Alumna Sparks Community Development in Africa
- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
Just two years out from graduation, alumna Sasha Fisher '10 has wasted no time putting her self-designed major to use. If "human security" sounds abstract and philosophical (just the sort of lofty, idealistic concept that bright, optimistic undergraduates might enjoy probing during their four years in college), Fisher has found a way to bring her choice of study back down to Earth.
Spark MicroGrants, the non-profit she's co-founded, has already helped humans in eastern Africa achieve security of one kind or another, by funding projects to improve access to education, clean water, healthcare, food and more.
Before college, Fisher "was very interested in global development and all these efforts to eradicate poverty, but," she says, "I, like a lot of people in my generation, didn't feel like they were going well."
When she arrived at UVM from New York City, her plan was to investigate aid work with a multidisciplinary approach. "I ended up realizing that in economics, the goal is to have poverty reduction -- that's not actually my goal. In political science, it's about the state -- that's not actually my goal either," she says. "What I want to do is to enable all the humans on Earth, even if they're in an illegitimate state or a corrupt state, to meet all their basic needs. And that doesn't necessarily mean money -- that means that they have food, that they have health care, that they have a house, that they have access to clean water. And so while that sounds very obvious, it's a whole other paradigm and a whole new way of thinking about aid and about what our goals are in the world."
Enter the "human security" major (one half of her double-major; Fisher also studied studio art), a term introduced to her by Ted McMahon, research associate professor of community development and applied economics. "It's a way of addressing those needs and addressing them in a non-state-based way and accepting there's a rising legitimacy in non-state actors such as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and communities," she explains.
"Sasha's engagement and focus on real-world problems is always what struck me about her," says Peter VonDoepp, associate professor of political science, who this spring invited Fisher back to campus to speak to his students. "When she was a student, she took my African policies class, and what continued to strike me was not just her level of intellectual engagement and real enthusiasm for the material but also her applied understanding of the material and capability for thinking about real-world problems. Sasha's not stuck in the abstract, it's all about this world for her."
After finishing her senior thesis on the topic and graduating, Fisher, inspired and educated by her work as an undergrad with the New Sudan Education Initiative, another non-profit created by UVM alumni, co-founded Spark MicroGrants with Georgetown and Columbia University graduate Teddy Svoronos, who conceived of the organization as a Fulbright Scholar in Tanzania, and computer scientist Neal Lesh, who specializes in using information technology to address poverty. With an initial $10,000 investment, Fisher moved to Rwanda two months after graduating and began putting the model into action.
What is the model? It's simple, she says: let community members drive development in their villages. Rather than NGOs and other outside groups dictating what a community needs, Spark MicroGrants offers a sum of money (typically $5,000 or less) and works with the community to identify their needs and draft a proposal that ensures sustainability of the chosen project. (Watch the audio slideshow above to learn how a group of women in Uganda turned $1,600 into a school for their vilage's children.)
Don't confuse microgranting with microlending. While the latter has received a good amount of attention from the media, not all of it has been favorable. That concept, which enables individuals to loan money to help impoverished people fund a small business, has drawn criticism for failing to reach the poorest of the developing world, leading more people into the debt cycle and lacking sustainability. Spark's model of microgranting, on the other hand, erases debt from the equation, and focuses on improving quality of life for a community, rather than earning money for a single entrepreneur.
So far, Spark has funded more than 24 projects in Rwanda and Uganda, and has expanded from a full-time staff of just Fisher, then Fisher and fellow UVM alumnus Eamon Penney '09, to now employing seven full-timers and a team of part-time staff from universities in both countries. In August, Fisher says, the full-time ranks will increase to 12.
"It is so exciting to think about Spark in the long run, because one of the things we're doing is we're building a model for microgranting, and this model could be used everywhere in the world," Fisher says. "Hopefully we'll have proven that this model is the model we should be using for development."
To learn more about Spark MicroGrants and to donate, visit its website: sparkmicrogrants.org.