Dynamic Networks, Lasting Change

By Tanya Cothran

When it comes to international development, too often information, ideas and technology flow in one direction: from the United States to other countries. Time and time again, local knowledge and local resources are passed over in favor of “high tech solutions” hatched by the developed world.

Courtesy of Boyd Cothran

Courtesy of Boyd Cothran

At Spirit in Action, which provides small grants to individuals, small entrepreneurs, and communities to support vulnerable families, we have intentionally built a dynamic network that welcomes input from all parties. Recognizing that information can come from many different sources, many of which can be found locally, we work to foster connections that are multi-directional. Every day we are connecting with partners in seven countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa through our office, but perhaps more importantly, people are connecting with others in their country to share knowledge about projects in their respective communities.

Networking in Action

We recently received a request from Weldon Korir, a representative from a Kenyan non-profit organization interested in purchasing and promoting solar cookers to their self-help group members. We did not make the grant to the organization, but we helped him find the Solar Cookers World Network, an online forum open to contributors from all around the globe, for free instructions on how to construct a solar cooker with easy-to-find, local materials. We also put the group in touch with another Spirit in Action contact in Kenya, Camily Wedende, who builds and sells solar cookers locally.

Courtesy of Boyd Cothran

Courtesy of Boyd Cothran

Rather than a traditional charity hand-out approach, we instead were able to tap into our active network and to connect the group to local resources, and in turn, help two organizations. “We are so thankful for the great work you are doing to connect friends,” wrote Camily. “Recently you connected us to Weldon Korir, who is interested in solar cooking, and I’m building one cooker for him that will be used for demonstration in his community.”

The connection not only helps Camily’s solar cooker business, it also helps Weldon connect to others already promoting solar cookers locally. Together they can discuss how to best introduce the cookers to community members and the best materials available for production. If Spirit in Action had made a grant for Weldon to purchase solar cookers, it might have done some good in the short term, but it’s much more likely that the local knowledge from Camily will help Weldon reach his group’s ultimate goal of getting people to actually use the solar cookers in the long-term.

Small Investment, Big Returns

Hastings Phiri has seen first hand the financial damage that can happen when members in his community near Mzimba, Malawi take high-interest loans from predatory international micro-finance institutions. Rather than let history repeat itself, he has come together with other community members to form the Kamtowa Village Savings and Loan association, which offers transparent, community-backed loans.  The association recently wrote to Spirit in Action for help strengthening their village savings and loans group. Fortunately, Spirit in Action has supported another savings and loans cooperative in the same region and was able to tap into our network and connect Hastings with our Malawian partner, Canaan Gondwe.

With a small travel grant from Spirit in Action, Canaan went to visit Hastings to give him concrete advice about formally establishing the cooperative, increasing transparency, and keeping clear records for the group. Canaan was able to share not only what has worked in his community’s savings and loans group, but also shared details about keeping a local bank account and accessing government resources.

These are just two examples of the ways that Spirit in Action is acting on our mission to be a worldwide network of people empowering others. We are a catalyst for these in-country connections, affirming local knowledge and expertise, and helping people access the most relevant information for their community programs.

Spirit in Action is successful, but not necessarily because we have the expertise, funding and information to implement a project in rural parts of Kenya or Malawi. Rather, we are successful because we are able to connect groups with local people with the expertise, knowledge and know-how to make their project successful. That kind of dynamic network doesn’t just solve a short-term problem–it creates lasting relationships and change.

Tanya Cothran is Executive Administrator at Spirit in Action, where she has worked since 2007. In 2009 she completed a Master of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota. In addition to blogging regularly for Spirit in Action, she has also guest blogged at WhyDev.org and How-matters.org. She and her husband recently moved to Toronto, Canada.

jenna rose