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Can community-based programs that foster self-sufficiency help break the cycle of poverty?  This is the fundamental belief behind Project Concern International (PCI), a California-based non-profit organization working with communities in 14 countries to end hunger, address health problems, and support the disadvantaged in pursuing a viable livelihood. PCI has a presence in six African countries, including Botswana, where I just returned from participating in the SAP Social Sabbatical program, which is part of my company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment. Although I wasn’t assigned to PCI, I had the opportunity during my four-week visit to talk with Dorothy Tlagae, the organization’s Country Director in Botswana. The SAP Social Sabbatical team for PCI is pictured above L to R: Yonko Yonchev, SAP, Dorothy Tlagae, Country Director of PCI in Botswana, Ezequiel Massa, SAP, Regine Schwimmer, SAP, and Thato Mochipisi, PCI in Botswana.

According to Tlagae, PCI’s philosophy stems from its founder, Dr. James Turpin, a community-based physician who realized that “you can’t always provide solutions. To transform lives, you have to work with the community to understand their challenges, and help them learn how to solve those challenges themselves. While our vision and mission is always evolving, this belief remains at the core," said Tlagae.

A self-described activist for women’s issues, Tlagae has a master’s degree in Development Studies, Social Work and Development from the University of Botswana, and has worked for the United Nations and the American Embassy in Botswana. “My work is aligned to what I’m passionate about. It’s always been my dream to see how to ensure a conducive environment for children to grow,” she said.

But how much of a difference can such programs make in the lives of people facing incredible hardships? Plenty based on these three examples from PCI. Each addresses family vulnerability by providing support for people to become self-sufficient at different stages of their lives.

Early Developmental Support for Pre-schoolers

With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), PCI began the Tsela Kgopo (“Winding Road”) program, which focuses on early childhood development. “This timeframe is critical for averting future school drop-outs and poverty,” said Tlagae. “If you have a mother who can work and children in the development program, you can build skills at an early age before they begin primary school. We’re looking at alternative models to expensive pre-schools, including structured play groups with a tiered curriculum.”

Empowering Youth with Skills and Careers

PCI launched the Youth Tweende Project last year to provide young people with practical skills for gainful employment. It’s funded through a partnership with Barclays Bank Botswana, and revolves around holistic support encompassing health, employability and financial skill development. The curriculum teaches not only skills like setting goals and teamwork, but also the development of social entrepreneurship projects in local communities.

“We want youth to understand the dynamics of what’s going on in their communities, and how to work together and design solutions for problems,” said Tlagae. “Those who want to can design a business plan and look for funding.”

Using social media, PCI attracted over 800 youth in Maun to the Tweende Project in that city. Over 350 have graduated from the Life Skills program. While the initial focus was on startups, 140 of the graduates actually returned to school after discovering they needed additional skills to run their own businesses.

Saving Money Changes Lives

PCI’s Women Empowered (WE) Initiative organizes women into small groups who work together to find employment and save money.

“In Botswana, people are losing their extended families. They may be living with HIV, and have isolated themselves,” said Tlagae. “The group savings approach helps them reconnect with the community-based way of life. Many women remember they’ve had training years ago but never used it. In working together, they rediscover their skills, and can use that to participate in the group income generation activities.”

Currently about 60 groups of women have total savings of approximately 200,000 pulas. Tlagae describes the impact on women as nothing short of profound. “It is an a ha moment for these women who, for the first time in their lives, walk into a building they never imagined themselves in – a bank they’ve always considered to be for people who have a lot of income -- to save money from just a collection of a few pulas,” she said. “Being part of the group, and seeing others value their participation builds confidence.”

Tlagae sees all of these programs as empowering people to have dreams in a country where the government does everything for them. "We need to take people out of that mindset,” she said. “Understanding that you have control over your destiny, and can determine your future is a different way of living. We want to give people the tools to find out their passions and capabilities so they can be self-sufficient.”

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