Gates’ Grand Challenge to Measure Empowerment

Through my work with individual students and teachers, my girls’ club, and Camp GLOW, I learned a lot about empowerment. About how students who feel empowered to ask questions tend to do better in school, and stay in school longer. About how teachers who feel empowered to take on new activities inside and outside the classroom to help their students are the teachers who are making big differences in their students’ lives. About how when women and girls are empowered to make decisions about their own lives, everyone is stronger: families, communities, finances, countries.

But as I have mentioned in previous posts, measuring this can be hard. Empowerment is a process, and a messy, complicated one at that. And while data shows that an extra year of primary school can boost girls’ eventual earnings 10-20%, and an extra year of secondary school by 15-25% (source: tweet by USAID), more detailed analysis of the effects of empowerment has so far been lacking.

The Gates Foundation is trying to change that. They announced a Grand Challenge to create new methods of measuring empowerment – both the process of empowerment, and its effects on individuals, communities, and economies.

So if you have ideas on how we can measure social change and empowerment, let us know! You could benefit millions by making projects more effective.


An Inspiring Woman

Some days, whether in America or in Benin, it’s hard to get motivated.

It’s hard to keep fighting the good fight, to keep working to promote justice and education and tolerance when everything else seems like it’s conspiring against you. It’s hard to keep working when it’s so much easier to stop fighting, to let fate take you where it will, to curl up with a warm drink (if you’re in America) or a cold drink (if you’re in Benin) and say, “oh well, I tried.”

On those days, you have to look for sources of inspiration and motivation.

Yesterday, I found a new source of motivation: a Ghanian woman named Doris.

First some background. While I was in business school, I interned part time with an organization called ABAN: A Ban Against Neglect. They do three main things:

1. Bring in girls and young women in vulnerable situations in Ghana, and put them through a two year program. Typically these are girls from rural villages who ran away to the city, had no way of supporting themselves, and may have gotten involved with a sugar daddy in order to get enough food and clothing. Some of them have babies. ABAN gets them out of the city, and gives them training in literacy, health/life skills, financial literacy, and sewing, so they will have a trade when the leave the center.

2. Recycle plastic “sachets” of water. Used throughout West Africa, “pure wata” as it is known in Benin, is a means of getting more or less clean water, through half liter plastic bags. But used bags are all over the ground, polluting cities. ABAN collects them.

3. “Upcycles” the plastic bags, pairing them with hand-dyed batik fabric, and makes bags, purses, and other products that they sell in the US. They just released their new Fall 2014 line of products and I am about to go on a shopping spree myself.

Where does Doris come in? Doris is the programs coordinator in Ghana. That means she works with the girls, acting as part social worker, part friend, part mother, and part teacher. She is applying for a fellowship, and she and ABAN published her application essay on their website.

You can read the full essay here, but l’d like to share a short excerpt.

There are communities that still believe girls are only good when they have men by their sides and will never shine by themselves. As such, there are a lot of girls and women who are wasting away untapped potential in themselves that they may never know they have….

Many of the people in the villages that would want to access this help are unable because of financial constraints. Even if some are able to break through and make it, there is little incentive to go back into their communities and help it develop. This means the community remains underdeveloped, the mindsets of the local people never change, and the abuse of girls continues.

So what if help could be sent to the young women in these villages, to be empowered and trained to lead the next generation of children to sustainable community building?

For most of these women, all they need is someone to be there and be available, to listen and to lead them through the process. Someone to encourage and applaud their little efforts that when seen together, could transform their community.

Doris’ essay is a powerful reminder that girls matter, and that even small actions can have a big impact. It’s also a great reminder that African women are working to empower each other, and that their strength, energy and determination are making a difference in the lives of individuals and communities.

Sometimes, it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in the fight – you’ve got allies who are fighting alongside with you.

Oil of Life

Palm oil is central to life in southern Benin. It is used in Vodoun (traditional religion) ceremonies. It is used to cook with. It is used as the main export. It is practically impossible to go two days in a row without eating it in some manner. It is the main agricultural product from my village, and one of the only ones that is made in enough quantities to sell (most other products are sold, but are sold to local markets and are still consumed within the area).

So what is palm oil? And how do you make it?

It comes from palm trees. Americans (at least those of us from the Midwest) typically use the word “palm tree” to cover a variety of trees with fronds. In this case, palm oil comes from the fruits/nuts of these trees (photo courtesy of Wikipedia):


The oil comes from the fruit, which grows in a sort of spiky, pine-cone-like pod, like this (photo courtesy of


Or, once you climb up a tree (if it’s old enough to be tall), and cut them down with a machete, they look like this (all photos mine from this point forward):


From there, you hack at the pine cone with a machete, to loosen the fruits. When you’ve done this, you are left with the fruits:

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And the core of the pine cone, which you can use as fire wood:


From there, you boil and pound the fruits, to get the red pulp of the fruit. You eventually get the woody fibers from the fruit to separate from the pulp.

DSCF3943(woody fibers, which can be dried and used as kindling for fires).

After that, there is a process of mixing, sometimes by hand or foot, and heating, and mixing again. Then you filter the oil.

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mixing the oil


it’s a messy business!

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Eventually, you get a thick, deep red oil, which drives economic activity in Daagbé and is central to every day life.

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For more information about palm oil’s nutrition content check out this NPR story, which also has great links to data on how much palm oil the US imports (2.7 billion pounds!) and the environmental concerns surrounding its production.

Kitty Voodoo Protection – photos

I previously wrote about how pet owners in Benin protect their animals from being taken and used in Vodoun (aka Voodoo aka the local animist religion) ceremonies: they cut off a tip of the ear or tail, so that the animal is no longer “perfect” and therefore of no ceremonial value. Below are some photos of my host family’s newest cat, Minou.

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Why Camp Is Worth It

In the world of international development, there has been a focus on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) in the past few years. This is totally logical: in the past fifty years, there have been lots and lots of projects, and very few ways to measure if they actually produced results. It’s important to donors, project administrators, and “recipients” that we learn from past and current projects to make future projects more efficient and effective.

But sometimes, the focus on M&E can lead to people questioning the need for projects where the benefits aren’t always tangible. Projects where you don’t build something, or teach a specific technical skill. Projects like Camp GLOW. Sometimes it can be hard to justify with hard data why girls’ empowerment projects and camps such as GLOW are necessary and effective, because the impact is either intangible and/or so far down the road that there’s no way to measure it now.

To those who question “why waste money on Camp GLOW when you could have built a road,” I have an anecdote from this year’s camp.

We split the girls into five teams, trying to make sure girls from the same village were on different teams, so they would get out of their comfort zones and get to  know new girls. Each team was led by at least one Beninese woman serving as a “tutrice,” which is a combination role model and counselor. Each team also had Peace Corps Volunteers assigned, who were with their girls the entire week.

The first night, the teams were just getting to know each other – girls, tutrices, and Volunteers. I listened in to the green team’s initial discussions.

The Volunteer, Piotr, asked the girls if they had plans for what they wanted to do with their lives. Most of them had never been asked this question before. The majority said they wanted to get their high school diploma, but didn’t really know what they could do with that. One girl said she wanted to drop out after the national exams in 9th grade, and become a hairdresser.

Now, there is nothing wrong with being a hairdresser. But these girls were chosen because someone saw potential in them, and wanted to nurture that potential. And as a teacher, I can never recommend to anyone to plan to drop out of school.

So I kept my eye on the girl the whole week. She participated well in all the activities and sessions, and seemed to be making connections with the other girls in camp.

Then came the career panel on our last day. The girls, in their teams, had the opportunity to speak to Beninese women who have professional careers. There was a caterer/restauranteur who often caters for high-level government meetings and conferences, a journalist, two health workers (one a nurse and one a community health expert working with USAID), and one woman who I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten what she does (possibly because I was running around trying to find enough chairs for this all to work, but that’s still no excuse).

During their last rotation, the woman asked the girls what they wanted to do. The girl who had previously planned to drop out of school said she wanted to be a doctor. She asked the nurse what she needed to study in school, and any other advice for how to reach her new goal.

If Camp GLOW had even a small part of producing a future woman doctor in Benin, it was worth it.

Photos from the Strike

During the second semester of this past school year, the full-time teachers of Benin went on strike. Then, some of the students went on strike, in solidarity with the teachers and in the hope that adding even more chaos to the school year would force the government to intervene to end the strike sooner.

The students at my school, influenced by students in the big city who came to agitate in our village, wrote a manifesto when they went on strike. Below is a photo of the manifesto, plastered on various places around the school campus.


Below are photos of the empty school and desks put in the “corridor”.

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Photo Update to Voting Post

I posted a while back about how a country deals with voter registration when the majority of the population is illiterate. Now that I have fast internet and no grant proposals to take up my internet time, I have a photo update to that post. Below is an example of a voter registration location. It’s occasionally used as a Koranic school, and on school days you can often find students there, relaxing during breaks from school if they live too far to walk home for lunch.

Unfortunately a petite accidentally deleted the close-up photo of the registration rolls, which is mostly just a black and white photocopied head shot, I believe taken from the national ID card photo rolls, a name, and a village/neighborhood.

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