Why poverty cannot be overcome unless we empower women - the NGO “Menschen für Menschen” in Ethiopia as an example

by Eva H on February 20, 2015 - 8:15am

Why is it so vitally important to include women when working with developing countries in the process of eradicating poverty? Why are women a key actor in the development cooperation? To my mind, poverty can never be overcome, if women are being left behind, if women are not being empowered. To my mind, development necessarily includes addressing especially women and improving their situation in particular. Why is that? Let me explain this to you with the help of the example of an NGO and some theoretical input.


The NGO “Menschen für Menschen” - this means “humans for humans” – was founded in 1981 by an Austrian actor called Karlheinz Böhm. It has headquarters in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Ethiopia. Mainly, it focuses on the development cooperation with Ethiopia. The idea is to follow the aim of “helping people to help themselves”. This is trying to be achieved by working together with locals, sustainable development and providing long-lasting solutions along with emergency help, e.g. in cases of great famine. The NGO works in the areas of water supply, education, infrastructure, agroecology, health, women and social projects. In this article, I would like to focus on the area of women. However, I do not want to deny that the other areas are equally relevant. Furthermore, this NGO gets it funds from donations. In 30 years it has gained a total amount of 415 Mio. Euros from the four countries Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. According to the website, the goal of the organization is to reduce poverty in Ethiopia and by doing that it stresses to have no political, religious or national interest. (all of the information was found on the official website of “Menschen für Menschen” - see sources)


Now what does the NGO say especially about the role of women and its work with women?

On the website, they state that they have an emphasis on women because women are seen as an important part of the economic development. The concept is being stressed, that poverty can be overcome just by improving the social status of the women. According to the NGO, women are the ones that suffer most from poverty. So, what do they do to improve the situation of women? Well, firstly, micro-credits are an important practice. A micro-credit is a small amount of money that the women gets to start a business on a small scale. By opening that kind of business, the women earns some money and also confidence and can later on pay back the credit. For instance, in the case of Ethiopia, a woman might buy a camel from this credit and is then able to sell the milk, which the camel gives. Another practice are professional trainings. These would contain lessons on how to handle their finances. Many women did not go to school and, therefore, never learned how to calculate or how to save money. A third practice is the education about harmful traditions. Harmful traditions are very present in Ethiopia. They might include female genital mutilation and often represent a great danger for the health of women. This is why the NGO has even started an anti-circumcision campaign. These different projects lead me to the conclusion that women play a key role in the fight against poverty. Let me explain this idea to you in greater detail. The central perception is the interconnectedness of the projects. A successful micro-credit is just possible if women have enough time. This means that a well must be near to the village. This is why the NGO focuses a lot on the construction of wells in Ethiopia. Additionally, the distribution of micro-credits can only be successful with the necessary amount of knowledge. In the professional training, women get this kind of knowledge. They learn how to save money and how to maintain a sustainable economic activity. To my mind, this indicates, that women play a key role in the family. They are the ones who take care for the children, they walk miles to get water for the family, they provide the food. In conclusion, it is vitally important to support especially women as they have this important role and are the ones, who suffer most from poverty, and also have a rather low status in society in comparison to men.


According to the CIA World Factbook, the sex ratio between men and women in Ethiopia is approximately 0,99 depending on the age group we look at (see sources: CIA World Factbook). This means that around half of the population are women. Then again, women are the ones who suffer a lot from discrimination and health issues. The “WHO Multi-country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence against Women” stresses the problems of violence against women in Ethiopia. Physical violence means that “the women had been: slapped, or had something thrown at her; pushed or shoved; hit with a fist or something else that could hurt; kicked […]” I do not want to mention further details. It also speaks of sexual violence which for example contains that women had “been physically forced to have sexual intercourse” and so on. The report mentions that “nearly one half (49%) of ever-partnered women experienced physical violence by a partner at some point of their lives”. “59% of ever-partnered women experienced sexual violence at some point, and 44% during the past 12 months”. Combining the data, it is being emphasized that 71% of ever-partnered women experienced one or the other form of violence, or both, over their lifetime. (All the data comes from the mentioned report, see sources). So, I pose the question: how can poverty be overcome, how can development be achieved when almost half of the population is being discriminated, half of the population is being suppressed violently?


So, what are the social structures like in Ethiopia? Yefign Worku says that “There is a stereotype role concerning gender starting from birth. If the baby is a girl, people applaud three times, if it is a boy, they do so seven times.” (Worku 2001: 98). This obviously has to do with the men being the providers in this relatively poor country. With an HDI of 0,435 it was actually ranked 173 on the HDI Ranking in 2013 (see sources). Right from the beginning, the girl is “told to stay at home” and “instead of going to school, she is expected to get married at an early age and to take over the household chores” (Worku 2001: 98). This issue is also being mentioned in theoretical texts like the one of Wharton. He states: “Once a baby is born […], one of the first questions asked is whether the baby is a boy or a girl. One reason why this questions matters to people is that a child's gender gives us important clues about him or her. Specifically, a child's gender conveys to us information, expectations of behavior and personality, and offers us guidelines to interaction” (Wharton 2012: 137).


Concluding, I believe that by living in such an oppressive environment, a huge amount of potential which lies in the women of Ethiopia is being detained. A potential, that could definitely improve the country's social and economic situation. The research of empirical and theoretical literature leads me to the impression that women definitely have a difficult role in Ethiopia. Seemingly, by the suppression of women in the patriarchal a lot of potential is getting lost. The wisdom, the physical strength and the social abilities that women embody could contribute to a great extend in improving the situation of Ethiopia. To my mind, the approach of the NGO “Menschen für Menschen” already goes into the right direction and highlights the importance of including women when trying to overcome poverty.






First of all, the text allows us to better understand the role of NGOs and in particular Menschen für Menschen in African countries -Ethiopia-. The micro credit has been a late helpful discovery when financing third world societies. It rests on the concept of increasing individual's purchasing power rather than dealing with local institutions as intermediaries. Though credits have never been created to benefit both parts of the "business", I am afraid in which way this could move forward. Interests on credits refund are a highly profitable element when doing business, therefore it may bring actors from the private sector in the pursuit of expanding their business.

Briefly, though I trust on the good faith of non-government organizations, I am not very sure how big is their impact towards locals' culture. I mean, bringing all these new concepts -microcredits for example- from our society has surely an impact on the way of living. There is a "cultural risks", when foreigners tell locals how they should behave or how they should deal with certain situations. To put an example, those microcredit owners may be told what to do and how with that money in order to be more successful.

It is fascinating to learn that there are organizations like “Menschen für Menschen” out there to help improving the living conditions of people living in the dark site of the capitalist world. I can't agree more on this idea that in order to solve poverty and social bigotry from its core, we have to help people gain knowledge and economic independence. Simply donate to whoever needs money is an easy way to give charity, but it is not the best to trigger the real social change. Tzu Chi is a charitable organization that I have been working with two years ago. Its guidelines resemble these of Menschen für Menschen in many ways. Both charitable institutions have their work grounded more than mere financial aid, but also on education, financial empowerment and respect.
Link to Tzu Chi: http://en.tzuchi.ca/index.php/en/

It is nice to know that there are charities like these out there to help with the financial difficulties that people face around the world and also the many other problems that stem from these difficulties alongside problems surrounding them. In regards to the power that women hold and the possibility for change, in the views of a Utilitarian it may be seen differently. A Utilitarian would hold the beliefs that it is morally right to do the something that would benefit the most people and do the most good. With regards to this a Utilitarian may look at the situation and think that the sex of an individual does not play a role within the problem but that the people themselves are the problem. a Utilitarian may state that it our moral duty and that it is morally right to donate money to these charities, because of the fact that by donating money the money is put to good use and in the end creates the most happiness for the most number of people.

Thank you for this article. You did well presenting the NGO and their web presence at first and the scientific knowledge afterwards. You get the readers attention and lead him through your argumentation. By relating to women and their situation in Ethiopia and presenting facts on the Ethiopian society in general you make perfectly clear why development-aid is a gender-related issue. I really liked your argumentation and structure!