by Abigail Pickus
As a student at the University of Vermont, Sasha Fisher went to South Sudan to help set up a school for girls. It was 2008, and as she took in a country ravaged by two decades of civil war, with thousands of South Sudanese streaming into the country from refugee camps, she was struck by something absurd: it was outsiders – not insiders – who were overseeing change.
“That really opened my eyes to the challenges in the development sector and to how much power there is in locally-led development,” said the 25-year-old Fisher.
In response, she moved to Rwanda in 2010 and launched her own organization.
Since its inception, Spark MicroGrants has worked to provide a new model of aid by catalyzing local, community-driven change. So far, they have partnered with nearly 75 communities in Rwanda and Uganda and have committed over $200,000 worth of microgrants, enabling communities to design, implement and manage their own social impact projects ranging from building schools to increasing access to clean water.
“It’s called ‘spark’ because we want to be the catalyst that launches communities into taking their own action; we just get them started on that first leg of development,” said Fisher, who co-founded the organization with Neal Lesh, a chief strategy office and computer scientist who is a veteran in the field.
The way Spark works is they hire local university graduates and give them the leadership and facilitation training they need to lead rural communities through a project planning process, which includes having the community vote on their most pressing problem and building a plan to address it. Spark typically provides a $3,000 microgrant to the community to fund the project.
Unlike microfinance, Spark provides both facilitation and funding and the funding need not be repaid, therefore community groups can invest it in the social change that they see fit, according to Fisher. In this way communities are empowered to make real and lasting change – for the present and the future.
“Whatever the microgrant is for, whether it’s to build a health center or a school or an electricity line, we’re helping them launch their own project with the hope that the project will not only go on, but will encourage the community to continue to launch new projects and drive new development,” she said.
A good example is a Spark initiated project in a community located in a mountainous area in northern Rwanda where sanitation was a problem. Through a $6,000 microgrant, the community built 60 latrines for households in the village (before toilets were a hole in the ground covered by banana leaves). They tapped local design to draft the plans and used local materials to build the latrines. But that was just the beginning. After the completion of the project, they began hosting their own community meetings, which have since launched other projects, including building a home for the village’s orphans.
“While the work they did to create the latrines was important, even more important is that they have the capacity now and are continuing to work together,” said Fisher.
Fisher had an unusual childhood, growing up in what she calls the “abstract art world” in Tribeca, in Lower Manhattan. Her father is an abstract painter and her mother was a sculptor who later became a therapist.
Although Fisher is Jewish, it was only after she founded her organization that she began to consider how Judaism has impacted her.
“To be honest, I didn’t realize how much Judaism did play a role in my life. I wasn’t very religious and was mostly connected to Judaism through tikkun olom,” she said. “But now I realize that I am connected to Judaism’s value system, such as letting other people drive their own change. It is a Jewish core value to believe that all people in the world should have access to basic needs.”
Now entering its fourth year, Spark is set to partner with its 100th community.
“We’ve become very ambitious,” she said. “At first we worked on succeeding in a targeted number of communities and focused on how to replicate that in other communities, but now the question is how to build institutions to facilitate more change and to train other organizations so that we’re not the only ones leading these initiatives,” she said. “We believe that all communities facing poverty should have the opportunity to drive local change and there is demand for community based approaches that can go to scale.”
2014 also introduces a new online platform where people who want to support Spark’s work can donate directly to a project, according to Fisher.
“We are building a world where everyone will live with dignity and drive their own positive future,” said Fisher “it will only happen if we work together and now everyone can play a direct role in this remarkably feasible goal by donating to our work online and spreading the word”.
To get involved, visit Spark here: sparkmicrogrants.org