SOS Sahel International: SOAS’s digital archive preserves development charity’s legacy

SOS Sahel International

Sometime in the mid-1980s, the people of the arid town of Shendi, troubled with land degradation in northern Sudan, were invited to a series of puppet shows. The puppets enacted plays and held conversations on forestry awareness; in particular; the need to plant lines of trees to protect the land. The puppet shows were held over ten years in the region that saw a steady, efficient implementation of shelterbelts; thus improving not just the land resource but also the lives and livelihoods of people.

The puppet shows were part of Shendi’s Village extension scheme; the very first project of ‘SOS Sahel International UK’ a charity founded in 1983, to respond to the emerging crisis of famine and drought in the African drylands. Headquartered in London, SOS Sahel International UK began as an emergency crisis response project. However, its ethos was always rooted in enabling a long-term change. Therefore it gradually turned into an umbrella organisation supporting its local teams across the African drylands.

SOS Sahel; development charity Africa
Puppet show. Photograph: SOS Sahel International UK

Though largely working in Sudan, Sahel has carried out several projects with Sahelian communities across Africa: fighting soil erosion in the Segou region of Mali by helping communities build stone barriers and plant trees; to working towards curbing food security in Ethiopia by working closely with the farmers; SOS worked closely with the local communities—using traditional knowledge and innovative methodologies to solve problems at the grassroots.

The charity also strongly believed in indigenous voices to be at the forefront of policy work and research; thus it launched its research programmes in the early 1990s. One of the research projects transpired into a book that drew from interviews with over 500 people across the Sahel region. Titled ‘At the Desert’s Edge: Oral History’s from the Sahel’, the book “explored the culture, history and environment of the Sahel through the memories and recollections of its people.”

SOS Sahel International’s vision was to create “thriving sustainable communities across the Sahelian drylands that have control over the decisions that affect their lives and the resources they need for a secure and fulfilling life.” Thus, unlike several other international charities and foreign aid, their spirit went beyond the saviour complex. Rather, they sought to empower communities to seek long-term, sustainable solutions and to ensure their voices were being heard. This is why after achieving this goal, SOS Sahel shut shop last year, after 36 years of operation. Their daughter organisations, SOS Sahel Sudan and SOS Sahel Ethiopia, now independent and working as their partner organisations ,are largely formed of and for local community members. They continue working on a diverse range of issues, from ‘improving access to water in Darfur and strengthening civil societies in the Red Sea State to supporting smallholder farmers in Ethiopia.’

SOS Sahel; archive
Photograph: SOS Sahel International UK

While SOS Sahel Ethiopia and SOS Sahel Sudan continue preserving SOS Sahel Internation’s legacy through their operations, SOAS too has an interesting repository of its publications and resources, digitised as part of SOAS Special Collections. It has been recently transferred from the NGO to SOAS and is not available publicly elsewhere.

The SOS Sahel International UK archive consists of about 38 resources so far, with digitisation still ongoing. These include old newsletters, photographs and sketches, field research reports, annual reports, fact sheets etc. which have been meticulously catalogued with elaborate descriptions. There’s a thorough report on ‘Gender and Pastoralism in Ethiopia’, a collection of innovative suggestions on ‘How To Promote Local Products’, a guide book on ‘Understanding The Management of Commons’, as well as literature on the social accountability of charities and much more.

These resources are well researched and essential to anyone who is keen to understand the Sahel region from multiple perspectives and in depth. The archive is also a valuable resource for those interested in the methodologies of development work, on-field challenges, influencing policy-level change, involving external stakeholders and working with communities in a way that neither victimises nor patronises them. With remote learning still ongoing, this digital archive would make for an excellent academic resource, especially for incoming SOAS students interested in development studies and/or understanding the African drylands.

Access SOAS’s SOS Sahel International archive.

Find out more about SOS Sahel International UK.

Discover more about Development Studies at SOAS.

Devyani Nighoskar is a SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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