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A Guest Post from Elena Bonometti following our Conversation with Tostan

Founded in 1991, Tostan is best known for its outstanding contributions to the movement for the abandonment of female genital cutting and child marriage in Africa. Tostan is widely recognized as a leader in building community well-being grounded in human rights. Tostan realizes its mission of empowering African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation through its non- formal, holistic, education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP).

Tostan was so pleased to be asked to share with the Blue Marble Evaluations community on November 23 for the webinar “Igniting and Sustaining Community-led Transformation: Tostan’s Proven Approach.” I myself as well as our team watching really enjoyed the discussion we had! As there were some very deep and important questions during the Q&A and we didn’t get to them all, we wanted to say thank you and to provide some extended replies to a few of the questions.

One of the questions that came through in the chat was about Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program.  In addition to information-based learning objectives, what is the scope of a community-generated curriculum? Are there aspects of the curriculum that address other types of capacity?

We really appreciated this question as it touches on an often-overlooked aspect of our work. Our curriculum is community-informed and iterative. That means we aren’t starting from scratch in each community but working with a model that has already been tested in similar places in the same local languages in recent years. So it is community-generated but not, in that sense, generated live in the community.  As the question points to, in each community the classes and CMCs start with what is coming up frequently and often begin organizing and learning more. Each class participant and each community engages with others and they are really carrying forward what is most relevant for them.

In terms of other types of capacities we hope to help support, there are many. Our model accompanies community members along their journey, preparing them to  lead their own development. Educational outcomes are only a piece of that. Leadership and management are also critical, with support rather than resistance from the community over time. Much of that involves working implicitly rather than explicitly.


Another program-focused question that came through: Can you say more about how changing social norms can be enhanced by engaging religious actors? Are there difficulties with doing that given the subordinate role of women/youth in those arenas typically?  Does Tostan have a principle to guide staff around who in the community is engaged? Or how?

As the question points to, religion is a major factor of daily life and informs values and really must be engaged in the kind of programming we do. We have a set of approaches that function as principles and these apply to how we work with religious leaders and all other groups we engage. First, we engage with respect, and with the assumption that people care deeply for the well-being of their families and communities . We don’t begin by assuming resistance or bad intent.  We also make sure people feel informed and consulted rather than having topics arise out of the blue. Also, we have found it important to work both explicitly and implicitly. There is some explicit discussion of the rights of children and women yet equally important is that in classes and discussions there are opportunities for women, youth, and other marginalized groups to participate as equals, to lead alongside others, to share their opinions and ideas. As an organization – and in the development field in general – we have to distinguish between culture and religion. As we know, cultural and religious practices are not one and the same. This also affectss how we define results in our field. Tostan has seen moments where people’s capacity to contribute is demonstrated and is effective, even if it is not regarded as “empowering” behavior in the traditional sense..

One element that has been vital to our work with religious leaders is we have worked alongside an Islamic rights specialist who has clearly mapped the connections between rights in Islam and human rights. This has allowed community members to explore more carefully different topics from a perspective of their values, and also to separate religion from tradition. We have also come to understand that religious leaders are authorities but also are responsive to the interests of those they lead. When communities raise issues and ask for guidance, this matters to them. This is why we really promote  engaging as many actors as possible during our model – so that the traditional leaders, the religious leaders, the government, the community organizational leaders — all of these groups have a chance to contribute.


Finally, there was a very important question that spoke to Tostan’s work within the global context. Donor sentiments seem to be that this initiative is good, works but very difficult and time consuming to scale up. What do you think would be key drivers to make this successful programme have exponential, global impact on donor-funded development programming – making the GLOCAL aspect stronger?

We see this from several different perspectives. Let’s begin with the terms “difficult” and “time-consuming,” as well as another term we sometimes hear, “expensive.” These are relative terms and as you hint at, these are a part of the ways in which the current paradigm of donor-funded development operates, how the current norms “see” a model like Tostan’s. Compared to a two-month, narrowly focused intervention that seeks to change only one or two indicators and doesn’t really look at or think about the other simultaneous issues going on, yes, we are necessarily different–our model takes much longer, costs more, and is undoubtedly more complex than the focused “solution” model.

So, how could we drive change in that paradigm? Well, I hope the current scaling efforts we are making are a good start. Overall, Tostan has one scaling priority– scaling community well-being. We feel a key driver of that will be for us to reach a direct scale in three countries, to really show one example of what is possible within the broader realm of possibilities of working in these more foundational, holistic, interconnected ways. As we continue to scale and improve our measurement we will be able to point to the efficiencies of our model and paint that bigger picture.  Even if we do that, though, it won’t really be enough. In fact the challenge within your question, slightly reframed, might be: how can Tostan reach more communities more efficiently and effectively?  We have been looking very carefully at how we share and replicate, and are now building models of training and working in partnership with other organizations and actors who are interested in applying our Content, Approach, Methodology, and Strategy.

Finally, we want to play a role in influence, to contribute to a better collective, collaborative mindset for development. We need to build the community capacity at the core of development. Even though everyone reading this blog has likely had at least 14 years of formal school, somehow when we start talking about international development, suddenly three years of basic education and empowerment for communities with very few educational options is “too long.” That feels out of step with the benefits of working in this way. We hope to advance a new paradigm.  Luckily, we see an increasing number of actors who are starting to change the way they see development, the way they invest in it.  It is becoming more balanced — not only solutions-focused but also people-focused. To build up people’s capacities we need to be trusting and patient even as we challenge one another and move forward.

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