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Stone soup, recycling and the benefits of community organising

The parable of stone soup teaches that cooperation can solve a shared problem. How is this lesson being applied to waste management in Gambia?
The parable of stone soup teaches that cooperation can solve a shared problem. How is this lesson being applied to waste management in Gambia?

Communities organising to solve shared problems is a common trend around the world, but how does it benefit those involved and society more broadly? Stanley Ellerby-English investigates.

The story of stone soup is one that has stuck with me since I was a child and embodies a very important idea. The basic story, as I always heard it anyway, is that a traveller arrives in a small and poor town where everyone is hungry and no one has enough food to make a proper meal. The traveller starts to boil a large stone in a pot in the middle of the town and tells people they are making a delicious stone soup, a lie. He or she convinces the townsfolk one by one to add what little food they have to the pot to enhance the flavour of this supposedly delicious broth. In the end everyone has put in what little they have and together they have created a meal that none of them could have done alone.

Cooperating to solve a shared problem is certainly not confined to amusing parables of duplicitous but good-hearted strangers. It is happening now and it is happening everywhere, in relation to both old and new challenges. When people act together the benefits are many, and this is highlighted by a project that was recently reported on in the Guardian.

About 3 billion people around the world live without any formal waste management services. This is the case in Gambia where the government only deals with rubbish in select areas of the country, usually those frequented by tourists. For most people, the piles of refuse and the damage they do to everyone's health are a fact of life. For Isatou Ceesay, the founder of the Njau Recycling and Income Generation Group (NRIGG), this was unacceptable. She and over 100 other women sort the abundant waste and earn money by recycling whatever they can.

It's not all rubbish

The result is a new source of income for the women involved and a cleaner environment for everyone in the areas where the groups work. It is an amazing example of community action overcoming a shared problem and, as the article recognises, it is certainly not the only one. For example, the push for recycling in the UK largely stemmed from local groups taking the lead before it was integrated into broader government policy. This is indicative of the power that grassroots action can have, and there are many examples of communities organising in response to other challenges.

Rubbish in the Gambia
Isatou Ceesay decided enough was enough and got together a community group to gather strewn waste for recycling in the Gambia (Photo: Sachari, CC-BY-SA)
For instance, poor communities, where access to formal banking institutions is extremely limited, have seen a rise in the number of Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA). Here, members of a VSLA save money together, so when one member needs a lump sum of cash they are able to get a loan from the group. An equally good example is the response of local communities to the London riots in 2011. After a night of destruction, the so called 'broom army' – organised via social media – got together to quickly tidy up the mess. Just as VSLAs provided a community response to a lack of financial services, these people responded to damage done to the places they lived and worked.

More than meets the eye

In both these examples there are clear benefits to the people and the wider community. Poor people are able to access money when they need it and the streets of Clapham Junction are tidied. However, both also create a number of other knock on effects. For example, research on VSLAs has shown that the feelings of empowerment are as important to people as the money and the 'broom army' was as much about solidarity as sweeping. Equally, the structure provided by the NRIGG has enabled the women involved to organise around other vital issues, such as education and health.

The Guardian article ends by outlining the challenges that the NRIGG faces in the future; the main obstacle being gaining government support to scale up recycling. Obviously it is important that waste management is improved here and elsewhere, but it is worth noting that organising around specific issues almost always has wider impacts. Government intervention can certainly broaden the reach of a programme, but the change in structure may remove the other positive benefits of the project. To return to the story of stone soup, the act of coming together is as important – if not more – to the story than the food itself, which would be lost if help had come from anywhere else.

SOS Children believes that community empowerment can be an immensely important tool in sparking change and improvement now and for future generations. Find out how we help communities grow and thrive.