Donor Money and the Case for Supporting the Little(r) Guys

“When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.”
-Benjamin Disraeli

It is a beautiful thing to see laws change towards the protection and empowerment of women. Notably, this spring, Nigeria changed its law on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), banning the practice for good. But only time will tell if this policy trickles down to the thousands of rural communities where young girls are still being cut every day; becoming susceptible to the potential of severe bleeding, cysts, infections and complications in childbirth leading to an increased risk of maternal mortality and newborn deaths. Nigeria joined the list of 29 other African nations to ban the practice, among the likes of Somalia, where 98% of women are still cut despite the law. Clearly, law did not become community change.

Let it be said again, it is a beautiful thing to see laws change towards the protection and empowerment of women, but it  remains only a glamorous spectacle if community change does not follow. It’s good to celebrate law changes; they represent something honourable. But the real change won’t come about in the courtroom or through flashy marketing campaigns- it comes about through slow, painstaking commitment to working through the years and layers of tradition, understanding, fear, power dynamics and control. It would be nice if community justice was as romantic and heroic as it seems in our ideals, but it is mostly frustrating and monotonous.

Decades of research, work and attempts towards eradicating FGM have shown that successful work is done by community-committed people who stuck it out for multiple years, working through those many layers with patience and care.

Take the Community Empowerment Approach taken by Tostan in Western Africa. Tostan workers commit three years to a community to take them through their program to end FGM and child marriages. The model is built around Community Empowerment Program Sessions that create a space for guided discussion and education about the harms of FGM. Instead of offending communities by criticizing the practice, or simply pointing out the illegal nature of the practice, these sessions allow communities to gain a clearer picture of the consequences of FGM and then come to their own conclusion about whether to continue it or not. At the beginning of the Community Empowerment Program, Tostan also has communities create committees to lead future development initiatives. Members are democratically elected and are trained in project management and social mobilization skills. Community outcomes are put in the hands of the community, along with support, training and education. Since Tostan began their work, over 8000 communities in Africa have abandoned FGM and child marriage.

Whether or not FGM was legal or illegal had no say in the outcome of community initiatives. Laws that protect women are irrelevant where governments are corrupt. So though it is good to fight for law change, it’s really good to fight for government reform, and even better to fund long-term committed, community level programs in the meantime.

Sadly, few community development programs are as successful as Tostan’s. A common trend becomes apparent to anyone who spends enough time in the humanitarian aid and development field: projects are failing. Huge International NGO’s become bureaucratic and political, corrupt partners poison the well, aid is used to further political agendas, well-researched approaches fall apart in practice, and ultimately, donor money is wasted. It’s a scenario the Cynical Aid Worker is all too familiar with. Please note that this isn’t to say organizations can’t grow big and do good work still. But there are noticeable trends that are hard to overlook when one gets close enough. Problematically, because huge organizations attract most of the money with their massive marketing campaigns, small but effective grassroots-level projects starve for the financial capital they need.

Donor money has incredible potential. Giving USA estimates that 258.51 billion dollars was donated to charitable organizations in 2016 by Americans. But are we really seeing 258.51 billion dollars worth of justice, development, empowerment, hope? Are we really getting the return on investment we desire? We should, we can and we will when donors can start putting money where it matters. But where? It’s true that it may be impossible for the average donor to connect with the amazing locally-based Ugandan woman who lifted herself out of poverty to now be doing successful work training community members to start businesses and feed their families (a gap the Acacia Movement is trying to fill). But what about supporting the littler guys? Tostan is one of them. You won’t see their ads on the side of a bus, or on a jumbotron at the next Hillsong conference. But a bit of well-intentioned research into the issue of Female Genital Mutilation will bring their name up. After all, if America is going to spend 258.81 billion on something, I’d hope they’d do their research first. Don’t just assume that the loudest voice is the best or truest voice; do your research.

Donors and donor groups can put together $12,000 to adopt a village of 800 people and put them through Tostan’s 3 year Community Empowerment Program to end Child Marriage and FGM. Check out the Take Action page on for more organizations we trust to use your money well.



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