Episode 4: Sasha Fisher Talks Decolonizing Philanthropy Through Community-Driven Development

Guest

Sasha Fisher is the co-founder of Spark Microgrants. She moved to East Africa in July 2010 to develop the Spark MicroGrants model. Her previous experiences in South Sudan, South Africa, India, and Uganda have led to her passion for community-led development. Sasha holds a BA from the University of Vermont in Studio Art and a self-designed major of Human Security, a paradigm for development that recognizes the rising legitimacy of non-state actors in securing basic human needs. She serves as Executive Director of the organization.

Intro

Global Partners for Development proudly presents: What Do You Understand? Deep dive into the many facets of philanthropy and development. We will have conversations about what really works and what really doesn’t. Do we know yet how to solve poverty? Are big ideas the answer or do we need to look for small grassroots solutions? 

Experts in their field will discuss an aspect of their work that they understand particularly well. We will delve into how their work addresses global inequity with an honest conversation about impact. Let’s talk about big bets, innovation, social enterprises, large-scale humanitarian aid, and the fixation on ending things or solving humanity’s greatest problems and the issues that arise while tackling it all. 

I am your host Ria Pullin, and my co-host is the Executive Director of Global Partners for Development, Daniel Casanova.

Ria

Our guest today is Sasha Fisher. Sasha is a co-founder and Executive Director of Spark Micro-Grants, an organization that helps communities across west, central, and east Africa to develop and launch their own social impact projects. Welcome Sasha!

Sasha

Thanks Ria, and thanks for doing this podcast! There’s so much we don’t yet know about, like, how do we build the world that we want to see? So, I’m happy y’all are diving into that. 

Ria

I’m excited to talk to you about it. I think we kind of start with just—I want to hear a little bit about your background and how you came to Spark Microgrants. 

Sasha

So, honestly it was like a trail of questions, I think. I think I’m like the opposite of like, oh, I thought I knew something, so I should do it.

It was more like; I really don’t understand so many things. So, I like, have to go learn about that. I grew up in New York city and was in public school my whole life, which I loved, like, amazing education. But we also didn’t learn so much about the world. Like, we literally never once learned about anything on the continent of Africa.

And I’m pretty sure we probably didn’t learn much about the continent of Asia, which is like a good portion of our entire world. So, it felt like there were some things missing. And I also grew up about five blocks north from ground zero. 

Ria

Oh

Sasha

And I was in school when 9/11 happened. And so, when, you know the thing that used to guide me home, the twin towers, cause you could see them from anywhere in the city.

Um, uh, and as New Yorkers got to roam around whenever we wanted, you know, so like at night when we’re wandering home, we, we could look to those towers to get there. Um, but when they fell, it was kind of a question for me. More around, why did this happen and what was America’s role in making this happen? What inspired these events? 

So, 9/11 was this moment of like questioning for myself: What was America’s role in this and what inspired these events? And I think around the same time, I was starting to learn also about the kind of immense level of global poverty in the world, and it felt, like, unfathomable to me, just like really hard to wrap my head around.

And both of those things led me to explore, kind of for the next decade, like, what does it look like to build a world that actually works for everybody and a world where everybody can meet their basic needs and live with dignity? I didn’t really understand as a naive kid in New York city. Like, why aren’t we there yet?

Like, why doesn’t that all the systems, we have so many innovations, so much money, like so much capital in the world and so much brain power in the world. You know, why haven’t we achieved that yet? Isn’t that the first thing for us to figure out? And when I got to university, I think that I allowed myself to dive in further into that question and really ask what is it that has—that makes the most progress towards that world?

And, um, I remember there’s like this charity, uh, rating system online that existed when I was in high school. It was like Charity Navigators, like first version of Charity Navigator or something like that. And it was like all that it, the only criteria was like percentage of, of overhead, you know, like how much money organizations spend on overhead.

And I was like, this is like a terrible—that t doesn’t tell me anything about the impact. Like, it’s—it’s like a non-starter it’s not telling me any real information. Um, and you know, companies have lots of overheads, so why, why don’t we hear about that? So, when I got to college, I ended up following, um, some, I went to school in Vermont and Vermont had a really strong refugee resettlement program.

And there were a bunch of folks who had come over from South Sedan, and so, I followed a few friends back to South Sudan and learned about, you know, in Yei, South Sudan have close to the border of Uganda and the DRC. I just kind of followed my friends around for a while. And, uh, and they showed me the empty school buildings and the broken water taps in an area that was emerging from two decades of civil war.

I mean, it was, you know, it was like, if you were going to invest in an area like this was the area to invest in, and yet you could see the investments were just like, sitting unused. Tons of money to build stuff and then going unused. And the, you know, the question of course is like, why is that the case? And community members would say, well, that’s not our school.

You know, a big INGO came in and built that. That’s their school and that’s their water tap. Why didn’t they come back and fix it?

And at the same time, South Sudan was pulling out. Out of war and into an era where they were about to gain independence. And the idea of independence is like, how do you, you know, having control over your own future, the future of your country, the future of your land and people. And it felt like a lot of the foreign aid money that was coming in was really detracting from that future that it was actually telling people you aren’t in control of your future.

Like we control the money and we’re going to build these big projects that are going to pull apart very quickly. Uh, and we’re going to sideline you in the process of we’re going to essentially teach you without saying it that like you don’t have the right ideas for your own country. And so, when I graduated from university, I was like, well, that’s a total mess.

That’s, that’s, you know, definitely not the right way to do it. Can we reverse that and basically do the opposite thing instead of like going in and imposing ideas on communities? Can we, you know, still move the resources, but let communities have their own decision-making and the worry about what their future looks like.

And it might be a healthier psychological state to be in, but also like a healthier infrastructure, uh, you know, way to build the infrastructure too.

Ria

Oh, that’s fantastic. 

Daniel

And so that led you to Spark then.

Sasha

Yeah. And then we have been like accidentally started this organization called spark. 

Ria

I accidentally can I get a posha, posha, posha?

Sasha

Yeah, posha, posha, posha. Saratoma! Saratoma!

Ria

I see why you work in the area you did, mostly because of the Sudanese friends that you followed. Right. Is that why you chose that specific area for Spark? 

Sasha

You know, when I moved to, so in 2010 I ended up moving to Rwanda, very, uh, big, uh, uh, a remarkable opportunity and gift to be able to do that. And, um, I had never been to Rwanda before.

I knew I wanted to get back to the region. I did really love South Sudan. Um, but I wanted to go somewhere that I hadn’t been, I also wanted to go somewhere that didn’t have the limelight on the country. Um, you know, I think a lot of development efforts are tested and, you know, Western Kenya and every RCT happens in Western Kenya, which is a great area to work in.

And there should be a lot of work there. But I wanted to go somewhere that I didn’t know very well and that I could not pretend to myself to be any level of an expert on. And so, moving to Rwanda was like a forcing mechanism—go and be at like the opposite of an expert and just like, you know, kind of be there to learn and to explore and let folks from the region and kind of build what they wanted to build themselves for enabling communities to have greater power and authority and in their own development process.

So. Yeah, that’s how I ended up. And then I had an advisor who was like, oh, I know this one guy in Rwanda. And I went to Rwanda. 

Daniel

What—what was the first project that you guys did? Do you know, do you know,  the, like, the first community you worked with?

Sasha

Yeah, I, uh, I got to sit down in almost all of the community meetings there. So, there were three communities that in the first year that we worked in—within Rwanda, and then there was one community partner that we worked with in Uganda through a local civil society organization, a government official, a university student who, you know, very kindly volunteered.

And one of the first projects in Rwanda. Um, actually like a potato farm that brought community members from a community that would have quite a bit of conflict internally to come together and grow potatoes together, increase food security, uh, and also build some of those, the, the social trust that is so necessary at the community level, and also some trust between community members and local leaders.

Now it was really educational for us thinking about. You know, the processes important for the project that happens, right? The potato project is. Important people have more food. And also the fact that folks are sitting together and talking together, that there’s some sort of power there as well. And, um, and then the first community project in Uganda was. It was great. 

It was a community, um, called Guantiti and they had ended up building a school. And in my head, I was like, you can’t build a school for, you know, at this point it is, the grants were like $1,600. And I was like, this school is $1,600. Like there’s something in that infrastructure’s not going to be right.

This is a terrible idea. And of course, that’s the village that, like, ended up launching their school. Like the school was just like some tin roofing with some coals, you know, and the poles were donated by some folks in the community and, you know, grandpa donated the land and they made it happen. And kids we’re all of a sudden in school and now like fast forward, 10 years later, it’s a massive school.

I mean, it serves hundreds of students. They’ve built it out. There are walls on the buildings. Now there’s multiple buildings. It’s like a, pre-primary, a primary and a secondary. So, it’s all to say, just like never trust the Mizzumbu in the room. Never trust the westerner. 

Daniel

It’s like, they can’t do that. And that’s good. That must feel really good for you. I mean, I’m sure, and I know that you have, must have like, lots and lots of anecdotes. Like there’s like lots of communities like that. 

Ria

So, is that kind of how—what is like the, the process of spark coming into a community. How does that work from point A to actual, like the project they implemented?

Sasha

Yeah. I think the premise is that every village in every neighborhood, families and every village and families in every neighborhood have great ideas for their village or for their neighborhood, every single one of them. Right? Like people have great ideas and they know what their neighbors need. They know what their kids need.

So, there’s tons of brilliant ideas that exist. And it’s a question of how do you unleash those ideas to become reality? And also build this ethos that like, yes, we can do it. Like we have the power to be able to do it. What does that mean to be able to have the power to do it? Well, A, we start with weekly village meetings.

Six months of weekly village meetings. So, women and men, young and old are sitting together and actually talking about what is it look like for us to make progress as a village? What are our dreams for our village? What are our goals? Shared goals, right? Most organizations were in the, you know, Western development sector. Were talking about problems. 

Were like, what problem exists here so we can fix it and feel good? Now let’s talk about what, what do we want to see in the future? It’s a very important thing for humans. 

Daniel

Yeah

So, we focused on what do we want to see in the future? And then communities come up with their own pathways.

What are we going to do together as a community with the money that we’re receiving? Every village Spark works, Spark works with receives $8,000. Um, they start their—

Daniel

Except the first ones.

Sasha

Except those first ones. It’s unfortunate, but they’ve raised millions of dollars since

Daniel

No, keep going. I derailed you. 

Sasha

And, um, and then at the end of the six months, we, you know, at that time we actually start dispersing the funds, um, so that communities can have a win very quickly. And when you have a win in a lot of the organizing literature, you’ll see this, If you have a win at six months, basically stay organized and you keep driving local change.

And so, it kind of ingrains through experience this idea that like, oh, if we work together, we can actually achieve something. And for humans, I think three things that feel really grounding to me are humans, crave community, purpose and progress. We all want that, right? Like we do things for other people.

So, the community meetings are a place where it’s like at first people show up and they’re kind of dealing with their neighbors, but they all disperse from the meeting really quickly, you know, by the end of the six months, the village meeting after it’s formerly over, people are lingering, chit-chatting, they’re gossiping, you know, they’re like selling banana cakes.

Ria

They’re friends now. 

Sasha

Yeah, and they have purpose. They’re building a school together or they’re launching a business to make more money so they can feed their families twice a day, instead of once a day. You know, and they’re making progress. Like, the purpose is there, and then they actually see the progress together. 

That’s really fulfilling. That’s, uh, that’s really important for humans. And I think universally, we need that, and we could be learning from parts of east Africa, Southern Africa, a lot of the global south models that allow humans to experience those things.We, I think we crave that in the west. I think we’re seeing a lot of the fallout of folks not having a sense of, you know, loneliness is spiking and sense of community is really low. 

Daniel

And I think, you know, that was, I think like, you know, post World War II, I imagined that like our grandparents, they were like involved in their local city council and actually went to meetings where like, I don’t want this stop sign here.

We don’t want so, and so’s cow farm on this, you know, like they were really engaged and I think, like, we, we aren’t. Right. Like, I don’t go to—I mean, I have. I’m more engaged than most, but I think like right, there was probably a time in the U S where people did engage like that. And it’s like, it is interesting to be able to go to east Africa and actually still see, see that there’s that space like, yeah.

How do you bring that back? How do we, how do we bring that? How do we do that here? 

Sasha

Daniel let’s collaborate on this.

Ria

We gotta change everything. 

Sasha

Yeah. Bring this process to the US. You know, I think that I’ve talked to a lot of mayors in the U S and governors, and they’re interested in something along these lines.

Um, you know, I think in the US form, the formal spaces to engage with our government are limited. You like, you can go, you know, vote every four years, maybe every two years, if you’re like super proactive, that’s very low engagement, right.? In terms of formal spaces. And, uh, and I think people want to be closer to this state.

Like people are defecting from the state, right. We’re becoming anti-institutional because we don’t have enough touch points with it. So, we kind of like, don’t have any ownership over it. 

Ria

That’s why people are storming like the school board meetings, because that’s where they can actually make any, like. So back to Spark, like how much level of involvement do you have? I know it’s very community led. It’s all the community. What does spark have? Like, are they facilitators or what, and then where do you extract yourself? Or are you always, like, have some kind of presence? 

Sasha

Yeah, it’s a good question. Every village receives 8,000 USD. They set up their own bank account. They start their own savings.

So, they have, they end up having rotating funds, basically at the village level to use. And community members have full authority to decide what to do over that money. So, in that way, we have no control over that part. The thing that we do have control over and that we do instigate is, is kind of reinstituting inclusive processes. 

So, a lot of, you know, colonials, I’m kind of like created this version of governance that’s really about elite capture. So, at the global level, you see like there’s a handful of people who have a lot of power and they may kind of have, you know, outweighed decision-making authority of how the world is evolving. At the very local level, that goes down to the nation state that goes down to the village level at the village level.

You’ll see that where there’s a handful of local elites, you know, typically elder men who have the decision-making power in the village. And we basically don’t want to reinforce that. Right. We don’t want to be in that colonial kind of culture. And instead reintegrate some of the indigenous practices around collective decision-making and inclusive decision-making.

So, we do things. Um, we actually ended up training village facilitators who are young folks under 35. Every village elects their own facilitators. And we train them in how to hold and facilitate village meetings that are inclusive of women’s voices, youth, voices, um, voices that aren’t always heard at meetings.

Ria

That’s amazing. 

Sasha

Yeah

Ria

And then where is your level of involvement after that project is completed? 

Sasha

Very little. 

Ria

Okay

Sasha

So, we actually, um, right now we’re, we’re really working in partnership with governments. The government of Rwanda and the government of Malawi have asked us to support them in developing a national strategy for rolling out this, um, village-based system, uh, in every village, across their countries.

So, we’re really working to serve those governments, to be able to roll this out and the government. You know, is there this year or next year, it’s there that you’re after it’s kind of there indefinitely. Yeah. So, our involvement is supporting government to show up in, in really positive ways. 

Daniel

Well, what did, so in the, going into the future, does that look then, like the government would continue to do facilitation with the community on an ongoing basis? 

So, there wouldn’t be, it wouldn’t just be, it’d be a roll-in process, right? Like they’d have, what is that? Do you have an idea of what that looks like in terms of timeframe? Like, is it once a year? I’m just curious, like.

Sasha

Yeah, so, I think that first year is always going to be the most intensive because it’s one year instituting a new norm of a cadence of village meetings and how to hold that space, in a semi-inclusive manner, right? Shifting from just two people are making decisions to the village, to, you know, 550 people have some level of engagement is that’s a shift. After that first year, it will be an annual process. It’s essentially an annual village planning and budgeting process.

Um, and we’re just doing that in a really, really effective way, you know, that gets outsized impact compared to kind of any other model for village governance, village planning, and budgeting. 

Ria

And so what do you find some of the challenges are with community led grassroots organizations? Like what are you, what are the challenges you face specifically in Africa.

Daniel

Making it more like, what like, so, your, your model is a lot different from the way other organizations define themselves as doing grassroots work. So, how do you, like, what do you see as some of the issues that arise from that type of work? And, you know, I’m asking you to be like, mean, you know, like, what’s the, like, why does Global Partners suck?

Ria 

Stop.

Sasha

Okay. Maybe, maybe I’ll try to highlight how they’re different, right? Because there’s one operating mode of the world, which is like, there are great grassroots efforts that exist, and they need more support, and they should have more funding and they should have more backing and PR and money. And like, that’s just true, right?

Like the existing grassroots efforts that—they need more resources. The reason we started Spark was because we’re inspired by grassroots efforts and we sort of feel like, well, every village should have the chance to have that type of, the grassroots kind of movement happening at their village, but we shouldn’t have to wait for every village to start a community-based organization to be able to do something for their village.

Right. Like that’s just seems kind of silly. So, what if we almost deconstructed how we think about what does grassroots. Does it have to have a formerly registered entity to be grassroots, or can it just be a group of people that are coming together to create change that matters for their neighborhood or their village?

And if we believe that that is a really important form of grassroots work, then how do we actually stimulate more of that to happen so that there’s grassroots work happening everywhere, right? That every village has the opportunity for families to kind of get together, think about what they want, and be able to make that change.

And so, it’s just a different construct. You know, what already exists as like registered entities, making really important work in this world? Yes. Like bolster that work. In areas where that doesn’t exist or there’s other things that are left on the table because not every village is going to have a CBO, nor is that like, why is that? That shouldn’t necessarily be the end goal. Maybe the end goal was really about all people having some power to be able to create the change that they want to see in the world. And how do we design systems to enable that to happen? Um, and that’s really what we’re working on. You know, we don’t really care whether if there’s a group that’s already exists or if it’s registered or not, it’s just people. People should have the authority to create the changes they want.

Daniel

I’m in. You’ve indoc, you indoc, you indoctrinated me. 

Sasha

How would you describe the difference between the two approaches? 

Daniel

Well, I mean, I think it’s hard. I mean, w—what’s, what I think is hard about it is, is there’s so many different size players, right? So, I think that matters, and then I also think that the, there’s var—there’s, there’s a lot of, depending on the country, there’s varying government systems that, that are kind of pervert and, and, and straight, like, box in what can be done. Right.

 So, um, I think that, you know, on a very basic level, I think at some point there are the groups that are doing work, or try ,really trying, right. Like trying to have inclusion and dialogue with people on the ground and let have them be the have ownership. And, and to be honest, it’s like a spectrum, right? 

It looks like a lot of different things. I think for the most part of the issue I see is that everyone’s using the same language, but they’re all doing different things. It’s not, you know, in other sectors, I think he language, probably matches, especially in for-profit, right?

Like the, the language of the industry matches the people that are doing that work. Right. You know, if you’re an investment banker or you’re an engineer, or you’re doing like, you know what I mean? Like, but in the nonprofit grassroots work on the ground in East Africa. It’s like, everyone’s using the same language, but everyone’s doing a different thing.

Like their, their apples all look different. Right. You know? And so yeah. 

Sasha

Totally. 

Daniel

Yeah.

Sasha

Can I share two things that are—

Daniel

I am appreciative of all the range of work that happened and sometimes we are talking to the partners and we’re talking about how communities should have the decision-making authority over their—So, there’s two things I’m just going to share that are more, like, things that we would love to see maybe evolve in our sector. 

And like one is that people are like, well, yeah, people should have the decision-making authority over, you know, what projects they’re choosing, but then they still want it to be sector specific. They’re still like only going to fund education, or they’re only going to fund like a very specific type of intervention.

And sure. If you go to a village and you say, do you want a school? You know, like people are going to say, yeah, I want a school. You know, it’s not really, truly community owned. If you’ve already pre prescribed the outcome area. So, I want to challenge us in the sector like nonprofits, like Spark and donors to engage in a way that like, we kind of let go of the need to decide for communities what they’re going to be working on and allow them to have that authority. 

And the second piece is that there’s this, I think there’s like a myth about community ownership, that community is synonymous with one or two people and that’s elite domination, and elite domination, we don’t want to reinforce that. Right?

That’s the whole point of this work is so that everybody has a good life and a future. And so, let’s not mix up funding one person to mean community. Fund that person cause they probably have a great idea, like still do that. Just don’t think that it means that the whole community has like, actually has ownership over that project.

Right. And those are two different things. Like the individual versus the collective. Yeah. 

Daniel

No, I’m saying, on the foundation side, this happens, happening a lot right now. Like, just because you have indigenous staff or you have indigenous people making the grants decisions, right? They’re still within this, like, in some cases that, a lady in Nairobi that’s indigenous might be worse to work with than some like woke Belgian lady who maybe has under, I don’t, you know, I’m just speaking about it crudely, but it’s hard because it’s like it, then the, those foundations can point to and be like, oh, well, no, they’re ,there. They’re looking at all that. And we have a local advisory board that’s overseeing everything and all this, but it’s, it’s a, it’s, it’s a tricky. It’s tricky.

Sasha

Yeah. I think there’s an oversimplification there of not understanding the dynamics and kind of blanketing everybody by their nation state identity. It just simply isn’t the only identity that people hold. 

Ria

Totally, and like, and before, I don’t know if Daniel told you, so we kind of started this podcast because I started with Global Partners in October coming in with zero, like, non-profit or development, or philanthropy background at all. 

I am like a professional host. I’m a commercial actress. And so, I came in, I was like, well, let’s do this, but I wanted to be like, he’s an expert, you’re an expert. When experts talk sometimes for people who know nothing, it’s like way over their head.

And so like, I’m coming in wanting to like fully learn this, and I’m going to Africa for the first time in May to actually see these projects on the ground. And I’m very excited because I think awareness is one level, that I feel like people don’t even have. And so like, I’m just kind of on this awareness level and just like getting to know as much as like, you both have seen just from doing the work and that’s how you learn.

Um, I kind of just have this question, like on the other end of the spectrum, you know, what harm is being done to these indigenous communities by completely opposite of what you do top level here’s some money Westerners make all the decisions. What is the harm being done to the indigenous communities?

Sasha

So much, so much harm. No, really, very actively. I appreciate you asking that question. 

Daniel

Okay, yeah. 

Sasha

I’m trying to think about how to organize these thoughts.

Daniel

Are you getting angry?

Sasha

Yeah, I am.

Ria

I know, cause I just want to know because from someone who knows nothing, it’s like, oh, there’s like, oh, like something happen. Like texts for 4141 to Haiti or whatever. And we’re just going to send money, and this is going to do something, you know? So that’s where most people who know nothing about this space, that’s what we know about giving and helping places who have less, you know, that’s, that’s kinda where I’m coming from. But where’s the harm?

Sasha

There’s three things I’m going to highlight here, and cut me off if I’m getting too in the weeds.

Daniel

No, this is good. Go, go, go. 

Sasha

Okay. Number one is that some people are like, oh, we should, you know, like we’ve not done things perfectly historically, so we like shouldn’t be involved. And then you realize there’s comp—like the way that our global economic system works right now, it’s, it is doing active harm to indigenous communities.

And it has been, and it’s continuing to do active harm. And the way that that looks is for example of village in Ghana, that has, you know, where a company thinks that there are minerals in that village. They’re trying to make a dirty deal with one of the village leaders to give them, you know, give that guy some money and then promise jobs to community members who want to make more money for their families.

But where those, that promise is a false promise. Right. It’s a fake promise. It’s not going to be realized. Maybe they’re going to do really hard manual labor in the mine that’s very dangerous for people and get paid very little. And then in three months time, there’s going to be no more work. And the trade is that they give up all of their land to the company.

That’s not okay. That is land stealing. That’s harmful. People become displaced. They no longer have their farms to live off of, right? Because people are living off of the food that they’re growing on their lands. They no longer have a home. They no longer have food. That’s direct harm that’s happening that’s also fueling our economy that we also thrive off of, right? 

The minerals and the materials that are going into all of our technology are coming from communities like that. We have a partner, advocates for community alternatives that works with communities that are affected by mining companies and they help organize them.And they use part of the Spark process to help communities get organized and basically fight back and protect their land.

Daniel

That’s cool. 

Sasha

That’s active harm though, right? 

Daniel

Yeah

Sasha

That’s like one level of active harm that’s really explicit. There’s a second level that’s around  how do we work? How do we support and use philanthropic money and aid money to support families, to have a better life in the future and the how of how we work. When we do aid in a very top-down prescriptive way, what we’re not saying to people, but we are, you know, kind of people telling them is you don’t know what you need. 

You don’t have the government to implement the road. You don’t know how to build the road. You don’t know this. That’s why we’re coming in. 

Daniel

You can’t monitor your own funds. 

Sasha

I made the money, so, I know how to build that road. So, I’m going to come in, I’m going to build that road and then you’re going to thank me for that road. Psychologically, what that does is it tells people that they’re not capable and that’s that’s, uh, that’s that, that is a way that racism also is alive and powerful in the way that we use aid money, right? 

Psychologically that’s, that’s really detrimental. When you have a thriving economy where there’s lots of business growth, part of what exists is an entrepreneurial mindset where people feel like they have great ideas, they’re able to go after them. Sure. The capital’s there. There’s also a psychological component of that, right?

In America, there was this study that was done. That was like Americans, I think it was American men, but it’s still. American men typically believe, they always think that they test higher than they actually test. It’s kind of telling, like, and I think that it’s part of the entrepreneurial mindset, which is like, why would somebody go off and believe that they could like start some crazy company that does everything differently, you know?

But then they go off and do it. And there’s something about that gustier that’s important. Why aren’t, why isn’t that mindset that we’re also trying to support through aid. Instead, we’re actually telling people, you don’t have the ideas. You don’t have the money; you don’t have the knowledge to go create the change that’s needed in your area.

And so that, I think that’s the second level for me.

Ria

That’s like the American exceptionalism, right? Like the American exceptionalism where we, we think, not we, but you know, people think that because we’re American, we know the right way to do it because it’s how we built our country. To me, it’s like, uh.  

Sasha

Yeah.

Ria

But that’s also so condescending, what you’re saying, to go into a community and just speak like that. It’s so, condescending. 

Sasha

Yeah. And I think that it comes it often, I think comes from like a well-intentioned place where people really want to help. It’s just that we’re not so aware that, how we’re helping may also be doing this harm.

It’s kind of like, um, you know, the whole thing about handouts. It’s like a handout is good, right? Like people do need to say and like how you’re providing a handout, but like then can teach people. Okay, I’m going to sit and wait for that handout tomorrow. So, it’s not always a hundred percent true in that way.

And like, we should still always be giving people money and food and you know, and all that. And also, at the same time be doing things that build up people’s psychological. You know, kind of like belief in themselves. 

Daniel

Yeah. 

Sasha

Okay the third thing, can I say that.

Ria

I’m like there’s a third thing. There was a third thing.

Sasha

Everything in three.

Daniel

Everything in three.

Sasha

Okay the third thing is, in aid and development, like, we often times, not always, but we oftentimes right off the governing institutions that exist in the areas that we’re working in. And in some way, we’re basically letting them off the hook right? In the long-term like government should run programs that protect and empower its residents.

And so, if you’re going to say, oh, well, government, you know, doesn’t know how to do this, so we’re going to do it instead, which is what happens a lot in places like Haiti and other areas where NGOs come in and basically replace, create the public sector that should exist, right. A whole healthcare industry or a whole education industry.

But by doing that separate from government, you’re letting government totally off the hook, you know, like, and there’s no contract between the nonprofit healthcare system and the people. 

Daniel

That happens in education non-profits a lot like, oh, they can’t do they, they, the government can’t do this. They need to use our education model. Like we have a better one. We’ve used this, right? 

Sasha

Yeah, exactly, exactly. And then you tend to not have universal coverage of things and really at the end of the day, you want universal access to healthcare. You want universal access to education. You want programs that aren’t just going to reach 500 people.

You want them to reach all 11 million people in Rwanda, right? Or all people in another country. So, government engagement I think, is really important. And we have to remember. Yeah, we have to deal with that complexity. I think it’s harder, right? It’s harder than just paying for malaria pill, but it’s really important in the long run.

I know Daniel’s been like always championing when schools are built, like, does government know, are they going to pay for the teachers? Do they have a takeover plan? You know, for the school? It’s good. 

Ria

Well, what’s your advice to say, like any ordinary citizen who does the have their heart in the right place and they want to help these places succeed and have those things. What was, what would your advice be to these people who want to, who have the resources to put their money in the correct places that will actually do the most good and least amount of harm. 

Sasha

Yeah. At support organizations, uh, you know, that are allowing communities to make their own decisions over what happens in their village.

Ria

And how they find. How do they know that they’re doing that?

Daniel

Yeah. Good. Give money to Spark. Right? Here’s where to donate.

Sasha

I’ll give you a list. There’s Spark Microgrants, there’s Advocates for Community Alternatives. There’s FES in Burundi. There’s uh, uh, we have a page on our website that actually lists a number of partners that uses a methodology that allows communities to have control. 

It’s not the only way to do things. There are other approaches that are also really good and definitely give to more proximate leadership, like organizations that are run by folks from the region, you know, give to those organizations, give to the groups that give the most power, allow the most power to be held in committee members hands and definitely visit sparkmicrogrants.org. It’s $12,000 for one village to go through the process. 

Ria

We’ll definitely have the link in the show. 

Sasha

Female civic participation increases about seven fold. Pretty good things. 

Daniel

You’re good. You got, you have your elevator pitch down Sasha. 

Ria

So, do you want to ask her her thing? It’s the main thing that we ask people.

Daniel

Yeah. So, we’ve taken a lot of your time, but so, here’s, this is the thing. All right. What do you know really well, Sasha? What can you tell me about that? You know, really well, have you thought about it. I only gave you a few, I texted you, you haven’t had a lot to think a lot of time to think about it, but I imagine you understand something better than other people.

Sasha

Um, I understand that I really do not know what every village needs out there. Like I’m never going to claim that. 

Daniel

But it could be something like, you know, you understand your cat or your girlfriend, or you have like uh what, what’s the thing that, you know, really well? I know, you know, something. 

Sasha

Well to me, I fell like.

Daniel

What about that art? Like, you know, what a good painting looks like. 

Sasha

Well, it’s up to the viewer.  The thing that I get really excited about though. I’m not going to claim, you know, uh, uh, that I know the most about anything, but what I do get very excited about is new forms of how we govern, how we govern for inclusion. So that every person, you know, we can actually build towards a world where everybody can meet their basic needs and live with dignity.

And I think that there’s really solid ways to do that at the very hyper-local level. Like, you know, no government has really figured out village level governance or community level governance, and yet it’s the bedrock for democracy. Over the last 17 years, democracy has been in decline. Only one country last year, improved its democracy. That’s Malawi. 

Daniel

Wow. Wow. Yeah. 

Sasha

Let’s—I would love to see so much more energy, so much more funding, so much more innovation happening to figure out how do we really get great local, hyper-local level democracy to happen in villages and neighborhoods across the world. That stuff is really cool and in an inclusive way, you know, so every human has a say in their community. 

Ria

That’s awesome.  And we always close with what is the one project we’re working on right now that’s super exciting to you?

Sasha

Oh, yeah. Uh, the first lady from Malawi has recently invited us to support them and requested that we spread them in a national program in Malawi. And, uh, we are very stoked about this. Malawi is an incredible country, as I just mentioned, it’s the only country that improve its democracy last year. Bravo Malawi! 

Their leadership has been fantastic. There’s the desire for, from leadership in the country to, you know, get more power into the hands of community members, decentralized some forms of, of, of government. That’s really powerful and we get to work with them to do that, that’s really cool. One day, hopefully every village across Malawi will have some money, like a thousand dollars seed grant to do what they want with it and have an inclusive decision making process and on an annual basis. And that, that’s a, that’s a very exciting thing. 

Ria

That is really exciting. Thank you so much for giving us your time. I think this was a great conversation and it helped me understand a lot more about the differences of aid and help. 

Sasha

Thank you, guys, for letting me ramble for a while and talk about it, it’s uh, all the fun stuff of the world.

Daniel

Yeah. It’s good to get to talk to you. So, really super special Sasha. You’re very, very, very on point. I’m so impressed. 

Sasha

Okay. You guys can help me figure out how to say each one of those things in like fewer words in the future.

Ria

I think you did great! Thank you so much, Sasha!

Outro

At Global Partners for Development, our mission is to advance community-led initiatives that improve education and public health and East Africa. We envision a world in which every East African community has the capacity to implement dynamic, sustainable solutions to the challenges they face. 

To learn more visit GPFD.org.

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