Sitting with village members of Nyarutosho Village, Rwanda, Sasha Fisher  listened to mothers fret over not having proper sanitation.

Latrines in the village were made out of sticks and leaves and children refused to use them, instead relieving themselves in the bush. The mothers wanted to change their circumstances, but simply did not have the resources to enact change. They confided to Sasha that their latrines were a source of shame. “How can you treat a guest properly if you must point them to a bush or a hole in the ground without privacy when they need to go the bathroom?” asked one mother.

As she listened, Sasha realized that latrines would not only bring better health to the village, but more dignity as well. So her organization, Spark MicroGrants, provided a $6,000 grant that brought toilets and hand washing stations to the village. The project was conceived, designed, and implemented by the villagers with support from Spark MicroGrants’ unique international aid program, which puts social impact opportunities in the hands of the communities receiving help.

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Unlike traditional international aid organizations where volunteers march in, decide what needs to be done, then do it while community members watch on the sidelines, Spark MicroGrants puts the onus on the locals. Their efforts are supported by the Spark Facilitator Fellows, university graduates from the countries they are working in. ”We listen to what they need, not go in thinking we know what that is, because sometimes the two are very different,” says Sasha.

Sasha’s interest in international aid started during her freshman year at the University of Vermont. She spent two years working stateside with a grassroots organization that was building schools in south Sudan before journeying there herself. The experience was an eye-opener for the New York City native. The other NGOs she saw in south Sudan seemed invasive. Even more disturbing was that most of the projects that were built by outsiders were abandoned once the volunteers shipped out.

Through her friendship with Rwandan Ernest Ngabonzima Nyutosho, co-founder of the Rwanda program, Sasha learned the importance of fostering community engagement, especially in areas with a history of intense human conflict. By giving communities ownership and requiring its’ members to work together, projects were more successful and there was an organic elimination of potential jealousy or divisiveness.

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That approach has resulted in 32 successful projects in two years like the Kajevuba Village’s Bee-Keeping Project. Other projects include building 60 latrines and hand washing stations, constructing two schools and a media center, connecting two villages to electricity and starting a honey cooperative. Sasha is working to develop a scalable model that can be replicated by other aid organizations.

–Lauren Malaika Cooper

For more information:

http://www.sparkmicrogrants.org

https://www.facebook.com/Spark-MicroGrants