"The Midweek Read": Change from the Bottom-Up: Lessons from an African-based Development Organization

By: Danielle Taylor 

Tostan is an African-based development organization whose approach is unlike most development organizations. Their unique approach has led to unprecedented, sustained, community-led advancements in areas of health, education, governance, economic growth, and environment.

Through 20 years of trial and error, Tostan has successfully demonstrated the value of a bottom-up approach to meeting community needs. When it enters a community, it does not go in with a bag of money and preconceived answers to the existing problems. Instead, they enter with what can be called a values assessment.

 This starts with simplified conversations among community members in which fundamental values are teased out. In a recent presentation by the organization’s founder, Molly Melching, six values have been consistently found in the communities in which Tostan operates: the primacy of the family and social network, peace and unity, hospitality, fulfilling one’s role in society, respect and dignity, and patience and perseverance (especially for women). With these expressions of underlying values, the conversation then moves to identifying what problems exist in the community, determining the causes of the problems, and deciding how the community members can work together to address these issues while maintaining their values.

Image Credit: Tostan

Image Credit: Tostan

This is contrary to the approach of many international aid organizations, despite their best intentions. Typically, outside groups enter with sermons on particular problems, such as the need for an increased number of health works or the rights of women and girls, thereby failing to consider the interconnectivity of these and other issues. These foreign organizations also usually fail to tap into the internal motivation for and ownership of development by residents in the communities in which they seek to serve. This is the key to the sustainability of their efforts.

Most importantly, Tostan doesn’t use the “blame and shame” tactics often elicited by community outsiders. Keeping value judgments, concerning the people engaged in certain practices at bay, allows for an understanding of the underlying reasons for the continuation of harmful practices.

We believe that through this mission we can ensure every person—woman, man, girl, and boy—is able to live a life of dignity.
— Tostan Mission Statement

For example, there is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). Of the eight countries in which Tostan has operated, over 7,000 communities have made public declarations to abandon FGM. How was this achieved in light of the considerable international uproar over the time-honored practice, and an equal amount of pushback from practicing communities over the lack of cultural respect and understanding? Tostan’s approach was to first assess the underlying values involved in carrying out this tradition. Of those previously mentioned, maintaining the family and social network and the respect and dignity of the girl child were most highly evident. Families wanted to ensure their daughters’ marriageability and prevent the child from being ostracized by the community for being “unclean”.   

Acknowledging the desire to help the community’s girls was the starting point for further conversations about the implications of the practice such as short and long term health problems that often prevented the girl from being productive in later years.

What’s most interesting about the issue of FGM is that Tostan never explicitly set out to end FGM. It was an outcome of the holistic, community led approach to development. Government foreign-aid agencies, NGOs, and even socially responsible corporations should be encouraged to follow Tostan’s model to realize sustainable and desired development results.