ihe pooresI couhIrIes Ih AIrIca buI also because oI
Ihe persohal bohds IyIhg Ihem Io Ihe lahd: Ihe laIe IaIher oI UlrIke’s soh came
Irom 8ehIh. We8ehIh Is hoI ah assocIaIIoh or IouhdaIIoh buI has cohscIously
choseh a “Iormless” kIhd oI ouIreach IhaI relIes oh voluhIary helpers, IrusI,
dohaIIohs, ahd campaIghs ahd harhesses Ihe power oI heIworks.
Ih 2oo8 wheh you sIarIed your IhIIIaIIve you spehI Iwo weeks Ih 8ehIh ahd
you reIurhed Ihere agaIh Ih 2oo¤. WhaI are cohdIIIohs oI lIIe lIke Ihere ahd
whaI challehges do you meeI Ih 8ehIh7
oo1s¯ we¸specIal¸o1o/1
Wheh you sIarIed your We8ehIh pro|ecI Ih 2oo8,
your heIworks here Ih Europe begah collecIIhg
compuIers, cell phohes ahd mohey Io pass Ihem
oh Io people ahd IhIIIaIIves Ih 8ehIh. All IhIs was
uhder Ihe slogah “Help people Io help Ihemselves”.
How has your pro|ecIed shaped up Io presehI ahd
whaI kIhd oI experIehces have you made7
Alexahder >
Our vision is to network the people in the country
so they can give one another mutual support and
assistance and develop their OWN problem-solving
skills and abilities, and their OWN ideas and pro-
jects which they can then share and pass on yet
further. So that the country can awaken to new life
from the inside and under its own steam, and so
that the people themselves can live autonomous
lives of the kind they want, of the kinds that match
their own reality.
Even so, the lack of infrastructure I’ve just talked
about meant that an Internet-based project of the
type we’d originally thought about was realizable
only on a very small scale. Another factor we had
to take into account was the very high illiteracy rate
in the country which meant that any Internet work
would have to be limited to videos or podcasts.
But videos and podcasts need fairly high data trans-
mission rates – and they’re simply not around!!
All this wasn’t what we’d imagined and it certainly
wasn’t what we’d been hoping for. It would have
been great, for instance, to set up some form
of partnership between schools in Germany and
classes in Benin. But it was immediately obvious
that this kind of option was a complete no-go. And
it’s for similar sorts of reasons that we’ve had to put
other international projects which we’d have loved
to realize with the Internet on ice for the time being
– like exchanges with people in other poor parts
of the world.
But cell phones are common in Benin as they
are throughout the whole of Africa. And with the
various different networks operating in the regions,
people in Benin very often have several phones. We
had no difficulty in distributing our cell phones
even though our phone campaign was only a drop
in the ocean! But it’s still true that the cell phone in
Africa does indeed offer a viable – and very often
the only – alternative for implementing e.g. educa-
tional projects.
And we did have our first small successes. In Aledjo
we were able to set up a computer room where
children, young people and adults too could make
their first steps towards computer proficiency. And
we could also establish the Internet to a certain
extent through “mobile sticks”. We’re optimist that
the Internet problem can be solved – development
continues apace and the sticks are only the begin-
ning.
Another milestone was the support we were able
to offer through our donations to the women’s
organization ADRIA in Aledjo in setting up a regio-
nal project. We bought a quantity of sacks of ferti-
lizer which ADRIA then distributed in the regions
using a system of micro-loans. Another idea we had
was to transfer ADRIA’s micro-financing model to
the neighboring locality of Massi. So watch this
space!
Photos: Alexander Rausch
In line with our guiding principle “Help people to
help themselves” it’s paramount for us to get
people in Benin to provide mutual support and
assistance for one another. No matter whether it’s
the women of ADRIA who pass on their knowledge
to other women, or individual computer experts
like the “village admin” who develop their own
skills and abilities and train others, the important
thing is to have a multiplication effect in the out-
reach.
Generally speaking, our greatest challenge was and
still is education and building up networks and the
Internet in a country where the conditions on the
ground aren’t particularly auspicious. Yet Benin
does have the great advantage of being a politically
stable country with a government which is very
receptive to receiving outside help. In this sense we
see great opportunities for driving our project for-
wards through continuous development of the
technology and partnerships with other projects
which have dealt with similar sets of circumstances.
UlrIke >
From the word go we didn’t want to adopt any “top
down” approach and appear as the clever know-it-
alls. What we wanted to do was to listen, to identify
the actual pressing problems and then motivate
people to use their own steam and their own sense
of personal responsibility to help themselves.
In summer  our initiative was able to place two
volunteers from Germany in Aledjo, two young
women who after graduating from high school took
a year off for voluntary social work. I brought the
two of them to Aledjo last summer and helped them
get their bearings. They are now supporting Mme
Abibai on the micro-credits program and working
as German and French teachers at local the school.
Unfortunately it quickly became apparent here that
it’s not at all easy to familiarize volunteers and
Europeans with just what “Help people to help
themselves” actually involves. Even volunteers have
a very highly ingrained sense of security and a hier-
archical way of thinking. So, on their own initiative,
these two young women sought out the local
branch of the German Development Service (DED)
in an effort, as it were, to get the official blessing
and authorization on their current positions. This
was a move that we certainly hadn’t planned for
and which will probably lead to the projects we’ve
started in Aledjo being staffed in future by DED
volunteers – which will force us either to become
entangled in bureaucracy and take us association
status or to strike out in new directions. This is a
rather unfortunate situation for us but it does serve
to show once more how thinking on both sides –
both people in poor regions and aid volunteers –
still remains deeply colored by the dualism of
“You’re rich and have go to help us” versus “We
know what’s best for you”. We need to do a great
deal more work to persuade people out of these
ruts.
Persohal relaIIohs, persohal IhIIIaIIves ahd
persohal relaIIohshIps are very much aI Ihe
IoreIrohI oI your pro|ecI. Cah’I IhaI someIImes
also be ah ImpedImehI wheh you’re IryIhg Io
supporI people ahd IryIhg Io acI Ih ah equIIable
ahd ImparIIal mahher7
Alexahder >
WE wanted to do something in Africa and we chose
Benin because that was where the father of Ulrike’
son Tim came from. So right from the beginning we
had a personal connection with the country. And
we also involved the family in Benin – Tim’s uncle
accompanied us for the most part of our travels.
Then as now, what we wanted to do embody and
live out our principle “help people to help them-
selves” through our own personal relations so that
the people on the ground would understand this
spirit and carry it forward.
Obviously justice is a very difficult thing to guaran-
tee but it’s got nothing to do with personal relation-
ships. The big NGOs can’t guarantee justice either.
But our project had the vision that personal bonds
and network building would somehow result in
more justice. Because when a network widens,
more and more people have the chance to take
part in it so that ultimately everybody can benefit.
Powered by self-responsibility and people’s own
actions, it will have an impact over and beyond
local boundaries and inspire people to take their
own futures in their hands. Established NGOs often
export their own view of things with what they
believe are the proper courses of action to be taken.
WE on the other hand want to get to know the per-
sonal connections, the individual worlds in which
people live, and work from inside to motivate them
to autonomous action.
P
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a
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WhaI have you learhI abouI Ihe heeds oI people
Ih 8ehIh7 Ih Ihe lIghI oI your presehI experIehce,
whaI Is Ihe besI way Io supporI Ihem7
UlrIke >
Given the staggering poverty there, it’s quite certain
that % of the population are involved in a bare
struggle just to survive from day to day. For women
every day at sunrise this means trudging the long
way to the fields with a child on their back, anot-
her in their hand and a heavy weight of “baggage”
balanced on their head. Day in day out without the
slightest hope of change or improvement.
It wasn’t the poverty that shocked me in our travels
through the country. No, the people might be chro-
nically poor but they have a tremendous zest for
life – something that is lacking in us here. What
depressed me and what depresses me still is that
there are countless numbers of people there who
simply don’t see any chance of a better future.
They’ve almost resigned and accepted their lives as
they are without the slightest hope for the future.
We’ve been into schools and gazed into faces that
I shall never forget for as long as I live: emptiness,
emptiness, sheer emptiness. Not a trace of pride or
dignity. Possibly just the hope that when whites ap-
pear they might be given a handout. But that is pre-
cisely not the way to do it! These people don’t need
handouts and they don’t need someone to show
them or tell them how they can best survive in their
own country. They know that already!
We have to reawaken to new life everything that
has been destroyed by long decades of develop-
ment work and the behavior of the former colonial
masters. We have to restore these people to their
dignity and recognize them and view them as our
equals in the ecosystem of the earth. We can help
them sustainably and for the long term – if we only
let them be themselves.
My dream is to hear more people in Benin saying
“Yes, we can!” and to see more people like Mme.
Abiba take control of things with her own two
hands and get them done. You can help them to
find their own way but then you have to let them
go it alone. And that will only happen on a broad
basis if WE say to them “Yes you can do it!” If we
give them back their dignity and treat them with
respect and are willing to learn from them the
whole host of things that they can do and we can’t!
oo1s6 we¸specIal¸o1o/1
And it is important – even if it’s very hard when you
look into the empty faces of the poorest of the poor
as an affluent European – it’s important to say to
them “We haven’t got any handouts for you. You
have to do it by yourselves – and you can do it!”
That’s the only way we’re going to make a perma-
nent change for the better!
From Ihe very begIhhIhg you’ve relIed heavIly
oh Ihe mechahIsms oI Ihe heIwork, boIh Ior
Ihose gIvIhg ahd Ihose receIvIhg. Calls Ior
dohaIIohs oh Ihe Web, Ih blogs ahd so oh. How
Is your heIwork how shapIhg up oh boIh sIdes7
UlrIke >
For us the Internet is the key instrument, on the one
hand for enabling education and on the other for
promoting and building up the networks internal
to Benin across the world. That is a vital basic
requirement that’s needed if the people in all the
countries of this world are to gradually build a form
of life that makes life livable for all. This is a deve-
lopment that the governments of the world are
going to have to come to terms with over the next
few years. The Internet has turned the world into a
global village.
In Benin we’ve created the first node. How this will
develop in future depends solely on the people
there and how relevant network content is to their
daily lives. The network is tremendously useful for
our work in terms of donations and information,
and it also brings us into contact with similar kinds
of projects. As we’ve learnt, it functions extremely
well!
Ahd whaI does Ihe IuIure look lIke Ior We8ehIh7
WhaI’s Ihe hexI sIep you’re plahhIhg7
UlrIke >
I intend to return to Benin in early August. With two
main things on the agenda: firstly, we want to find
out how we can use the Free Radio Network there
to build a network infrastructure, and secondly we
want to start preparations for building our library
in Aledjo at long last. If everything goes according
to plan, the architects Johannes Hucke and Barbara
Quentin will be coming with me and we’re going
to talk with the people on the ground on how to
take further measures to promote reading and wri-
ting in the region. The idea is to start with a group
of about  women in Aledjo and to work out a way
with them how they can best teach the other inha-
bitants of their villages to read and write.
Do you have ahy cohhecIIohs how Io sImIlar
pro|ecIs Ih oIher couhIrIes7
UlrIke >
No, this sort of connection doesn’t exist in any phy-
sical sense even though it’s something we’re very
much thinking about. We do think that projects that
have been successful in other countries – including
countries outside of Africa – could be transferred
to Benin. We don’t mean classical development pro-
jects but rather those initiatives mainly sponsored
by private individuals which start out on a modest
small scale and which like we do subscribe to the
“help people to help themselves” principle. Projects
which make people strong in their dignity and
which put them into a position where they’re able
to build something themselves – projects that I call
“enablers”.
In particular, I’m thinking about the Cinema Jenin
project which is also discussed in this edition of we-
magazine. So why not build a cinema with a media
square in Porto Nuovo or Naittingou? This would
have the advantage that the partners in Jenin cer-
tainly have all the know-how needed to set up a
project of this kind in Benin and we can simply learn
the lessons of what they’ve done in Jenin. Film in
Africa is a huge topic.
We’ve also been following a project in Winneba,
Ghana with very keen interest. Winneba is a town
about  km west of Accra on the coast where
what is known as a NIC or Network-Improved
Communities was set up with help from the Free
Radio Network from Berlin and an initiative from
Taiwan. The technical infrastructure comes from
Berlin while on the local level people are schooled
in using PCs and networks by Taiwanese students.
The people who’ve had their training then go on to
train others so there’s a snowball effect.
The Free Radio Network enables many small units
to share the low network costs which means they
can be connected to the Net. Such a structure could
be applied to Aledjo and enable communication
between various localities without any of them
being linked to the Internet backbone. When you
think how hard it is for most people just to cover
oo1s7 we¸specIal¸o1o/1
the  km to the next village, it’s easy to see what
kind of benefits such a system would bring with it.
Both Winneba and Nigeria too – in places where
these NICs are now part of everyday life – have seen
a considerable rise in the living standards of the
stakeholders in terms of educational level and
income.
People everywhere are how seIzIhg IhIIIaIIves
oII Ihe beaIeh Irack ahd IIghIIhg Ior a beIIer ahd
more lIvable world. 1here’s ah uprIsIhg amohg
Ihe culIurally creaIIve. Would you label your-
selves as such7
Ahd do you see ahy sIghs oI ah emergIhg hew
Irehd or movemehI comparable wIIh Ihe ehvIroh-
mehIal movemehI7
UlrIke >
I don’t like being put in boxes! But I do indeed think
that you can speak of the formation of a movement
that bypasses the traditional channels of develop-
ment aid. In my view it’s exactly the same pheno-
menon we can see in politics, education or in enter-
prises: if something can’t make a breakthrough in
its proper system or just takes an incredibly amount
of time about it, it goes ahead and builds its own
system. And that’s much easier to do nowadays
than it was  years ago, thanks in great part to the
advent of the Internet. On the one hand having
access to the Internet means that people can now
clearly see and hear those previously unknown and
“oh-so-remote places”, while on the other new
media also enable the rapid and effective networ-
king of all those who want to get active.
1o whaI exIehI has Ihe We8ehIh pro|ecI chahged
your ouIlook or your realIIy7 Do you vIew Ihe
world dIIIerehIly how Io Ihe way you vIewed II
Iwo years ago7
Alexahder >
For me personally my view of things has changed
because I now know what it means to have lived
out Marshall McLuhan’s dictum “the world is a glo-
bal village” in my own person. The Internet and the
network have shown us that there are a great num-
ber of people out there ready and willing to give
immediate and “easy” help and support. The blogs
didn’t just ask for donations, they also spread the
news about us and this attracted more and more
new “helpers” to swell our ranks. Ulrike too has had
a lot of instantaneous support and feedback per
Twitter from Los Angeles and other parts of the
world. To keep it short, this is the first time that I’ve
really understood the network principle on such a
huge scale and I’ve really “caught the bug”. Network
communication is ultimately the very best means of
helping people and of hopefully creating a better
world.
I always used to be aware that I myself bore sole
responsibility for the kind of life I wanted to lead.
Webenin has now shown me that we can reach the
whole world with the Internet and that by working
together in networks we can slowly but surely take
more control over what our lives should look like.
The opportunities it offers are breathtaking! Many
many people are now using them and their num-
bers are continually growing. Since Benin, all my
thinking is along the “open tracks” of self-organi-
zation, networks, the global village. So WeBenin
has changed my life as a whole by changing my way
of thinking. It’s a wonderful feeling even though it
does give you a very stark view of the degree of
(personal) responsibility you bear for the whole!
Photo: Alexander Rausch

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