What drives someone to help others in need? Some do it for image or monetary gain, others because they feel it’s the right thing to do. For Romuald Afatchao, Founder and Board President of the Institute for Community Partnerships and Sustainable Development, helping people is about building hope and joy with others.
Growing up in Notsé, Romuald never imagined he would end up as a university professor in the United States. He went through the public schools like everyone else and eventually got into the University of Lomé in Togo where he obtained a bachelor's degree in Law. But his studies weren’t done there. After obtaining law degrees in environmental law and politics at the University of Lomé and a masters in International Environmental Law from France, he made his way to the University of Idaho in 2001. Not being fluent in English, he had to take specific language courses before being admitted in a degree program at the University of Idaho. Through immersing himself in the local culture, he was able to overcome this language barrier and graduate with a PhD in environmental sciences in 2009.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Romuald was able to return home and see how his community had changed. He saw something in people’s eyes he never saw growing up: despair, like all hope was lost. The seeds of desire to give back to his home community were planted that trip, but it would take time before that desire could bloom.
Three years later, a university service trip to Ghana would introduce Romuald to the next stage in his life. Whitney Schroeder, ICPSD co-founder and current executive director was a student participant on that trip. After returning from three weeks together in Ghana, Romuald, Whitney, and a handful of fellow students from the trip frequently got together for meals. Each time they got together, discussions about their trip would arise. Questions of what went right or wrong and what could have been done better were discussed regularly. They were joined by other like minded Africans on campus including board member Dr. Jacuqeline Maximillan and past board member Dr. Simba Tirima. Eventually, everyone came to the same conclusion: the current service projects were not effective because they valued the opinions and experiences of outsiders over the needs and experiences of the community members.
While reluctant to begin another non-profit organization, Romuald and his colleague came around to the concept of ICPSD. Through ICPSD, they believed they could help push a paradigm shift in the nonprofit industry. Rather than show up to communities and throw money at western perceptions of problems, they would listen to the community and support them based on their unique needs.
“Nobody takes the time to get input from the locals,” he said, “We just want to get to the point where the communities care about what happens to them and have ownership of the solutions to their problems.”
After so many projects where money was thrown at an issue, it was hard for local community members to accept help for the community from a group looking to make genuine changes, especially if that group does not have enough financial means. Over time, Romuald and ICPSD built up that trust, listening to the community about their problems and initiating programs that meet those needs. They dug holes for water sources around the village and planted native plant species to restore wildlife and the ecosystem alongside the locals, and started educational programs for the local youth. Whether it’s through traditional or modern methods or a blending of the two, Romuald has made sure ICPSD stays true to the core values of listening to and supporting community needs.
These days you can find Romuald at the University of Idaho during the academic year, where he is a clinical professor and associate director of the Martin Institute and Program in International Studies, and in Togo during the summer, supporting local ICPSD staff and the community.