Empowerment: A Short Exploration

Empowerment. What a complicated topic. As many know, the world of development loves to talk about empowerment these days. It’s a hot word. Many organizations make claims that their work empowers the poor. At the same time, others have been resistant to using models of empowerment because they are difficult to measure. It’s easy to quantify how many people you are able to give access to clean water, but it is entirely something different to claim how many people you were able to “empower.” Many have tried to do just this, and the results have been mixed. What makes empowerment even more difficult is that it is hard to create models of empowerment. Much of empowerment is a slow artful process that requires a long time of intentionality. One cannot simply barge into a community give some people at few inspiring words and leave if he or she hopes to empower someone.

At ThinkImpact’s Innovation Institute this summer, I have wrestled with the idea of empowerment. While here, our goal is to create an innovative product or service that the community members can turn into a business. However, the underlying goal is to inspire and empower our team members and other community members to see themselves as agents of change within their community. Even if the product or service fails, we hope that they will feel empowered to explore other innovations within their community, and believe that they have the capacity to do so.

These are some pretty lofty goals. I’ve been thinking about two questions in particular around empowerment. (1) How do you go about empowering others? (2) Can we actually create lasting change in our 2 months here in Rwanda?

The first question about the approach to empowerment has been on my mind constantly. How can I effectively go about inspiring/empowering my team members? I’ve tried in overt ways as well as more subtle ones. I’ve attempted it overtly by telling the team I believe they are creative and intelligent with lots to offer. I’ve tried it subtly by challenging people to think critically about our problem of light at night. I’ve tried it by nudging the team members to take stronger leadership roles in the team. For example, we presented a storyboard of our challenge and the way in which we hope to address it. For this presentation, we selected one team member, named Mama Mussa, to present with us. In our practice run, she began speaking very softly with a little bit of nervousness in her voice. By the time we got to the end of the practice run she became more energetic and sure of her voice. She ended up killing it in the actual presentation. I was so stinking proud. And so, this Institute has been an exploration of approaches to empowerment. It’s simply been a process of trial and error, and a learning of the art.

The second question has consumed me even more with whether or not we can create lasting change/empowerment in our short 2 months here in Rwanda. When I first arrived, I think I was full of lofty hopes of completely shifting the mindsets of those we work with leaving them forever impacted by the work we do together. I quickly came back to the reality that this is difficult work, and it’s quite likely that our impact will be very limited. I found myself almost in a level of paralysis because of how unlikely I thought the mind-shift was. Since then, I have returned to a more level headed approach accepting that our change may be limited, but it is change nonetheless. The goal here is to plant seed of mind-shift that may blossom in the future. It is important to take away the burden of creating mind-shift in my team members from the community. The burden will only inhibit our ability to effectively create that change. I think there is a happy medium, which understands the difficulty of the process, but takes small steps into that direction maybe creating that change at some point in the future.

Sorry, I think I got a little abstract and theoretical there. All in all, I am fascinated by the idea of empowerment. I’ve enjoyed exploring it through this experience, and look forward to exploring it in other contexts.

Light the Night: Help Wanted

With just a short time left, we have picked out design teams and have begun the process of “innovation.” My partner Jayne and I have picked six community members to join the team. After working with them for the past week and a half, we have decided together to try to tackle the issue of having limited light at night here in the community.

The community itself is off the grid and and so the only light people have are flashlights, battery powered lanterns, gas lanterns, cell phone lights and candles. Some of the shops, have car batteries that they use to light their shops and charge peoples cell phone. For the most part, night is a pretty dark experience here. The idea of actually doing things at night beyond eating and hanging out is a pretty foreign concept.

After surveying many community members, we have found that most of them just use a gas lamp at night. As you can imagine, it would be pretty difficult to do much of anything with this little bit of light. Even studying. which you would think would not require much light, is difficult with a gas lamp. The flickering low light makes it difficult to read, not to mention it is terrible for your eyes. So in asking people, what they would most want to use more light for, many have responded with using it for studying or reading. This is an interesting find.

This is an interesting find, in part, because most people do not own books. The only people in the community with books tend to be students, and they just have books because they get them from school for free. In the community there is a huge shortage of books, but community members say that the want light so a they can study and read at night. It seems slightly confusing. Nonetheless, that’s what many people have said they want. And so, we have embarked on our journey to create a solution for having light at night.

We have had several leads on electricity throughout our stay here in Rwanda. The first was with a man named Walter, who is a translator for us, but also knows a lot about electricity. He showed me and explained his whole setup at home which he has jerry rigged together. He has bought four credit card sized solar panels over time and wired them to four cell phone batteries, which hold the charge. From there, he has a the batteries paired in two groups, which connect to a switch. At night, he powers his light and radio from one set of batteries, and then uses the switch to use the other batteries once first set runs out. This gets him through the entire night.

Walter’s ingenuity really impressed/inspired me and gave me the initial spark (pun intended) to begin thinking about light and electricity in the community. Together, Jayne and I have thought of a number of ways in which we could give more people access to better light in the community. We’ve thought about rotating savings groups for solar, harnessing bicycle power, creating a windmill with wood and woven banana leaves, a box to reflect light, and even maybe building a dedicated location with light for studying purposes, where people would pay to use the space.

A key tool we have learned about is the Dynamo (pictured above). It is a little gadget the you attach to the rear wheel which spins it while you ride creating an electrical charge (everyone has bike with the dynamos on them). The dynamo is then wired to a light at the front of the bike and is lit up as you ride. We could use the dynamo in a number of ways to create light at night. We could attach it to a windmill or a stationary bike, or anything that spins for that matter. From there we could attach it to some batteries to hold the charge and then provide light at night. There are many possibilities.

So I am asking for tips, advice, leads, ideas, and anything else. We’re trying to creatively solve the problem of light and we are interested in gaining feedback from you or anyone else.

Some specific challenges/thoughts include:

  • The dynamo has low voltage. We need to find a way to get more.
  • We need a cheap battery source. The only one we have thought about is cell phone batteries.
  • How to easily disconnect the solar or dynamo when the voltage is lower than the battery’s voltage.
  • Do you know about other community lighting projects that may be of interest?
  • We want to utilize the skills of our team members. We have a carpenter, electrician, two tailors, and two weavers. All of them are also farmers.

I’d love to hear from you.



Tagged , , ,

A dollar a day is not what you think

When I hear that people live off a dollar a day in many countries, the first thing I do is compare that to living off a dollar a day in the US. In the US, it would be virtually impossible to survive off that. The next thing that crosses my mind is purchasing power parity (PPP). This compares prices of products and services in countries across the globe to give a sense of how far a dollar goes in particular countries. But here in rural Rwanda, I’ve found that even this is inaccurate. The fact is that the people here mostly live off of the land. They don’t have a need to purchase food everyday, or electricity, or water. They don’t scrounge their money together to eat off the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Instead, they grow their own food. The eat from their land with such foods as corn, potatoes, bananas, beans, mango, avocado, and sorghum, among others. I might even contend that the poor in rural Rwanda are better off than the poor in the US. There are no “food deserts” here the way there are in the intercity of LA or Chicago. The “poor” rural Rwandans are eating pretty healthy unprocessed food from the ground. Now this is not to say  that everything is fine in paradise, but it may not be as desolate as you  may frist think.

Innovate together: slow & steady wins the race

With more than a week spent in the community, I am finding myself exploding with ideas.  I am dreaming about all of the possibilities that are here, and am wanting to dig further to make them reality.  I’m realizing, however, that I must slow my excitement because it really isn’t about me.  It’s about partnering with the community to inspire innovations with them.  Developing an “innovative” idea by yourself is one thing.  Inspiring others to develop their own ideas is something different all together.

At ThinkImpact, there is a belief in a partnership between the two parties.  For me, creating that balance has been difficult in this initial phase.  It’s easy to slip into the consultant role and express your ideas to people, telling them what you think is a good idea.  My mind automatically wants to go into problem solving mode.  Maybe it’s because this process seems quick and to the point.  The issue is that me coming in and “solving” a problem is a one-time solution (that is if it even actually solves a problem).  The fact is that there are far too many problems for myself or any other scholars to innovate solutions for all of them.  Thus, after two months, we would leave and the remaining problems would go unresolved.

Leading others to help solve their own problems through partnership is a slow and long process.  However, the hope is that the outcome will be far greater than the alternative because our community partners will develop a belief in their abilities to problem solve and innovate.  If that happens, then there is further possibility that this innovative spirit will spread to other community members.  As a result, innovation might become a continual process throughout the community.

All this is much easier said than done.  Extracting the creative juices from others requires intense intentionality day in and day out.  In addition, since we are partners, we also must engage in the innovation process.  The first comparisons that come to mind are coaches and trainers, but I realize that these comparisons fall short since we are also active participants.  The closest comparison I can think of is a player-coach.  This is someone who is on the team, while also coaching the team.  In this role, you have double duty.  It’s challenging, but exciting to get to play both roles.  It’s a new position for me, but I am enjoying the process even as I go through growing pains discovering my own unique style.

People here are incredibly smart and resourceful.  A carpenter whose only tools are a hammer, saw, clamper, and shaver, is able to make doors, beds, chairs, and windows.  Women use banana leaves and weave them into mats.  A man uses credit card sized solar panels and old cell phone batteries to power his radio and light.  They keep surprising and inspiring me in all that they do.  I’m excited for the rest of the summer and the possibilities we will be able to create together.

Tagged , , ,

Rwandan Entrepreneurial Adventures

This post is somewhat delayed due to limited access to electricity and internet, but I have traveled to Rwanda this summer with an organization called ThinkImpact. We are here to partner with community members in a rural village to develop products and services using the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach. I have traveled here with a team of fellow scholars from the US and elsewhere with the hopes of inspiring community members to see and use the resources they have to create innovative products and services. I will be here for 2 months in total and am excited to see what innovations we will create together.

I’ll be putting up blog posts periodically throughout the summer as internet becomes available.

Feel free to email or facebook me if you’d like to know more.

I Stand with Invisible Children.

Kony 2012By now, most people that will read this have already heard about Invisible Children’s new campaign, ‘Kony 2012’ (If you haven’t, go watch the video here, and then come back to read this). Many of you may also have noticed that the video and campaign have generated a great deal of controversy surrounding their plan, motives, model, finances, etc. As with any popular organization or movement, their massive popularity has resulted in the inevitable rise of critics analyzing IC with a fine-tooth comb. Beginning with my own IC experiences, I will attempt to give a balanced assessment of IC and the work that they are doing, and respond to some of the criticisms I have read.

I’m feeling quite vulnerable putting all this out to the web, especially because most of my ideas are not fully fleshed out. I don’t doubt that I’ll receive criticism for some the arguments I make, but I think it is worth it for the sake of continued dialog so that we can all learn from each other.

For IC’s official response to the criticisms it has received click here.

Also, you can read their open letter to Obama here.


I believe that IC has inspired and empowered a generation, including myself.

I grew up in an athletic family. Throughout high school, baseball was my main focus as it was all I really knew. Being the naive high schooler that I was, the thought of such atrocities taking place across the globe by Joseph Kony with the LRA never even occurred to me. I was content to play baseball, unaware of the devastation that was a reality for kids like me in Uganda. In 2006, as a recent high school graduate, some friends showed me this documentary film called “Invisible Children.” This film rocked my world, and I wanted to find a way to do something. Not long after, I found out that IC was planning a protest event in April 2006 that they titled the “Global Night Commute.” I took part in this event, and little did I know that this film and event planted the seed in me that would eventually change my entire life trajectory to working in international development. I’m currently completing my B.A. in Development Studies at UC Berkeley and plan to enroll in graduate school this fall for a Master’s in Public Administration. I plan to dedicate my life and career to creating positive social change, and I know I would not be where I am today without the initial knowledge and inspiration I gained from Invisible Children.

I am telling my story in order to express that IC’s work is making a difference. I do believe they are making an impact in Uganda through their programs, but I also believe they are changing the trajectories of young people’s lives, just as they did mine. Sure, these connections may start on a superficial level, but that does not mean their newfound excitement will not grow into something more.

The Plan to ‘Stop Kony’

Now, I’ll get into IC’s actual plan to ‘stop Kony.’ The biggest concerns I have read surround, killing or arresting Kony, arming the Ugandan military and supporting the Museveni regime.

Killing vs arresting Kony:

Some blogs such as Justice in Conflict have claimed that IC supports the potential killing of Kony rather than arresting him. This argument is simply, untrue. In a recent interview with AllAfrica.com, Jason Russell said, “The dream would be for Kony to be captured, not killed, and brought to the International Criminal Court.” This is further cemented in IC’s official critiques response where they say, “We are advocating for the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals.”

Arming the Ugandan military (UPFD):

Blogs such as Visible Children have argued that arming and training the UPFD is dangerous because it could later use those weapons and training against the people of Uganda. In IC’s official critiques response, they say, “The Ugandan government’s army, the UPDF, is more organized and better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries (DRC, South Sudan, CAR) to track down Joseph Kony.” In addition, being aware of the UPFD drawbacks, IC writes to Obama in their open letter, “It is crucial that any beneficiaries be monitored closely and held accountable for abuses committed against the civilian population or any other illicit activities.” My opinion is that it becomes necessary to work within imperfect circumstances for the greater good of capturing Kony. I am open to further discussion on this issue though.

Supporting Museveni: 

Some have similarly argued that IC is inadvertently supporting Yoweri Museveni, the long-standing president of Uganda (since 1986). But, by pitting themselves against Kony, are they automatically joining the side of Museveni? I don’t think so. The admission that one person is evil does not mean they accept someone else as good. As with the UPFD, if it is necessary to partner with another party in order to end Kony’s reign of terror, then it must be done. For me, it’s about the greater good, and I believe that greater good to be bringing Kony to justice.

Beyond Kony:

Many have argued that more should be done besides just bringing Kony to justice. In their open letter to Obama, IC explicitly ask the president to support “programs that provide early warning to communities vulnerable to LRA attacks, help LRA abductees escape peacefully, and enhance telecommunications and road infrastructure in affected areas.” This addresses the concern of the LRA still committing attacks even when Kony has been captured. In addition, it encourages the escaping and forgiveness of LRA abductees. Moreover, IC has many programs that already address these issues at some level (you can view all their programs in their Critiques response page, linked at the top of this post).

The Video & Movement

This section I am dedicating to discussing the video and movement, which have brought up a variety of discussions including the ‘white man’s burden,’ sitting in difficult situations, and IC’s responsibility for those who join the movement. I don’t intend to fully flesh out these topics (there are entire books on these topics), but to merely give some perspective to generate more discussion.

White man’s burden:

First, I’ll address the argument that IC represents the typical white saviors, which is reminiscent of the ‘white man’s burden’ argument. Chris Blattman said,

“There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint…”

To frame Invisible Children’s work as a white man’s burden or white people feeling guilty about the history of colonization is utterly missing the point of their work. Invisible Children stands by the idea that we are all part of a human race, whatever race, nationality, gender, etc. Our friends burden is our burden. Our friends excitement is our excitement. In the beginning of the film, director Jason Russell makes this point saying, “Humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect.” He further drives home this point a few minutes later when he says, “Every single person in the world started this way [showing footage of his son being born]. He didn’t choose where or when he was born, but because he’s here, he matters.”

The point is, no matter where injustice is taking place, we must have a role in standing up for justice. This goes for women’s rights, racial discrimination, child soldiers, income inequality, and the list goes on. We cannot simply accept that these are the realities of our world where we remain helpless. As Cornell West said, “Young people are taught to be well adjusted to injustice… but we must refuse to accept that there are no alternatives to our current reality.” Invisible Children is doing just that, and they are inspiring the rest of us to do the same.

Sitting in the pain:

The most powerful part of the film is when Jacob told Jason about the loss of his brother and his lack of desire to live any longer. As pointed out by how-matters.org, Jason chose to not dwell in the pain and suffering of the boy, and instead, told him it was ‘okay’ and that he would ‘find a solution’ to solve the problem. No doubt, Jason could have handled the situation better, but consider who he was and where it was at in his life and knowledge during that time.

When IC started they had practically no idea what they were doing. They were filmmakers in search of a good documentary. Instead, they were propelled on a new life trajectory because of the atrocities they witnessed and were told about in Uganda. In that moment Jason did what all of us want to do, so badly, in difficult situations, which is say ‘it will be okay’ and ‘we will find a solution.’ It would take incredible forethought and knowledge in dealing with difficult situations to be able to sit in the pain and not offer a solution. They were ill-prepared for that situation.

Since then, Jason and IC have walked alongside children like Jacob, hoping for a better future with them.

Responsibility for those who join the movement:

As with any mass movement, you cannot control the members of the group. For any movement that wants to achieve scale, the demographic of their followers broadens. People that choose to support the IC have their own motives, understandings, and experiences with the topic. And thus respond to this video and other things like it in their own way, which may or may not represent IC in the way they would like to be represented. That is a risk IC has taken by attempting to scale their movement. However, as I said in the first section, individual’s involvement may start on a superficial level, but it can open up the opportunity for them to take further steps in engaging with positive social change.

Room for Growth

While I full heartedly stand with Invisible Children, I believe there is always room for growth as there is with any movement, organization, or individual.  In this section I’ll address spaces for dialog, Africa as a ‘country,’ and Ugandan empowerment.

Space for dialog:

One way I think IC could improve it to promote and offer more spaces for dialog around the issues they’re talking about. While I understand the necessity for simplicity and a clear message in the context of the video and campaign, I think fostering dialog on the issues would create more well-rounded supporters. Undoubtedly, some of these discussions come up at screenings and such, but intentional settings for diving deeper would be great.

Africa is not a country:

Africa is not a country. The video refers time and time again to ‘Africa’ rather than specifically Uganda, DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. I think dumbing down Africa as a homogeneous place is somewhat destructive as each ethnicity, country and region have  unique attributes to them. Uganda is different from Tunisia, which is different from Somalia, which is different from South Africa. Obviously, IC know there are differences between these countries, but have chosen to speak in this manner for whatever reason.This reference to Africa as a whole is not uncommon, but changing this is a way in which IC could elevate their rhetoric.

Ugandan empowerment:

While IC has empowered Ugandans in many ways, I think that more could be done to include Ugandans in IC’s process and development, such as adding Ugandan board members. This hints at the notion of doing things with others rather than doing thing for others. That said, IC employs mostly Ugandans for their in-country programs.


I will conclude by addressing the debate around it being better to do nothing rather than something in some cases.

I absolutely agree that blind good intentions are not enough. The reasoning goes that if someone does not fully understand a situation and how to properly address it, then the unintended consequences of their actions could be worse than if they did nothing at all. I have read some blogs that make this case against IC. The problem is that the desire for endless knowledge in fully understanding a topic can forever debilitate someone to inaction. No matter how much knowledge someone has on a topic there will always be some form of unintended consequences, both positive and negative, as a result of their actions.

Since those unintended consequences are inevitable to some degree, I’d prefer that we err on the side of pursuing justice in all realms of life. Yes, we must educate ourselves. We must equip ourselves to make the utmost positive social impact, but we cannot stay there. We must be willing to step out and risk for the sake of humanity. Because, if we don’t, someone else will, and they might not be risking for justice. We must take action, but always be willing to learn from our inevitable mistakes, and grow. I believe that IC is doing just that.

That’s why I stand with Invisible Children.

Tagged , , , , , ,

TOMS Shoes: Good or Bad for Development

For most young people, TOMS Shoes represents the good in our generation. Although it is a for-profit company, most people place it in the inspirational camp of organizations such as Invisible Children and Charity: Water. Such organizations have galvanized our generation to believe that we are global citizens with an opportunity and responsibility to care for our neighbors in need.

In contrast, most of those who work in development see TOMS as a hindrance to development rather than the solution. Blogs such as “Good Intentions are not Enough” have argued that the TOMS One for One model unfairly outcompetes local businesses causing long term problems for development, while applying the model of doing things “for” those in need rather than “with” them.

In this post, I will focus on dismantling the ‘impediment to local business’ argument. I will attempt to give a balanced assessment of TOMS Shoes not over-glorifying them as the saviors to the world, but also not condemning them to the pits of bad-aid hell.

TOMS Shoes uses the One for One model, where a person buys a pair of shoes at double the price so that the second pair of shoes can be shipped off to a child in need in the developing world. From a marketing stand point, it is a fantastic model because it frames TOMS as a company that gives back, and gives individuals the chance to feel like they are making a difference by buying a pair of shoes. From the standpoint of the children receiving the shoes from TOMS, this is also a great model because they are getting shoes for free. From the standpoint of the local shoemaker, this model may be considered detrimental since TOMS gives the shoes for free, which may prevent their local business from competing.

However, does the import of free shoes from TOMS actually hurt businesses attempting to sell shoes in these poorer markets? It seems unlikely. TOMS claims in its Giving Report that it only donates shoes “where local businesses will not be negatively affected.” This may or may not be true, and the means by which it determines this is unclear, except that it does so through its ‘Giving Partners.’ Nonetheless, TOMS has donated over 1 million shoes to needy children. This may seem like a large number, but keep in mind that there are approximately 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 (PPP) per day. 1 million shoes only covers 0.07% of that population. As a result, it is unlikely that TOMS Shoes is hindering shoe sales in the world’s poorest countries.

Second, does the donation of shoes discourage people from purchasing shoes later? This is different from the first question in that it is asking about the mental switch in people who receive free shoes. Some have argued that receiving “handouts” results in those people wanting more handouts rather than making a later purchase. However, research suggests quite the opposite. In a study on the effect of receiving free mosquito nets on future purchases, Pascaline Dupas (2010) found that receiving a free mosquito net actually made people more likely buy them in the future. She argues that this is because people recognized the benefits of having mosquito nets and grew used to having them. Rather than getting used to handouts, they got used to mosquito nets. As a result, when the mosquito net wore out, they were more likely to buy another mosquito net than those who had not received a free mosquito net. Similarly, TOMS could actually be priming the market for shoe manufacturers in the developing countries where shoes are donated by getting children used to having shoes. In this sense, shoes manufacturers should be thanking TOMS.

As shown in these last two paragraphs, it seems unlikely that TOMS Shoes is actually hindering local business, and could possibly be having the opposite effect. That said, could the money be used better in other ways? Probably. But would as many people buy TOMS without the One for One model? Probably not, although that is up for discussion.

Ultimately, TOMS Shoes is a for-profit company that is putting shoes on children who need them to prevent the acquisition of infections and diseases (such as worms, which can be transmitted by stepping on infected fecal matter with a barefoot). Preventing diseases such as worms is critical the future development of children. In their research, Michael Kremer and Edward Miguel (2004) found that the prevention of worms leads to increased attendance to school, keeping children in school longer, and thus, producing longterm benefits for those children.

TOMS Shoes approach may not be the best in a plethora of ways, but it is absolutely making a positive contribution to world.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: