A key to community engagement in the Jordanian Badia
In Al Majeddyeh, a remote village in northern Jordan, a group of women, known as the Wadi Al-Matba Women’s Charity Association, have come together to make a plan. They belong to a community where women are not typically business leaders or traders. That is about to change.
Milk processing and packaging, backyard gardening, vegetable pickling. The business ideas are brewing behind the walls of a house where tea is served to the women seated on the floor, leaning on the walls and debating the future. The key to unlocking their dreams and starting a business lies in their first ever official application for government funding.
Challenges and potential in the Badia
The Jordanian Badia covers about 80 percent of the Kingdom, receives less than 200mm of rainfall a year, but hosts about 60 percent of the nation’s livestock. The arid and semiarid climates, combined with uncontrolled and excessive animal grazing, cause widespread land degradation.
Al Majeddyeh village lies in an area of the Badia where ICARDA conducts its research on integrated watershed management. Partly funded by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), the research promotes sustainable water and land management practices, including grazing management and the introduction of alternative and sustainable income-generating opportunities to reduce pressure on fragile ecosystems.
“One such opportunity is milk processing and the introduction of technology that is less labor intensive, saves time and energy, and produces milk products of much higher quality,” explains Muhi El-Dine Hilali, a dairy technologist at ICARDA.
The targeted beneficiaries of this technology were young and old women who live in Al Majeddyeh and either owned livestock or had experience processing milk for home consumption. Most of the milk generated in the community was directly sold at a low price to the local Jaban – a milk trader. ICARDA aimed to equip the women with the necessary skills to add value to their milk and generate higher incomes.
ICARDA’s El-Dine Hilali undertook trainings in the community, but found that even after several trainings and demonstrations the milk processing technology was not adopted. The team of scientists were well aware that one of the key challenges preventing the effective dissemination of new technologies is a lack of trust: recommendations for change are often better received when targeted recipients relate to or trust the promoters of the technology or idea (Weltevreden, 2007, and Morgan and Hunt, 1994).
“This is true in every sphere of our lives. We buy products from manufacturers we trust, tend to stick to brands we know, and often exercise caution before investing in new ventures,” explains Bezaiet Dessalegn, a social scientist at ICARDA.
“Efforts to mobilize the Al Majeddyeh villages’ women into a business enterprise were faced with such a challenge – trust. Trust in the proposed milk processing technology, trust in the cultural acceptability and likelihood that such a community-based enterprise could thrive, and to some extent, trust in their own ability to succeed.”
The idea of a business enterprise was communicated to both men and women, including leaders of the community over several meetings.
“But, no matter what we attempted, the concept was deemed unsuitable and culturally insensitive,” recalls ICARDA’s Bezaiet Dessalegn. “After numerous attempts, it was clear that other strategies were needed to win the community’s trust.”
Changing the messenger to change perceptions
ICARDA approached a woman well-known in Jordan, Jalela Smadi, president of the reputable non-profit organization Jeracia Charitable Society for Women in Jerash, to work indirectly with the women in Al Majeddyeh. She was familiar with the difficulties of mobilizing women and changing perceptions, had experience initiating charitable organizations and businesses, and was keen to assist ICARDA.
“Our surroundings play a major role in shaping our dreams and aspirations. The women could not envision the life we were presenting as possible as we were considered an outsider to their world, to their challenges, and the opportunities they see for themselves. Therefore, we had to change the messenger to raise their confidence by letting them hear the message from one of their own, women from the same culture and belief system,” says Dessalegn.
After several meetings and lobbying community members, the women of Al Majeddyeh were finally given permission to travel to Jerash, about one hour away, to meet Jalela Smadi and some of the women responsible for the management of the Jeracia Charitable Society.
“What transpired at the meeting was a pure joy to watch,” recalls Dessalegn. “We watched the dialogue wash away the doubts and fears of the women. They were able to relate to each other and have candid discussions. The challenges in, and the fruits of, mobilization were clearly communicated. The women from Al Majeddyeh marveled at how the Society, which began with only 12 women and meager resources to process and market milk products, now has over 75 members, and benefits over 8,000 individuals through a variety of interventions.”
Dessalegn goes on to explain how the Society also generates income from handicrafts and soap making, provides day care, harvests water from rooftops, promotes solar panels, and offers skills training for local youth.
Inspired by their visit, the women from Al Majeddyeh initiated a legal process to establish an association, used social media and phone calls to communicate with Jalela Smadi whenever they needed advice, and subsequently hosted the Jeracia Charitable Society in Al Majeddyeh.
“Together, the women discussed options for value addition, visited the potential site for planned activities, brainstormed on possible renovations, and laid out the procedures for legal funds and business mobilization,” recalls Mira Haddad, a senior research assistant with ICARDA.
Dessalegn added: “It was wonderful to see that we were no longer needed and that the peer-to-peer mentoring was successfully empowering our women to aspire for something bigger, to gain the support and respect from their families and the community at large. They had the confidence and the can-do-attitude to establish their business and change their lives.”
ICARDA’s Dessalegn explains the important lessons learned – not only for the women but also scientists: “It taught the women, and us as scientists, how to persist and look for the best approach to access even the most closed community.”
The behavioral change needed to improve the management of natural resources or adopt new technologies does not come easy. It is a process that takes time. However, finding the right means of communication goes a long way to influencing perceptions and facilitating change. This example demonstrates that peer-to-peer learning and support networks are critical keys for communication and empowerment.
Muhi El-Dine Hilali is a dairy technologist with ICARDA: [email protected]
Mira Haddad is a senior research assistant with ICARDA: [email protected]
Bezaiet Dessalegn is a social sciences specialist with ICARDA and can be contacted for more information about the project: [email protected]
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Morgan RM, Hunt SD (1994). The commitment-trust theory of relationship marketing. J. Market. 58:20-38.