Young Leader Spotlight: Helena

HelenaThis is the second post in CLI’s Young Leader Spotlight series, which shares the unique stories of the talented and visionary youth we work with in the Congo. In our first post, we introduced you to 21 year-old Prisca.

Today, we want you to meet Helena.

When Helena’s mother first told her that she would someday grow up to become a great woman, she assumed her mother was talking about marriage. In a culture that largely considers a woman’s place to be in the home, it seemed that that was all anyone expected Helena to aspire to. Nevertheless, Helena seemed to have this way about her—an unquenchable thirst to learn more, do more, be more.

As a child, she took advantage of every learning opportunity she could and spent her days reading any books she could get her hands on. Helena also showed early signs of the creativity and entrepreneurship that she is now known for, and by age 10, she was making pots, clothes, and a variety of other crafts. Around the home, she also took initiative wherever she could, whether in caring for her young brother or in managing the cleaning of their family’s house.

But in June 2015 when she heard about the opportunity to receive leadership and entrepreneurial training from Congo Leadership Initiative, she knew that this was her chance to explore her own unique set of skills and passions. According to Helena, “It was an answer to my aspirations… I wanted to boost the talents that are within me.”

Over the course of the next year, Helena worked tirelessly to become one of the brightest young leaders in the program. Through the small sewing shop that she launched using her CLI grant, she became a leader in her community and injected vital capital into the area’s struggling economy. According to Helena, “After I received my certificate the next year, my parents told me, ‘Helena, you have become the ideal woman! We are proud of you.’”

Today, Helena attends university while also maintaining her sewing shop. She hopes to one day expand her business and teach the sewing trade to children across the Congo. “The training I received at the Leadership Institute has broken all the limits of being underestimated that I faced due to my marginalized position as a women in my country,” she says.

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When the Rubber Hits the Road: Why Ideas Aren’t Enough

7350_1063362157043035_5214960913551953844_nAmong those interested in international development, you’ll find many idealists. This is unsurprising, given that those who enter this field must have not a only a concern for issues of poverty and injustice, but also an underlying belief that such wrongs can be corrected– that the world can indeed become a better place. And so, those who, like me, fit this description commit ourselves to educating ourselves and developing solutions that we believe have the power to transform the lives of people around the world.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when this rose-colored glasses approach to development can no longer be sustained. In fact, for many, it comes fairly quickly. This is not because their beliefs and passions have grown any less bright. It’s not even because they’ve abandoned their hope that change can be effected in communities. Rather, it’s because no matter how great a solution is in theory, putting it into practice forces organizations and individuals to contend with real-life obstacles. It will probably come as no shock to many of you that perhaps the greatest obstacle is money.

You see, at CLI we talk a lot about our deep-seated belief the youth of the Congo have the ability to transform their country. The seven years that CLI has spent working with and training these youth have only confirmed this as we witness firsthand their creativity, resilience, intelligence, and vision for their communities. We have no doubt that, if given the opportunity, our young leaders will foster peace and prosperity in the Congo.

The hard part is creating that opportunity.

Let’s consider the example of an entrepreneur trying to start a small pig farming business. Believe it or not, pork is actually the most widely consumed meat in the world, topping both poultry and beef. This fact, combined with the cheap feeding and maintenance costs associated with raising pigs and the extremely high yield that they produce, leaves little doubt about why someone would want to capitalize on this opportunity, buy some pigs, and start making money. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy.

Even though a pig can reach a market value of up to $400 in just six months, that pig must first be purchased as a piglet by the entrepreneur for $30 to $50. That piglet will then go on to consume 10 to 15 70kg bags of feed, each of which costs around $22, by the time it reaches maturity. Factor in costs like renting land, creating fencing, transportation to the market, veterinary care, and other maintenance costs and you’re suddenly looking at, conservatively speaking, an initial investment of nearly $400 for a 4-pig business that, despite its potential for producing a 4x return of $1,600, will not be able to yield much profit for the first eleven months until the animals have reached maturity. In a country like the Congo, where people live on less than a dollar a day on average, this kind of startup cash simply out of the realm of possibility for many, no matter how skilled and passionate they may be.

This is where CLI steps in. After our young complete entrepreneurship and leadership training at our Leadership Institute, they are given a small grant of $40 each that provides them with the opportunity to pursue a dream that was never feasible before. With full control over the focus and design of their small business or social project, the projects that our youth launch show great diversity, including hair salons, mills, baked good shops and– yes!– even pig farms. In fact, last year we had 10 young leaders at our site in Beni team up together and invest their combined $400 in a pig farming business that yielded a profit margin of 45% in the first three months!

Of course, our young leaders, like other entrepreneurs around the world, still face challenges as they continue to grow and sustain their businesses. However, it is our hope that by not only providing the initial capital that they need to launch their projects, but also targeted training that gives them the tools they need to ensure that business’ success, our young leaders can become local sources of social change and economic development in their communities.


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Young Leader Spotlight: Prisca

Untitled_FotorAt CLI, we believe that the Congo is brimming with bright, talented, and passionate youth who hold the key to their country’s development. In this post, we’re going to spotlight just one of the young leaders we work with who will is already working to ensure that peace and prosperity flourish in the Congo.

This is Prisca’s story.

Growing up in the Congo as a woman is rarely easy. It’s not difficult to see why considering the country’s alarmingly high levels of sexual and domestic violence (the World Bank estimated in 2011 that a woman is raped in the DRC every minute, which translates to 400,000 women per year), numerous federal laws that limit the autonomy of women, particularly within the organization of the family, and a host of socio-economic obstacles that prevent many women from accessing basic social welfare, such as education, clean water, healthcare, and accommodation. Yet this the world that Prisca, like over 40 million other women and girls, was born into.

Despite the obvious challenges facing her, Prisca was determined do more than her society expected of her and dreamt of becoming a manager or interpreter. When she was only 16 years old, though, the sudden passing of her father left her, her mother, and three siblings without much hope of making a better life for themselves. It’s for this reason that Prisca eventually jumped at the opportunity to join CLI in 2014.

Simply put, Prisca thrived at CLI. Empowered and inspired by the leadership and entrepreneurial training she received, Prisca began to realize how she could use her talents and abilities to not only advance herself professionally, but also contribute to the ongoing development of her home country. “Thanks to this, I have assumed many responsibilities at the University [of Kinshasa where I now attend], in my Church and I have even decided to work as a Volunteer Facilitator at CLI Kinshasa just to serve as a living example to all the talented young girls we have there,” she says. One of those responsibilities includes serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Publications at the university, with special attention given to the topics of leadership, entrepreneurship, and gender equality.

Today, at only 21 years old, Prisca is an inspiration to all as she breaks down the barriers she faces as a young woman and actively works to better her community and the Congo as a whole. Reflecting on her experiences at CLI and the potential that she sees in her country, Prisca says, “I believe that the development of the Congo is certain.”

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Teaching More Than How to Fish

1978612_698751150170806_1237135395_nGive a man a fish and you feed him for a day.

Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

– Chinese Proverb

For most of us, this is not a new saying. In fact, some might consider it borderline cliché, given the number of times that we have heard our parents, teachers, friends, and even ourselves recite it. But as with any old adage, there’s really no denying the message’s underlying truth. In this case, that truth is that there is great value in equipping ourselves and others with the practical skills that will enable us to create solutions for any number of challenges that we encounter throughout our lives.

Unsurprisingly, this proverb has been adopted as a kind of mantra among the international development community. As people who push back against traditional charity models that provide short-term relief in the form of a donation or service of some kind, and look instead to create long-term responses that will enable a community to meet their own needs for generations to come, this proverb seems to encapsulate what we want to do in the developing world. We build schools, create savings groups, fund small businesses, and do any number of other activities to invest in the lives of individuals and teach them to fish, as the saying goes.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this picture of development. And yet, across the world communities that receive these long-term investments remain stagnant, unable to to truly break free of the cycle of poverty. So what’s the problem?


You see, while it’s great– critical, even– to equip individuals with the tools that they need to make improvements in their own lives, we must acknowledge that these same individuals are ultimately affected by forces over which they have little to no control. This is because, with the exception of those few people groups that remain isolated from modern society, all people live in a world that is governed by powerful individuals, institutions, and systems that radically shape their daily realities. This is as true for you and me, as it is for anyone else, whether they live in the developing world or not. Economic policy, security measures, rule of law enforcement, welfare programs are just a few of the many ways areas of a nation’s governance that will have a significant impact on the lives of its citizens. Unfortunately, not all governments exercise its power in a way that leads to the flourishing of their people.

So, let’s look back at the proverb we started with. Of course we can all agree that it’s better in the long run to teach a man to fish than it is to simply give him a fish. But can we really guarantee that a man will be able to feed himself for a lifetime if we do the former? Not really. First we’d need to consider, things like does the man have access to fishing supplies? Does he have access to water where can fish? Is that water source being protected from harmful environmental practices that could render its fish unsafe for consumption? Is fishing even legal? While questions like are, of course, besides the point that the original proverb is trying to make, they remain very relevant to development work because they reflect the fact that wonderfully conceived programs and poverty reducing solutions can be rendered useless depending on the governance of that country. Such has been the case in the Congo, where a long history of ineffective and corrupt leadership has severely crippled its development.

There are several ways to respond to this issue. One response is to simply ignore the role that governance plays in development, and to hope instead that micro-level changes in communities will eventually bring about greater progress. Unfortunately, another response is for organizations to simply refuse to allocate resources to that country on account of the belief that its governance problems are simply too difficult to overcome. The third response, one that CLI champions in the Congo, is to tackle the issue of governance and create programs that address it.

Now, this third response can take many forms: advocacy, international aid that comes with certain governance-related stipulations, and others. At CLI, we have a created a Leadership Institute that not only teaches Congolese youth entrepreneurial skills that will enable them to create successful small business, but also trains them to be ethical leaders through lessons on things like human rights and the need for women leaders. Our hope through the Leadership Institute is that CLI will help to raise a generation of Congolese citizens who are committed to being the willing and capable leaders that the Congo has historically lacked. That way, not only will they be “fed” for a lifetime, but so will an entire country.

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Why the Congo’s Young Population Is One of Its Greatest Assets

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Imagine a society that is almost entirely made up of children and young adults. There are some older men and women, of course, but not nearly the numbers that we are used to in many places across North America and Europe. It’s youth who make up the majority of the workforce; youth who are the heads of many families; youth who govern the daily interactions within their communities.

What comes to mind when you picture this world? A dystopian young adult fiction novel? Some kind of psychological or social experiment? A new hit TV drama? Each of these answers is a valid—to be sure, such a novel or TV show would likely be very entertaining, and such an experiment would likely yield interesting results. But this world that you’ve imagined is much more than some fantasy scenario created for audience consumption or scientific intrigue—it’s the reality experienced every day by the people of the Congo.

Although it’s staggering to picture, nearly 70% of the Congo’s population—which is currently estimated to be around 70 million people, but is expected to double before 2050—is under the age of 25. In fact, the median age is 17 years.

There are a number of factors that contribute to this situation, the most obvious of which are a high birth rate combined with a low life expectancy. But while efforts can be made to reverse this trend in the future and restore a healthy balance between age groups, the fact of the matter is that the Congo as it is today, is a country whose present and future success depends on its youth.

Now, it wouldn’t be shocking for this fact to raise some concerns or doubts in your mind, given the reputation that adolescents have. Perhaps you question whether it’s possible for a generation of young people to have the necessary maturity, confidence, skills, etc. to be able to build a stable and prosperous nation. To be sure, there is some validity to these concerns- in an ideal world this burden would not be on the youth until they had had the proper time to grow and mature.

But if we’re going to acknowledge the difficulties that the Congo’s young population poses, we must also recognize the tremendous potential change that it offers. Indeed, the Congo’s overwhelming number of youth just might be one of its biggest assets.

What youth may lack in experience, they make up for in their passion and vision. As opposed to older generations that might believe that the country’s status quo cannot be changed, young people are unhindered by this hopelessness. They have a unique energy and dissatisfaction with the way that things are that drive them to see and chase after the potential for change. It’s for this reason that CLI works with the youth of the Congo—we empower them to recognize their own potential and achieve the dreams that they have for their communities and nation. While one youth alone might only make a difference in their own life and those of their family or community members, together they can partner as a generation that can achieve true progress across the country as a whole.


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The Role of Women Entrepreneurs in Development

20-11-16-004_fotorThe last two posts in our current series on best practices for international development, which you can read here and here, have examined at the innate creativity that exists in all people and argued that development models need to access this part of human nature by providing the entrepreneurial opportunities and training. Today, we’re going to look at a segment of the population that is brimming with talents, passion, and ideas that have the power to transform their communities, but is so often tragically excluded from the business sector: women.

While women were largely overlooked by development agencies for the better part of the twentieth century, the international community has adapted its approach over the past couple decades to increasingly give attention to the particular challenges and opportunities that affect women. The reason behind this shift? Studies now show that “Poverty reduction and shared prosperity can only be achieved with the full economic participation of both men and women” (World Bank Group, 2014). Indeed, experts overwhelmingly agree that women are vital to a country’s development because they have the potential to not only contribute directly through enterprise and consumption, but also secure future economic productivity by managing household resources in such a way that benefit the health and education of their children (Niethammer, 2013). It should be unsurprising, then, why there has been such interest in cultivating women’s entrepreneurial skills and providing them with opportunities to put them to use.

Unfortunately, the World Bank estimates that nearly one billion women worldwide are unable to fulfill this potential due to the variety of unique challenges that they face, as compared to their male counterparts. Research shows that women experience significantly greater difficulty in accessing credit than men, particularly from formal banking institutions. In fact, this issue is the second most reported reason among women as to why they are unable to develop their businesses. In addition to starting on average with less credit than men, women are also less likely to take on additional debt to expand their business, which further hinders their entrepreneurial endeavors (World Bank Group, 2014).

Knowing that entrepreneurial models of development represent one of the most promising means of empowering households and broader communities, it’s critical, then, that organizations intentionally incorporate strategies that help women in overcoming the barriers that inhibit their business success. These strategies vary depending on context, but for self-employed women working at the subsistence level, such as those with whom CLI works, the United Nations Foundation (2013) recommends partnering with women over a period of time. In this duration, an organization should take a number of steps to counteract the typical issues that affect women. For example, creating ways for women to access credit, such as capital transfer loans, should be paired with training and ongoing monitoring and assistance. In this way, the women receive not only the investments that they have so often been denied, but also the additional support that will help to compensate for other inequalities that they may face in terms of education, technical knowledge, and professional networks.

There is still much to be done before gender equality and global poverty alleviation can be achieved. However, investing in the entrepreneurship dreams of individuals– both men and women– represents one of the most effective means by which we can make this a reality.


Niethammer, C. (2013). Women, entrepreneurship and the opportunity to promote development and business. Women, Entrepreneurship and the Opportunity to Promote Development and Business, 31-39. Retrieved from

Richards, W. (2016, March 29). 5 must-reads on women’s entrepreneurship. Retrieved from

United Nations Foundation. (2013). A roadmap for promoting women’s economic empowerment. 1-146. Retrieved from

World Bank Group. (2014). Supporting growth-oriented women entrepreneurs: A review of the evidence and key challenges. (5), 1-20. Retrieved from

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Entrepreneurship in Development


This is the second post in a series on how international models can be designed to best promote the flourishing of human life in communities around the world. The previous post, which you can read here, focused on how people are inherently creative and therefore need development models that enable them to act upon that part of their nature. This week’s post will take a look at what the research has to say about the opportunities or challenges associated with models that reflect this recognition, particularly the entrepreneurial aid model.

As soon as you begin to sift through the research, one thing becomes clear: the power of entrepreneurship is undeniable (Lame & Yusoff, 2015). It’s not difficult to see why this is. Leading authorities in this field all recognize entrepreneurship to be a driving force behind job creation and economic growth (Koltai, 2016). Considering that unemployment, particularly among youth, and stagnant or depressed economies are both critical factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty at local and national levels, investments in efforts to encourage the startup or expansion of businesses are very promising. In fact, much of India’s success in poverty reduction– a drop from 40% to 11% between the 1970s and 1990s– can be credited to such efforts (Robinson, 2002). Research shows that entrepreneurial activity in India added value to the country’s economy in addition to generating wealth, reduced unemployment by creating jobs, and improved the standard of living by raising the average income level. Additionally, investments in entrepreneurship are linked to equitable redistribution of wealth, meaning that the positive outcomes that India derived from such activity actually benefited even the more marginalized and less economically advantaged members of its society (Verma, n.d.).

As you can see, the case for entrepreneurial aid is compelling. The question becomes, then, how should we go about putting it into practice? Some schools of thought have advocated for focusing efforts heavily on entrepreneurial training and additional education, the thinking being that this would equip individuals with the the necessary skills to become job creators instead of job seekers, who would then be prepared to succeed in any venture (Lame & Yusoff, 2015). Unfortunately, this approach is about as effective as trying to get someone hired in a film by teaching him or her to act, but offering that same person no assistance whatsoever in getting any auditions. Is it possible that the person could still get one and be selected for the role? Of course. But does it ultimately seem counterproductive to stop midway through the process of helping that person land a role? Yes. The same can be said for initiatives that focus on entrepreneurial training and education alone without providing individuals with the necessary capital to start up a business and put those skills into practice. For example, in a study by Clark et al. (1984), only 10% of those who had undergone such a training program eventually started a business.

However, the answer is not necessarily to start handing out cash transfers to just anyone, either. Referring back to our previous analogy, what would be the value in booking someone a number of acting auditions without first making sure that they knew how to act? This principle is reflected in a study by Chris Blattman and Laura Ralston (2015) who found that among Ugandan youth who received small grants to create their own businesses, venture success was largely tied to the fact that these youth invested about a third of their capital in skills training. Not to mention, training a group of youth together builds social capital and cohesion that cannot be achieved simply by distributing grants to individual young men and women. When considering the issues that plague the Congo, this point cannot be overlooked.

So where does the answer lie? You’ve probably put two and two together at this point. The best model for entrepreneurial aid is found in providing both skills training and opportunities to put those skills into practice. Only by appreciating the benefits that both of these elements bring can a program be comprehensive enough to produce optimal and lasting results.


Blattman, C., & Ralston, L. (2015). Generating employment in poor and fragile states: evidence from labor market and entrepreneurship programs. Available at SSRN.

Clark, B. W., Davis, C. H., & Harnish, V. C. (1984). Do courses in entrepreneurship aid in new venture creation?. Journal of Small Business Management (pre-1986), 22(000002), 26.

Koltai, S. R. (2016). Entrepreneurship needs to be a bigger part of U.S. foreign aid. Retrieved from

Lame, S. M., & Yusoff, W. F. W. (2015). Poverty Reduction in Nigeria: The Role of Entrepreneurship Education.

Robinson, M. S. (2001). The microfinance revolution: Sustainable finance for the poor. World Bank Publications.

Verma, J. K. Impact of entrepreneurship on economic development in India: A critical study. Indian Journal of New Dimension, 3.

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Kindling the Spark of Creativity in Development

14527417_1628617977430904_533182125_nThere is a spark of creativity that exists in all of us– yes, all of us. Creativity is not simply something that manifests itself when we pick up a paintbrush or instrument, it is our most basic desire to create something, anything that is unique. Woven into the DNA of our humanity, this spark is the driving force behind our need to think critically, express ourselves, solve problems, empathize with others, and build a life for ourselves. It should come as no surprise, then, that creativity is not nonessential or superficial, but rather fundamental to true human flourishing. Indeed, creativity is that which transforms the dull and lifeless into the colorful and vibrant; the flat into the three dimensional; the generic into the irreplaceable.

Unfortunately, this spark can either be suppressed or kindled, depending on one’s circumstances. While it’s true that creativity can never be entirely eradicated from the human spirit– a person always has, at the very least, their imagination and unique thought processes– lack of opportunity, wealth, and freedom all serve to greatly hinder people’s ability to be creative. Those of us who have been born into more privileged positions, in terms of socioeconomic status and nationality for example, have nearly endless avenues through which we can express our creativity and shape our individuality. We can choose what to eat, what to study, where to study, where to live, what career path to follow, what we want our personal style to be, if we want to get married, how many kids to have, when to have those kids, and a host of other things, ranging from the mundane to the life-changing. The list is not quite as long for those who have fewer freedoms and resources.

I would argue, then, that at the very heart of international development should be a concern for human creativity. Of course, this means expanding people’s economic opportunities so that they are eventually able to have creative control over some of the decisions I listed above. Even more basic than that, though, I think it means molding our very development processes in such a way that they enable the flourishing of human creativity. It is not enough to invest finances and other resources into a community if we are, at the same time, stifling such a fundamental component of human nature by imposing one-size-fits-all development “solutions” on them. Not only does such an approach fail because it does not take into account the particular context of the local area and people, but also because it ultimately dehumanizes the very people it is trying to serve. By dictating the way in which communities must overcome poverty, we treat their residents as generic recipients of our own all-knowing “genius,” rather than treating them as individuals who deserve to have the opportunity to build creative and practical solutions that reflect their own values, culture, and desires.

There are a number of  ways to incorporate creativity into the core of development process, though. One form may be to welcome participation at all decision-making levels, so that people are able to build their community in the ways that they want, rather than having a pre-made model handed to them. Another way, seen in CLI’s work, is to promote entrepreneurial development, in which individuals are given the training and resources to create a unique business or community project that can then support them financially and benefit their community. Whatever the method may be, it is up to development agencies to recognize that if they are concerned with improving human wellbeing, the importance of creativity cannot be ignored.

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Are We Fighting Fire With Fire?

541369_508613222517934_794502078_n_FotorFeminism. That one word alone can probably evoke more emotion and conversation from the public than just about any other. But whether it inspires in you a sense of hope and dreams of equality, or leaves you rolling your eyes and clenching your fists because of its inherent emphasis on the female gender, there really is no denying the fundamental truth that first led to the concept of feminism: that women around the world have historically faced disadvantages that have led to inequalities that persist today. Don’t believe me? Let’s check the facts.

In the realm of development, it’s said that poverty has a woman’s face because women and girls make up 70% of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty around the world, according to the United Nations. There are a number of factors that contribute to this imbalance, including the lower status and power that women possess both in the labor market and social structure. As a result, women and girls globally face unequal access to education, heightened levels of violence, and fewer opportunities for economic growth– each of which feed upon one another, creating a vicious cycle that has yet to be entirely broken.

Over the past several decades, these issues have gained increasing attention in the public arena and, as such, there has been growing pressure put on the international community to respond. This pressure eventually turned to excitement when it was proven that the empowerment of women through increases in literacy, economic productivity, and security from violence had tremendously positive effects on the wellbeing of their families and, consequently, their communities as wholes. This sealed the deal: women’s empowerment became the latest and greatest trend in international development. The only problem, though, was that the way agencies and NGO’s went about this often disempowered men.

You see, there was such a push around the world to get girls into schools, give women land and skills training, and change wives’ attitudes towards the way that they were treated by their husbands that boys and men started to slip through the cracks. While none of these initiatives were bad in and of themselves, the unintentional result in many communities of focusing so heavily on women’s needs was that it fostered an adversarial relationship between men and women, the latter of whom saw their power being usurped by outside organizations.

This is not to say that international community should not focus on the empowerment of women– of course they should! It’s just that in the same way that you can’t fight fire with fire, you can fight for the empowerment of one gender at the cost of disempowering the other. So where does this leave us? With a need to build development models that do not further divide men and women, but bring them together to jointly create a better future for their communities. With a need to build development models that do not force equality on the community, but work with male leaders until they see the benefits women’s empowerment and willingly fight for it themselves. With a need to build development models that recognize that just as women are invaluable to the development process, men are equally invaluable.

If this model that I’m describing sounds somewhat familiar, it’s probably because it sounds a lot like CLI’s model. Ever since I first heard about CLI and began looking into the work that they do, I’ve deeply admired and respected that they neither focus only on training girls and women in the Congo to be leaders, nor take a passive approach to gender inequalities. Instead, they ensure that half of each cohort is female, that there are both male and female facilitators at each Leadership Institute site, and that all of its young leaders receive lessons about female leadership. As a result, CLI is able to not only directly empower women by actively involving them in the development of their own communities, but also indirectly empower them by fostering a culture of mutual respect and cooperation between men and women. In doing so, CLI is raising up a generation of diverse young leaders who are determined to transform the Congo together.

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Towards a More Complete Picture

11887839_961023450610240_6515569153221460875_nAs children, most of us were probably lectured by our parents a number of times about the power of words. We’re taught to remain silent if we have nothing kind to say, that we cannot take back what we say to others, and that our words have the ability to build others up or tear them down. Through these lessons, children and adults alike come to a basic understanding of the wonder and mystery of language– that despite being a series of arbitrary symbols and sounds, words are perhaps the most formidable tool at human disposal.

While some people are somewhat unfazed by this discovery, I am not one of them. I’ve long been fascinated by the impact that our choice of language and other communication forms have in shaping not only our interpersonal relationships, but our most foundational beliefs and thought processes. Consider for a moment that in some Inuit communities, there are as many as 50 words for snow, such as “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled” and “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow.” In this case, the use of language has created an alternate perception of reality and opened up a whole other world for these communities, in which what I consider “snow” is a much more complex and nuanced matter.

Naturally, as I became passionate about international development, I began to question how the way that we communicate about poverty affects poverty reduction efforts. I soon realized that although poverty is a worldwide phenomenon, it most strongly affects countries in the Global South. However, international responses to it are primarily controlled by the Global North. As a result, many of the people who have the power to shape international development efforts are largely unaffected by poverty themselves, and therefore exposed to the issue primarily through mass media entities, such as the news, television, and literature. What does this mean? The content that mass media present, and the way in which they present it, is one of the driving forces behind global poverty reduction efforts.

At this point, you may be expecting me to denounce this by arguing that what is presented on the media about poverty and the people whom it affects is incorrect. While this is certainly the case sometimes, much of what is presented in the media is not inherently false. Rather, the issue is that it falls prey to the “single story” phenomenon. This concept refers to the tendency of mass media to use such similar language, images, and ideas when communicating about these global issues, that audiences form a distorted or limited understanding about them. For example, how often do we see images of unhappy children with distended stomachs, or hear about “war-torn” and “unstable” areas in news stories or films about Africa? On the other hand, how often do we see images of happy and thriving families, or hear about “successful” and “ethical” businesses?

So as I said, the issue is not that the poverty narrative communicated in mass media is wrong– it’s that it’s incomplete. Unfortunately, this is lost on many people in the West who, having only ever encountered the developing world and its inhabitants through words and images on a page or screen, accept this singular narrative as the full reality. The result is that Africa and many parts of the world are no longer living, dynamic communities in the minds of others, but rather become that single, flat image of a haunting family outside a mud hut in a conflict-ridden area– nothing of which is at all feels relatable to those outside the Global North.

It’s probably for this reason that I actually laughed a bit as I recently reviewed the CLI young leaders’ project data from this past year and concluded that across all six locations in the Congo, the most profitable business type was making and selling doughnuts. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in the U.S. would be shocked to realize this, considering that that a mutual love of fried baked goods doesn’t exactly fit into the ever-bleak narrative presented about Congo, “The Heart of Darkness.” So what did I do? I marketed this information on CLI’s social media to reveal a fuller picture of the Congo. Of course, doughnuts don’t exactly complete it on their own– there are many narratives that need to be told about people’s successes in businesses, youth who are working for change in their country, men who are fighting alongside women for the latter’s empowerment, and others. But for now, doughnuts seem like a good place to start showing that we have more in common with those on the other side of the world than we may think.

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