Alumna nets humanitarian grant worth $1.5 million for Africa work

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff

Tostan, a nonprofit organization created by Illinois alumna Molly Melching, was selected to receive the 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize earlier this month. The $1.5 million grant is the largest humanitarian award in the world.

“To be selected for the prestigious Hilton Prize is an incredible honor,” said Melching, executive director of Tostan, in a release.

Tostan, a Wolof word for “breakthrough,” is a Senegal-based nongovernmental organization that offers a community development program to rural villages of West African countries. The course allows people in the community to identify and address local issues and helps them to implement projects related to health and hygiene, child welfare, human rights, democracy, environment and economic development. This strategy sets Tostan apart from many other humanitarian organizations in the region, said Julia Miller, associate director of U.S. operations.

“These populations don’t respond well to outsiders telling them ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this is bad,'” Miller said. “We try to emphasize the positive about their traditions.”

Miller said this approach was a big factor in the success of Tostan’s initiative to have rural villages abandon female genital cutting. Female genital cutting, or FGC, is a centuries-old practice that can lead to serious debilitation and death. Tostan’s work led to more than 2,600 villages populated by more than two million people, ceasing to practice FGC.

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“This kind of development is very sustainable,” Miller said. “It comes from the population themselves.”

Another hallmark of Tostan is that the organization hires many local people to work in its programs, said Gannon Gillespie, director of U.S. operations.

“When we’re working on a program on malaria, no one knows the reality of malaria better than someone who grew up around it,” Gillespie said.

Tostan has programs in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Somalia and Mauritania and is operating in 17 languages. More than 160,000 people have taken Tostan’s classes.

Melching said that she first visited Senegal in 1974 as a University graduate student through a study abroad program. After she graduated, Melching joined the Peace Corps where she discovered the needs of rural villages in Africa.

She established the program in 1991. Melching received the University’s Humanitarian Alumni Award in 1999 and the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service in 2002.

The Hilton Humanitarian Prize was created in 1996 to recognize the work of humanitarian organizations. This year, there were 250 nominees. Past winners include Doctors Without Borders, Heifer International and Operation Smile.

Tostan will receive the award on September 12 at the culmination of the annual Conrad Hilton International Humanitarian Symposium where United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be the keynote speaker.