On her first visit to a brothel in South Sudan, Haley Wright was told in advance only that they were going to bring a woman some medicine for her child. But upon walking into the tiny corrugated metal hut, Wright knew immediately what she was seeing. The woman inside was just over 18. Outside she saw young girls between the ages of 10 and 14 also living and working in the brothel, servicing the clients who refused to wear condoms, which are usually insisted upon by older women.
“It really was the first time I felt evil, in my whole life—tangible evil. It was horrific,” she told me over coffee at a hotel in Juba, South Sudan’s capital city. It was only her second day of work and after about 30 minutes, Wright, overwhelmed, had to leave. “As soon as I could get to a phone I called my mom and I sobbed to her across the line. I was inconsolable.”
Haley Wright, now 28, didn’t plan to move to South Sudan to work with prostitutes when she left her native Columbus, Ohio nearly a decade ago. Though she says she’s wanted to work with adolescent girls since she was that age herself, Haley’s path was circuitous. In pursuit of a dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, she moved to London to study journalism. After receiving her undergraduate degree, she worked briefly for CBS news, but found herself moving between jobs. So at 24, Haley decided to take advantage of an opportunity to stay with a friend in South Sudan, and left for Juba.
She spent the next six months of volunteering for a local non-governmental organization in Juba, Confident Children out of Conflict (CCC). The organization was started in 2007 to help street children who would come before and after school for food and a safe place to spend their time and leave their belongings. Thanks to funding from international aid agencies, CCC now houses nearly 40 children and covers the school fees for 600. These are children, who, while not orphans, would otherwise not be in school. The goal is to keep the boys off the streets and the girls out of the brothels.
But as CCC has grown, so has the number of prostitutes in Juba city, from around 1,800 (including 200 children) in 2010, to nearly 4,500 adults and more than 500 children today, according to Wright.
Local nonprofits like CCC are gaining favor in the development field as part of a larger shift towards community based organizations (CBOs). The shift has resulted from disillusionment with traditional models—such as USAID and World Vision—because of the perception that they are inefficient bureaucracies and introduce distortions into local economies. Unlike large institutions with rigid procedures, CBOs can focus on overlooked issues and respond and adjust to rapidly changing contexts, such as sudden violence or political shifts.
Wright is far from the only young woman who favors using community-based approaches to maximize flexibility. In 2010, Sasha Fisher, 24, started Spark MicroGrants, which gives small amounts of money, typically around $3,000, directly to communities to fund social impact projects, which they are required to design, develop, and implement themselves.
The idea is to mobilize communities around an issue of their choice because they are the best equipped to decide what they need—and because that way the recipients become invested in their own development. “We’ve designed the Spark model to be flexible.” Fisher explains. “Spark’s model is a process which can be replicated anywhere, but it varies according to the local population’s needs and decisions.”
Spark takes the flexibility and demand-driven stance of local NGOs and seeks to improve and expand upon it. To date, Spark has partnered with 46 communities in Rwanda and Uganda. A total of 34 projects—ranging from latrines, to electricity lines, to a honey cooperative—have been completed, and 12 are in the planning process. None have failed.
Fisher argues that not only is Spark’s approach effective and low risk, the process also encourages other communal benefits, such as reducing tensions by bringing together diverse communities, empowering women, and making leadership structures more democratic. Though it is too early to assess Spark’s long run impact, all of the community members I spoke with cited greater unity and improved communal relations as a result of Spark’s micro-granting process.
For Haley Wright, brothels were just the beginning of her work with vulnerable girls in South Sudan. Walking through the largest slum in Juba in early March, Wright calmly lists the alarmingly common forms of torture she’s researching: the binding and brutal raping of sex workers to the point of death, coating condoms with menthol cream so that they burn women’s skin internally during sex, and men using their fingers to scratch women inside until they bleed, among other horrors. The project, commissioned by the French Embassy, is to study child exploitation in order to develop a child protection strategy for South Sudan.
“While I pour myself completely into this work, the truth is, I am a foreigner here,” she says. “The only way it works is at the community level—to empower people to sustain projects because they’re the ones who are going to be here long term.”