What do we mean by the term ‘development’? It is so commonly used these days, but yet I think it is reasonable to assume that a single person may use this term in several different ways, and that across people, even further variation may be found. I believe this is a critical question for one to answer, especially while engaging in work with organizations aiming to ‘develop’ others.
The answer I consolidated for myself, before embarking on a four-month internship in Rwanda, was somewhere along the lines of Amartya Sen; for me, ‘development’ referred to the capability of people to lead the lives they choose, to be the authors of their life story and not just passive characters in it. And now, half way through my internship in Spark MicroGrants, I am being exposed to the way this theoretical definition is realized in practical terms through Spark’s unique and inspiring working model with vulnerable communities in East Africa.
What Spark is doing is solving global problems with local solutions, exactly as the name of the graduate program I’m studying in at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests - Glocal. Spark is pioneering a novel approach to community development; an approach based on the belief that communities facing poverty have the intrinsic capacity to solve the problems they face by themselves and that our role as NGOs is to equip them with the tools and funding necessary to launch their own local projects.
Being community-centered means that the community is regarded as the primary agent of change and as such, the community as a whole has the responsibility to drive its own development. The choice to work with communities, rather than with individual people, is based on the strong belief in the power of a group to generate social change that has a higher potential of impacting the lives of many individuals.
Being process-driven means that the project itself is not necessarily the most important component of Spark’s model; it is the process that the community goes through that is the essence of the approach. Throughout a five month process, Spark MicroGrants assists the community in mapping and utilizing their existing resources and assets in order to plan, implement and manage their own project aimed at addressing a pressing problem they have identified in their community. Other significantly unique aspects of the process are the time community members contribute to the project, both during and in-between the community meetings, an average of 1,600 hours, and the democratic community elections of a committee, composed of an equal number of men and women representatives, which serves as the leading body of the community throughout the process with Spark.
Lastly, being locally-led means that the ones guiding and leading the process with the communities are not “Muzungus” (the African term referring to white-skinned foreigners), to whom the local culture, language and traditions are foreign, but rather young, motivated, passionate and visionary local facilitators. Even Spark’s story of “how it all began” reflects this value and makes it stand out in the landscape of development NGOs. Spark MicroGrants was established through a connection formed between the three co-founders, two Americans and one Rwandan, whose life paths intersected by chance and led to the creation of this inspiring organization. With Sasha Fisher’s experience in NGOs in South Africa, South Sudan, India and Uganda, with the knowledge in the microfinance field of Neil Lesh, with Ernest Ngabonzima’s familiarity with the local context of Rwanda, and with the great passion they all shared to find a way to mobilize communities to be their own agents of change, the three of them built Spark MicroGrant’s unique model.
Today, Spark has partnered with 71 communities in both Rwanda and Uganda, impacting the lives of over 30,000 individuals. Community projects that were planned and implemented over the past three years include agriculture projects, nursery schools, health centers, animal rearing projects, honey cooperatives, grinding machine projects, vocational trainings, and latrine construction. Perhaps the most outstanding figures are that 97% of the projects have proven to be sustainable over a one year time period, and that many communities have initiated more projects on top of the initial one they designed during the Spark process.
When I chose to intern at Spark I was extremely excited that I finally found an organization that seemed to fit my exact definition of ‘development’. However, I must admit that I was also a bit skeptical, not because of doubts that I personally had, but because other people expressed disbelief in the ability of such a model to work so well. Now, when I am part of this incredible organization, I think that I might have become their best advocate.
I recently had the opportunity to ask some of the Spark staff what excites them the most about Spark; “The high priority Spark gives to the community’s will”, “The fact that Spark provides a voice to the most vulnerable people”, “The smiling faces of community members when they implement the project they designed by themselves” were some of the answers I got. And what about me? I completely identify with the answers my co-fellows provided, but I think that what excites me the most is the thought about the potential this model has of scaling up and creating an amazingly significant and needed change in the field of development work; a change that will mobilize more and more NGOs to adopt and utilize Spark’s community-centered, process-driven and locally-led approach to development.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER:
Inbar Ziv is currently doing a four-month internship in Spark MicroGrants, in the framework of her graduate studies in the Glocal Community Development Studies program in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Inbar has extensive background in social activism and entrepreneurship. In 2011, she was the Head of the Social Activism Department in the Hebrew University’s Students Union. In 2012 she co-founded and is since the Co-Director of an entrepreneurship center in Jerusalem, named SifTech, which operates the first and only start-up accelerator in the city. She is writing her own blog on her internship website and welcomes everybody who’d like to read more about her experiences in Rwanda to take a look!