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Self-reliance is defined by independence. It is the ability to think and act without the help or influence of others, the ability to decide what you should be or do. Dependency is the act of relying on others to make decisions for an individual. This causes people with power and privilege to take responsibility for the lives of those that are less fortunate. Dependent people learn to rely on others, failing to find the motivation to solve problems on their own. This learned helplessness is a learned behavior that to be reversed before an individual can become self-reliant.

The Community Empowerment Network (CEN) believes self-reliance is vital for residents in developing countries to successfully govern their own lives and economies. When residents rely too heavily on outside influences, even supposedly benevolent players, such as government agencies and non-governmental organizations, they relinquish control of their resources and more importantly, their future. They allow others to make decisions not always in the best interest of these communities. The people of these developing regions often have a vast amount of resources available to them, but they do not have the skills, knowledge or experience to use these resources to benefit their economy. Instead, groups and individuals who know how to produce and sell these commodities in many cases take the natural resources, leaving the local people with minimal profits. Those that benefit from these resources often exclude the people that need help the most: the third-world residents living in poverty. When volunteers and consultants come and work on projects to help communities, they leave to go back home soon after completion. Often, progress on a project will stop soon after the volunteers depart because a problem will arise and the dependent individuals are not able to solve the problem on their own. Because of this, CEN strives to empower individuals to become self-reliant so they can forge ahead and eventually run a sustainable economy for themselves - pursuing an agenda they determine for themselves.

Children at the Community Canning Kitchen in Suruacá

An example of the need for additional self reliance was illustrated a few years ago in the tiny community of Suruacá. A German organization came to the village deep in the Brazilian Amazon to build a kitchen for the women of the town. The idea was that the women could use the facilities to make doces (sweets) from local seasonal fruit to sell, generating income for themselves and their families. Not long after work on the kitchen was completed, CEN Director Bob Bortner spoke with the women to discuss why the brand-new facilities were not being used. The group explained that they knew how to make doces and use the kitchen, but they did not know how to sell the sweets afterwards. They were waiting for someone to tell them how to sell the products before they would start using the kitchen -- an example of learned helplessness. The women of Suruacá were waiting for someone with power and authority to determine how they would make and sell the treats rather than take the initiative to come up with a plan to turn a profit on their own.

After the meeting, Djalma Lima, one of the participants in our Amazon Prototype Project, took Bob aside and said, "I get it now. You aren't telling us the answers. You're making us find the answers ourselves so we can solve our next problem ourselves. So someday we're not going to need your help anymore, right?" CEN's mission is to help each participant, each family and each community it serves to come to this same epiphany. CEN guides individuals who live in poverty, helping them create their own objectives and develop the skills and resources they need to become more self-reliant. Eventually, we hope this self-reliance develops into a lifelong journey of learning and desire to pull themselves out of poverty.

"You're (CEN) making us find the answers ourselves so we can solve our next problem ourselves. So someday we're not going to need your help anymore"


Djalma Lima
Program Participant

Each day CEN works to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries by empowering citizens to create and manage their own sustainable economies. Our goal is not just to assist people in earning more money -- rather, it's to provide them with more options and opportunities to further their lives and to encourage self-reliance in the future. We do this by helping participants achieve a strong foundation of basic skills and mindsets that support self-reliance, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, confidence and more, and then help them build entrepreneurial and technical skills. We also strive to remove many of the obstacles they face by helping them access and build social and financial capital, infrastructure, markets and develop local value chains. Along the way we mentor them as they build sustainable livelihoods for themselves, their families and their communities. We institutionalize these developments so that when we and our partners disengage from the communities, they stand on their own.

We believe that "giving charity is just another way of saying, ‘I don't believe you can do it either." 1. It is not our goal to continuously provide charity to further our own pride. Instead, we are motivated by a vision of a world where individuals everywhere are empowered to achieve their goals. To make this world a reality, we strive every day to help rural communities in developing countries, and their residents, learn and adopt self-reliance as their new way of life.



1 "Unlearning Helplessness: How Donors Reinforce Poverty and Dependency." Scholars & Rogues. whythawk, 16 April 2007. Web. 28 Mar 2010


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