The recipe for change

None of the problems facing the world are unsolvable. A program supported by Melinda Gates is transforming a society’s view of women in Senegal.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters/File
Women in the western Senegalese village of Diabougo meet with the goal of ending female genital mutilation. The aid group Tostan is credited with substantially lowering rates of this practice in Senegal.

If I were to distill the biggest problem facing Western democracies today to a single sentence (gasp!) this would be it: We are feasting on our misunderstandings of others.

Democracies are facing a lot of headwinds now. Mass migrations are raising questions about race and culture. Economies are shifting into new forms that risk leaving some people behind. And poll after poll suggests that our appetite to misunderstand others – in our own countries and abroad – warps these challenges into things that seem so much worse.

The problem is that frustration and prejudice can so easily be the engine of politics. There can be a perverse incentive on the part of politicians to fuel misunderstanding. This allows them to stay at the visceral level without actually having to know (or explain) good policy, and it also can effectively drive people to the voting booth. In short, it can appear to make things easy: Change becomes a matter of pulling a lever in a curtained box and hoping our candidate wins and that he or she will be able to bully the other side (or just steamroll them).

That is why my heart sang when I read staff writer Ann Scott Tyson’s cover story in this week’s issue. It is about Melinda Gates and her journey to becoming one of the most influential people on the planet. 

But here’s the part that got me dancing. It’s about how a program in Senegal has changed minds – deeply transforming a society’s view of women. 

This program, called Tostan, sent in small teams fluent in the local language. They stayed for three to five years and took an approach of “reinforcing the positive values of the community.”

Here is what the teams found, according to Ms. Gates:

  • The best answers to problems are already present in the community.
  • To be effective, “You really have to go in and listen.”
  • “You do not get cultural change unless there is openness … and discussion.”

Let’s be honest. None of that is rocket science. A marriage counselor could basically tell you the same thing. You have to genuinely hear and care about the other person. It’s going to take time and effort. You have to build from the best, not dwell on the worst.

And then what happens? 

The answer, already present, comes to the surface. Why? Because, actually, humans are amazing. We can be brutal and tribal, yes. But we can also be innovative and kind beyond measure. The question is: Where are we starting?

Tostan started from the standpoint of insisting there was good in a community that was forcing child marriages and subjecting daughters to genital mutilation. And they found it. Some 8,000 of the communities they work with have abandoned those practices. Tostan’s motto: Dignity for all.

None of the problems facing the world are unsolvable. The real challenge is in finding the effort and the goodwill to bring the good already present to the surface.

Editor’s note: This article’s summary has been updated to correctly state Melinda Gates’ relationship with the Tostan program.

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