Church Land Programme & Solidarity Relationships

... a case from South Africa


The Church Land Programme (CLP) - based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - and Irish Methodist World Development & Relief and Christian Aid (CA) are walking together on a solidarity journey which connects locally and globally, south-north and south-south in a unique way. This approach of solidarity with those who are systematically excluded, contains important learning for a changing world that increasingly searches for new ways of engaging in development.

CLP works to affirm, learn from and journey with those who are systematically excluded and impoverished in their struggles related to land and justice. Within South Africa, CLP connects with local formations of activists, some formal and others less formal, but emphasize that all are equally important to assert humanity and dignity, resisting forces that want to dehumanize communities.

CLP call their core approach “Animation”. This involves an iterative process that applies the learning and action cycle in people’s specific situations and with the intention that they mobilise themselves to act to change that situation in ways that they decide. CLP's work includes Rural and Urban Access to Land and Service Provision, Land rights Defence, Livelihoods Groups and Mutual Support.

The local dimension – CLP solidarity with communities

Among the formal local solidarity examples is the relationship with Abahlali base Mjondoli – the Shack-dwellers movement(Abahlali) which now has an audited membership of over 50,000. Abahlali fully sets the agenda, CLP does not dictate projects to Abahlali but over the last years has been walking alongside them in Solidarity, eg. CLP offers training of new community branches and expert advice and support in the strategic process.


CLP attends Abahlali’s general assemblies, monthly national council meetings and political education camps allowing ongoing interaction with leaders enables feedback from leaders and ordinary members. CLP engages directly on two levels with the overall Abahlali hub collective (as a grouping of many communities) and on request with communities directly – in a flexible and adaptive way. Two Thirds of active participants in Abahlali are women, increasingly also in Leadership. 

Another example of a decade-long solidarity relationship is between CLP and the Roosboom United Churches Committee, which after a decade of advocacy finally achieved compensation for their Churches destroyed in the 1970s during the Apartheid era. Some of these Churches are now finally being rebuilt (see photos). Again, it is the community leading the efforts and setting priorities but CLP walking along with them and supporting the process and advising on legal and organizational aspects.


Among the more informal struggles: some communities identified a new threat in the form of “fracking” (exploration for methane gas): The extractives industry is recently targeting certain areas of KwaZulu Natal and attaining exploration rights completely disregarding the communities that live there, potentially affecting their livelihoods, and possibly even displacing communities in future.

Adding the global connections:

Christian Aid’s South Africa Programmeenables connections, with a direct flexible funding of CLP’s organizational plan 2017-19 which helps enable the CLP approach of “Animation” and allows CLP the flexibility to engage with new opportunities and priorities like the emerging fracking struggle mentioned above. This is adaptive programming really driven by the needs and priorities of communities which emerge during regular dialogue and reflection.

However, Christian Aid also connects with communities in the north. For example, we are arranging long-distance skype “Contextual Scripture Sessions” connecting people affected by “fracking” in both KwaZulu Natal, SA and Lancashire, UK. This is intentionally not a generic conversation but a specific two-way solidarity issue that really affects people’s lives. Otherwise CA supports CLP in monitoring and strengthening their collection of evidence and organizational capacity, as well as connecting via the Global Network, for example with Brazil. 

The Irish Methodist Church, through World Development & Relief, allows scale up of the CA core funding, with some additional funding which allows CLP to reach more people (in 2017 a total of 1,983 women and 580 women directly participated with an additional indirect reach of 17,000) but critically without adding to CLPs reporting burden nor adding inflexible project-style targets or indicators as all reporting happens jointly via Christian Aid and the flexible Solidarity “Animation” approach is fully respected – with CLP setting its own priorities and objectives which in turn are fully guided by the priorities of the communities. 

However, again this is far more than funding. the Irish Methodists also participate in the closer solidarity relationship. There have been visits from the Irish Methodist Church leaders and members without the burden of needing to formally “monitor” more in depth (a task left for Christian Aid in agreement, again avoiding duplication) but to understand the lived experience of the communities. For 2018 an extended youth event visit is planned by the Irish Methodists in this same understanding. In 2017 there was also a Communication visit with videos and photos – resulting in the photos used here (and many more) – which in turn allowed the Irish Methodists to bring this relationship closer to the Irish congregations. 

Christian Aid Ireland (CAI) has made this connection possible. CAI administers the relationship with several Irish church supporter groups – notably with the Methodist Church in Ireland through World Development & Relief in this case, and also helps to increase visibility of the work & the communities’ struggles for dignity. CLP has previously been invited (via Christian Aid Ireland) to engage in Ireland with the Irish Churches. 

These solidarity relationships enabled learning also for a new emerging effort by some European and South(ern) African members of the global ACT Alliance through the South Africa Ubumbano Solidarity hub process. This video  shows the momentum towards our aim of creating a joint solidarity model of European and local ACT alliance members with South(ern) African partners with a shift of power towards the Global South. CLP has given major input into the thinking of this new approach and both CLP and CA are on the Ubumbano Solidarity Hub advisory group which is the main decision-making body of this joint network.

In all the work with communities, CLP attempts to build spaces rather than bridges, and invite others also globally to be part of this effort. Two headline questions guide all this work: 

1.    Are we holding the right boundaries (respecting democratic process without imposing)?

2.    Are people and communities acting for themselves – building their own common vision? 


Text compiled by Gerhard Buttner, Christian Aid South Africa Programme Manager - May 2018



Who benefits from development?

A few years ago, I was standing in a field in the coastal area of Ghana, West Africa. I was there with Irish Methodist World Development & Relief (WDR) as part of my work and had travelled with my colleague and volunteers from Ireland who had photography and videography skills that they were sharing with WDR at no expense. We were visiting work being managed by Methodist Development and Relief Services (MDRS) and farmers were planting new strains of coconut trees to replace those that had been devastated by a killer virus. In that one field, we had donor organisation staff, donor supporters/volunteers, staff from the partner NGO and beneficiaries, the farmers, all ‘doing their thing’. A nice illustration of working together to improve things.

 Spot the beneficiaries: Tim West (photographer), Grace Quansah (MDRS volunteer) and Mr Addison (local coordinator).

Spot the beneficiaries: Tim West (photographer), Grace Quansah (MDRS volunteer) and Mr Addison (local coordinator).

In WDR, we have tried to outlaw the word ‘project’ as we feel it puts an emphasis on ‘things rather than people’ e.g. the number of wells dug rather than the improvement in the quality of life for the community. That’s why we use the phrase ‘People not Projects’ as a mantra at times, especially when presenting people’s stories through picture, written word and video.

As WDR thinks more and more about how we refer to people and the language we use, there is something about my description of the people in that Ghanaian field that makes me uncomfortable. Three words to be precise. The words are ‘donor’, ‘partner’ and ‘beneficiary’. In the traditional view of international development, a donor gives funds to a partner (typically an organisation) and the partner then carries out work to improve the lives of beneficiaries (typically the materially poor). This paints a rather one-way flow in the system; from donor to beneficiary. It does not describe good development practice well nor, indeed, the reality of what is really happening.

Instead of suggesting we look for new more inclusive alternatives for these terms, I offer another option; one that we at WDR, try to embrace.

Firstly, ALL are in that scene are ‘partners’. Partnership is about people with common values gathering around a common task in order to see it achieved. True partnership speaks of equality and equity, where everyone is of equal value and is treated with fairness by each of the others. The Ghanaian farmer, MDRS coordinating staff, WDR volunteers and staff; all are of equal value and should be treated as such. All are aiming to reduce poverty and improve lives and have gathered around common values such as justice, compassion and solidarity. Thus, they are all partners in the task. Together, they can each achieve more than they would on their own. Economic status plays no part in whether or not a person can be a partner. Another point to make is that WDR partners with people, not organisations. So when I think of MDRS, I am actually thinking of Joseph Donkoh, Mr Addison and so many other good people.

Secondly, ALL are ‘donors’. The ‘donor’ has usually been assumed to be the group that provides the financial input for a project. But money is not the only input required for successful development. Skills, local knowledge, labour, experience and relationships on the ground are also needed and it is usually local NGOs and communities that possess these valuable assets. WDR supporters may have the money to buy new coconut seedlings but they probably do not have years of experience in farming in southern Ghana nor the connections with local landowners in order to obtain new tracts of land. Each partner can ‘donate’ what they have.

Lastly, ALL are beneficiaries. You may have been with me up to this point and in agreement but this last claim may seem harder to justify. A beneficiary is the one to receive the positive changes brought about by the work. The farmer grows new trees and harvests the coconuts. It is clearly the farmer and his or her family that is benefitting. There is no benefit for the supporter who contributes to the fund or the staff of the NGO. Right? I would say wrong.

For example, being part of this wonderful WDR network of people has huge benefits for me personally. I get a huge sense of satisfaction by being involved in something that is good and successful. As someone with a Christian faith, I am able to fulfil my obligation to help the materially poor. Others who contribute from the ‘Irish end’ and yet do not proclaim any form of faith, will also get huge satisfaction and fulfilment from partnering with people across the world to make that world a better place. I also get to have an insight into other cultures and the lives of others; a very enriching experience. The staff of NGOs, like myself, earn a living and they also see their own communities progressing thanks to their efforts; surely a heartening and uplifting experience that does the soul good. These are all good things received and so I would suggest that everyone is a ‘beneficiary’, admittedly in very different ways.

Whether by making our contribution to the world by bringing clean water to rural villages, ensuring healthcare for a woman of a lower caste or providing education for marginalised children; if we do this well with others, we can be a partner, donor and beneficiary all at the same time.

Maybe this is obvious to you already or maybe this has made you think. Just to add, if we claim to be in partnership then we must treat our partners as our equals. If we claim to be a donor, then let us give what we can and give generously. If we consider ourselves to be beneficiaries then let us recognise the gifts we receive and receive them gratefully from those who have given them.

So, thank you to my partners in that field in Ghana. They give me purpose, meaning and fulfilment. On the surface of it, I appear to be giving them coconuts. Hopefully, if we were to scratch beneath the surface, they are receiving much more.