Oui Nous Pouvons: subverting the single story of sustainable development

Led by her passion for empowering communities through sustainable development, Master of Sustainability Solutions student Abigail Johnson worked in the western African country of Togo on a documentary film about homegrown sustainability solutions. By amplifying marginalized voices and showing grassroots sustainability initiatives, Johnson counterbalanced the prevalent narrative that sustainability in Africa can only be done with non-African resources and people.

“Oui, Nous Pouvons” (translation: Yes, We Can) opens with Abby’s narrative, “I came to Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer, but just to be clear this is not my story. It’s a story about the people I met here and about the stories they tell themselves and each other.” And the story she tells focuses on a Togo community member named Aposto who has put his master’s degree in sociology to good use by creating homegrown solutions to local sustainability challenges.

In the film, Aposto explains that many students in Togo dream of going to university and after graduation seek stable government jobs. However, there is a mismatch between the number of jobs available and the number of students pursuing government careers. Aposto had a similar career plan but over time he found a new path. He saw a lack of educational and social resources in his community and set out to fill that gap. To supply books to a community library, he started trading fabrics to raise money. Building from his early success he started computer literacy training, supported local artisan’s work, and built financial literacy programs with community members. Aposto then started a local youth group focusing on youth empowerment and sustainability initiatives in their community. In Aposto’s programs, local youth learn life skills, do community clean-ups, and other activities that address local challenges.

Johnson crafted a story that centered on Togolese efforts and emphasized the hope of sustainability. Problem-oriented stories, with negative messages, can be discouraging and disengaging and often have a polarizing effect as opposed to solutions-oriented stories. Johnson sought stories that empowered audiences, helped communities recognize their ability to make a significant change, and take the action. There is a need in Togo to share positive stories with local citizens.

Johnson said: “Stories have been shown time and again to influence our beliefs — beliefs about the world, about each other, about ourselves. In Togo, most of the stories told about sustainable development put foreigners at the center. And when we don’t see people like us solving problems like ours, it makes it easier to believe that we’re not capable of finding our own solutions. If we hope to solve the many sustainability challenges we’re facing, we need everyone to believe in their own ability to create and implement solutions. I wanted to tell a story that would empower audiences — especially Togolese audiences — to tackle sustainability challenges in their own communities.”

Storytelling leaves a lasting impression with people and has the power to transcend how developing communities are viewed. In the Togolese community, sustainable development is viewed as foreigners coming in to “fix” or “change” the way a community operates. However, research indicates that homegrown community solutions are far more effective than solutions brought by well-meaning outsiders.

As a way to understand the potential impact of the film, Johnson shared it with U.S. and Togolese focus groups. After viewing the film via video conferencing software, the focus groups were asked a series of questions about viewer’s perceptions and emotions related to the documentary.

“The results from these initial focus groups — while limited — were encouraging,” Johnson said. “Togolese participants reported feeling pride and a renewed motivation to help their communities back home. And American participants felt inspired by Aposto to look at the needs in their own communities. But it’ll be difficult to judge the impact of this story until we can share it more widely. To help us expand our reach in Togo, I’ve created a mini version of the film, and Aposto and I are working to share it with our contacts through WhatsApp, Togo’s most popular social media platform. My hope is that this film will help Aposto gain more recognition and partnerships across Togo and that those who watch it come away feeling more able and motivated to address the problems in their communities.”