Monday, April 11, 2011

Launch time for Spark Advocates!


I'm happy to announce that after much planning and testing it's time to bring Spark Advocates out of beta! We're excited about this new way for people to get involved with our work.  Being a Spark Advocate is a great way to make a contribution and learn about issues in development.

Our initial batch of Advocates have already made some really great contributions.  As Spark MicroGrants continues to grow, the role of Advocates in ensuring the success of these development projects will grow as well.

Spark Advocates is about linking communities, and helping to one community's development efforts succeed by connecting other communities to their project.  Fund raising is an important part of advocating.  Raising awareness and helping people in your own community understand how these communities are building a better future on their own terms is also key.

Spark Advocates is open to anyone, anywhere.  No prior experience is required, only a desire to make a contribution.  You'll be connecting with other Advocates and Spark project facilitators from all over the world, but you don't ever have to leave your home town (of course, it's good to get out once and a while!)

This is an opportunity to build new skills and get some great experience an in the field of international development.  There are also chances to contributing to grant writing and other project-specific activities.  It's a great chance to put your creativity and passion to work to make a real difference, too!  

If you are interested in becoming an Advocate, you can sign up here. To learn more, you can check out the new Spark Advocates Handbook, or download the sweet new Advocate flier.  Any quesitons?  Feel free to email Andy Pritchard (me) at pjandy@gmail.com.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Scaling


We’re envisioning our future and standardizing our procedures. Some things we’ve learned over the past few months and our ambitions for the next few are getting us hyped up to scale. Just to sketch out what scaling can look like, we’ve elaborated on each actor and program of Spark MicroGrants below.

Communities

Loosely organized communities that have little to no experience with other aid/development projects are great candidates for a MicroGrant. Our multi-meeting planning process for communities to develop their project proposals has explicit redeeming qualities. It often increases community trust, organizational capacity, project planning skills, and empowers communities to reach out to new resources for other projects or to improve their first one. After we engage communities they typically have large voices and gain confidence in their capabilities and ideas, which is a clear indicator to me of increased dignity. Even if the communities don’t benefit so greatly from the process, they walk away with a development project that addresses a specific goal, like increased access to clean water and nutritious food. 

Facilitators



We’ve worked with a number of facilitators but are moving more towards a Facilitators Corps; recruiting university students or recent graduates to facilitate community meetings and help communities develop their MicroGrant proposals. Students interested and showing a passion for development, media and peace and conflict studies are of particular interest in Rwanda. These students tend to be energetic, passionate and caring about communities with little previously developed biases or project ideas that could potentially corrupt the process. They are familiar enough with local situations of under-resourced communities and can relate and communicate well while also seeing the bigger picture of the organization and their appropriate, short-term role in individual communities development.
Our facilitators have done remarkably. One of our first facilitators in Rwanda, Moses, is giving a goat from his salary; Aaron in Uganda got a $5,000 follow on grant for the school in Wanteete; Erneste is at the National University of Rwanda working towards his undergraduate degree, dedicates the rest of his time to Spark and is even writing articles about community projects; Belitia, our only woman facilitator is now standing up during meetings and speaking with a louder voice; and Fred is starting a social business for pig rearing in Bugesera, Rwanda. Towards the end of each MicroGrant project facilitators often come to me with suggestions for other groups to work with and asking that we can ‘please support them also’.  They start feeling for each community they engage and become concerned with the disparities in wealth, not just in the world, but their own countries. They often explain to me that there are people with money in Rwanda and Uganda, but they aren’t investing it in the rural areas – that is why they appreciate working outside of the cities and with the worst off in their country.

Organizers

I may be the only example of an organizer for Spark currently but why should I hog all the fun? I get the sense that there are hundreds of people eager to get on the ground and support community-led development. Organizers will have the chance to help a global movement meant to support community-led development and do hands on fieldwork at the same time. The position is dependent enough on the organizer that two years in the field would yield high impact development, but also not fall apart when they move on – a large dilemma for many western initiated grassroots efforts. 

We have a wonderful group of Spark Advocates thus far who are helping to support MicroGrants in Rwanda and Uganda. Advocates are helping to mobilize energy around specific community projects while being based in America. They are helping to get the word out, support our communities in East Africa and raise funds. Andy Pritchard is leading and developing this arm of the organization!

Spark Voice is a new initiative to promote citizen media reporting in MicroGrant engaged communities. Spark Voice will work with community members to train them on media tools, develop and promote their stories, and stimulate a dialogue within the international aid community where voices of under resourced communities are heard and appreciated. This program is unique in that we will help depict a community voice, along with individual voices, and will report on one region over time, through the MicroGrant process and after, providing for depicting developing local views of a developing region.
Justine Esquivel will be moving to Rwanda to help launch Spark Voice, which was in part inspired by our facilitator Ernest Ngabo, a journalism student in Rwanda. Ernest and a fellow university student, Claude Muhire, are passionate about helping rural Rwanda develop and getting the real stories about their lives out in the media and to the world. We’re really excited to see it get off the ground. Advocates and Voice will work closely together, and complement each others work to promote the communities work.
If you’re interested in learning more about the current team, visit here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Ruhango Electrification Project

A guest post from our Spark Advocate, Nate Barthel!


Cheap and reliable access to electricity is a powerful catalyst for business development, a major contributor to increases in productivity, and an important factor in improving overall quality of life.  Unfortunately due to a shortage of state and local financial resources, the village of Rambyinyana remains without power.  

Spark Microgrants has determined that with a relatively small donation of $2000 the village would have enough money, combined with $4780 of their own money and additional government subsidies, to build an electrical delivery system.

Why Electricity?
Most of us understand that access to electrical power is important, in fact, here in the Western world it is critical multiple aspects of our daily lives.  But what does electrical power mean for a rural village in southern Rwanda?  We might assume it would be at least useful, but without any context, or understanding of daily life, it would be difficult to develop a real appreciation for its importance.  The following few paragraphs describes why electricity is important to the village of Rambyinyana.

Cost
Regardless of whether one has access to electricity or not, people throughout the world need light.  In Rambyinyana they rely on costly gas to provide light in the evening hours.  Using gas to light a typical home roughly costs 100 RwF/day (a little less than 20 cents). Over the course of a month this would mean that a family spends approximately  3000 RwF ($5) on fuel.  With access to an electrical utility, the cost would drop to between 500 and 1000 RwF ($1-$2) per month (after construction costs), a significant savings considering the average family subsists off of 30,000 RwF ($50) per month.  

Education
Students need light in the evening to read, write, and practice their arithmetic and in fact is one of the chief reasons the people of Rambyinyana have sited the need for electrical power.  Affordable electrical power will allow children to study into the evening hours, increasing their learning potential and promising to improve the future generation’s standard of living.  

Business
Electrical power is also major catalyst for business, which leads directly to increased incomes and improved livelihoods.  The people of Rambyinyaya have identified a number of opportunities including the establishment of a modern salon, a clothing tailor, and a food services business.  Each of these businesses require electrical power, power to run hair dryers and clippers, power to run sewing machines, and power to refrigerate food such as milk.  No doubt given access to cheap electrical power additional businesses will be created.  

Productivity
Electricity, and the machines it powers, leads directly to increases to productivity.  Here in the West, electrical power is used to save countless hours that would otherwise be spent washing clothes and preparing food.  Similarly, the people of Rambyinyaya will use electrical power to increase productivity.  Specifically they have cited the need for a grinding machine which would greatly shorten the time it takes to grind grain.  

About Rambyinyana
The village of Rambyinyana is in southern Rwanda.  It is made up of approximately 575 people who subsist primarily off of agriculture and specifically cultivating beans.  


Villager Working Bean Crop                          
Source: Sasha Fisher



Rwanda                                    
Source: Wikipedia


Ruhango District in Southern Province                     
Source: Wikipedia



(You can also access this report here)



Sunday, April 3, 2011

Let's Talk

On a recent Thursday morning, I opened my inbox to find that a fellow Spark team member had sent this video of novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of the single story.

Wow, right? She shares so many powerful messages and personal stories, but two points she made really stuck out--the first when she said that “poverty was the single story” she knew about the family of the boy that worked in her childhood home and later when she said that if we “show a people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over, [that] is what they become”. Along with thinking back to the (embarrasing) instances when I was guilty of the single story mindset, I couldn’t help thinking about the MicroGrant communities.

All too often, the single picture we see of impoverished communities is grim, with little hope for a solution that does not come in the form of external aid, expertise and billions of dollars. In turn, we lack the understanding of their capability and potential to thrive when given some organizational support. Spark works with economically disadvantaged people who are still perceived to be incapable, which is simply not true. The MicroGrant communities are actively proving this mindset wrong by designing, proposing and implementing their own development projects. Yet, how do they now share their success stories in order to be a part of the development dialog? How do they show that poverty is not their single story?

Enter Spark Voice, a global citizen media platform for the communities to discuss their projects and how they are taking control of their own development. Unlike more traditional forms of media, citizen media is available to anyone, including the all-too-often unheard poor. Communities can then speak on an equal platform and at the same volume as the ‘experts’. We are still in the planning and implementing stages, but within the next few months we will begin working with the local facilitators to provide citizen media training, editorial review, and an online reporting platform for the communities to tell their project stories via written accounts, digital photos and videos.

The goal is to empower communities to persevere and become key active participants in the community development conversation and, as a result, increase the global community’s awareness of the capacity of people who experience poverty first-hand. Little by little, we hope that this will help shift the approach to development from an expert-driven to a community-driven focus.

Many incredible stories are coming from the MicroGrant communities that challenge the single story and offer a different and more realistic perspective--stories of the collaboration, empowerment and development of the poor, from the poor.

Stay tuned for more Spark Voice updates over the next few months. If you would like to help support this project, we have a FirstGiving page.