What Looks Right

Sasha Rabsey

I’ve been home from Burkina for a week.  The red dust is still in the fabric of my sneakers; the images of village women leading us through dusty millet fields to their wonderful new grain mill still fresh.

We had gone to Burkina Faso, a West African nation that appears annually on the list of three poorest countries on earth, to visit a HOW Fund grantee. For three years I had been supporting Aminata Diallo, an Ashoka Fellow working with teenage girls around issues of sexuality, family planning, and empowerment.  Aminata is a fine boned, delicate, ladylike high school philosophy teacher with a fierce loyalty and unyielding commitment to keeping young girls in school.  Tired of watching teenaged girls year after year become pregnant, then marginalized,  Aminata took action.  She founded her organization, Maia, and started her work by creating “Listening Posts” where girls could have confidential conversations around issues of sexuality and family planning.

While this may sound like a simplistic innovation, a domino effect soon took hold and the listening posts turned into mother’s clubs, vocational training combined with family planning for girls no longer attending school, a replicable model of training for teachers and counselors in local schools to identify and reach out to vulnerable girls, creation of preschools, fostering the establishment of a rural women’s initiative, and the list goes on.  You get the picture: one small action leading to another and another, emerging organically from the needs of the community.  From Aminata’s simple idea has come big, life-changing impact.

Little did I know I’d ever get to Burkina to meet Aminata and see Maia in action.  When Kaitlyn Brown, from Ashoka’s US office, and Coumba Toure, Director of Ashoka’s West Africa operations called and invited me to visit Aminata and observe the Ashoka fellow selection process taking place the week of the proposed visit, I hesitated.  Then I jumped.  This is important work, and I had to see it.  Aminata is an innovator I believe in and I had to meet her face to face.

I’m so glad I did.  This was an “aha!”, “open my eyes” trip.  The day we spent with Aminata and the women of Yirwal, a small village near Bama, was the day I discovered Grassroots development done right.  That day, and the discussions and reflections that followed, have reshaped my thinking about what works.

Many donors begin their work with set criteria that a grantee must satisfy.  Does the project have impact? Will the innovation to go to scale (whatever that means)?  Will beneficiaries’ behavior change last?  Has there been systemic change?  I have been developing an uneasy relationship to these concepts, and wondering about my own criteria are for funding—how much is head, how much intuition, how much heart?  I haven’t come to terms with what all these jargony rubrics really mean.  The “Thou Shalt Go to Scale” command in the social innovation world sometimes sounds as inflexible and prescriptive as a parent shaking a finger at a balky eight year old to “Eat Your Vegetables.”  I get the idea.  I question the imperative.

For three years I have been checking grantees for healthy financials and then using my gut instinct about the grantee and the work, basically flying by the seat of my pants. So far this has worked for me.   But after my “aha” moment that dusty day in Yirwal my intuition now has a road map to get me to where things feel “right.” Any other donor could easily quantify what I saw, but I actually had a strong feeling of justifiable “rightness” about Aminata’s bottom up grassroots approach.

Let me illuminate why I view Aminata’s work as impactful, scaleable, and systems changing by talking about just one of the many initiatives Aminata’s organization has fostered: the building of a girls dormitory.  At a middle school in a remote village near Yirwal an unprecedented thirty unmarried girls became pregnant during a single school year.  Subsequently, most of the girls were pulled out of school by their parents, their education terminated forever, because of the stigma attached to being an unwed mother.

The head master of the school came to Aminata for help.  Aminata could have tackled the problem conventionally, by going into the school and lecturing on the evils of teen pregnancy.  Instead she garnered community support and built a girl’s dormitory. Why a dormitory?  Because Aminata saw that the girls from the surrounding villages had to travel nearly four miles each way to get to school, which left them vulnerable.  In order to decrease travel time, many girls stayed in the homes of relatives, friends or acquaintances in closer proximity to the school.  Without parental supervision and a lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of sex, the girls were often preyed upon by men and boys in their host homes or by teachers or staff at school.  The girls who chose to make the long walk every day might be interrupted by someone along the path or stopped by someone in a neighboring village where they were casually coerced into sex or raped.

Aminata has already aligned with the community over the desire to keep girls safe and in school.  She had developed a curriculum focused on sexuality and family planning for the middle school.  But the dormitory was the real game changer.  Five days a week, 18 girls live in a small cement structure surrounded by fence with a metal gate.  There are two rooms with colorful straw mats on the floor where the girls sleep, study, and are safe to act like adolescent girls. Isa and Awa are the dorm parents and their job is to care for the girls.

Isa spoke to me passionately of his desire for his baby daughter to grow up and acquire a university education.  His wife Awa was clearly proud of her position as the head teacher of the new village preschool.  Awa had learned what an important advantage going to preschool is for the health and future of children and embraced the responsibility.  A mother’s group grew out of the communal desire to support the girls’ efforts to stay in school.  Soon each mother took her turn cooking and carrying pots of food the four miles to the dormitory.   All original eighteen girls have now graduated and are planning to advance on to high school, an extraordinary statistic in the village.   Ironically, there is now community pressure on parents to support their girls efforts at advancement--no one wants to be the parent who thwarts their child’s ambitions by pulling them out of school in order to help at home or to be married off.   So as a result of Aminata’s “simple” innovation, not only do girls have newly acquired status in the community, so do the parents!

As of this writing Maia has launched a campaign to gain funding for a larger dormitory on a nearby piece of land purchased with funds from the community and Maia.

This is just one of the brilliantly simple  initiatives that have organically grown out of Aminata’s work.  The key to her success, though, has been her ability to build an alliance with stakeholders based on trust and cooperation, an alliance that addresses a community problem with a community based initiative.  The impact of Aminata’s work is far reaching: ultimately the alliance she has created will open the way for development village after village.

When I dreamt of becoming a donor who partners with social innovators to create change, this is what I hoped for.

Aminata Diallo, Founder, Maia; and Sasha Rabsey, Founder, HOW Fund