Africa: Audacious Aim to End Poverty

Nairobi —The United States African Development Foundation (ADF) tackles tough problems. An independent public agency established by an act of Congress, it operates among the most disadvantaged people in 21 African countries to promote income generation, often in remote areas or conflict situations.

With a board appointed by the U.S. president and confirmed by the Senate, ADF is small in staff and budget. But its grass-roots, locally driven approach to development assistance is widely viewed as a model in an era of shrinking budgets. This week in Busan, South Korea, some 2000 delegates from governments, NGO’s and the private sector gathered at a High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness to review global progress in improving the efficiency and efficacy of aid. ADF President Lloyd Pierson deals daily with the core issue being discussed in Busan – how to enable the world’s poorest people to improve their lives. He talked to AllAfrica during a visit to Nairobi, Kenya.

You are a rather unusual organization within the U.S. federal structure.

I think it’s the most unique notion in the federal government. We focus entirely on the most marginalized populations in Africa. When we look at the map of Africa, we think of the former slave population in southern Mauritania, the Tuaregs in the desert in Niger, the disabled in Nigeria, the widows of genocide in Rwanda, the Turkana of northern Kenya – one of the most remote areas of any place in Africa. We’re starting a program in Somalia. We are almost entirely in conflict and post conflict areas.

But the entire focus of our work is on economic development, job creation, enterprise development. The degree of entrepreneurial feeling and pride, even among the most vulnerable populations, is a real inspiration for all of us with the foundation. There is the human pride of not receiving humanitarian relief, of being able to earn an income – often for the first time – to pay school fees, perhaps move from a hut to a house. You could call it ‘dignity in the desert’! We go home, the staff and me, feeling very good about what we’re doing, and we look forward to the next day.

Americans, like most people, have a generosity of spirit in responding to humanitarian appeals. But I suspect that all taxpayers would be happier if they knew that at least a portion of their international assistance dollar was spent helping people get to the point where they don’t need humanitarian aid.

Absolutely! That’s the heart of what we’re doing. There’s no country in the world that is better, I think, at delivering humanitarian relief than the United States, all across the world. But the goal we share with the people where we work is to reduce this dependency on aid. Because of the generosity of Americans, we have the financial resources to be of assistance – but it’s the Africans who do the work. The results we see in terms of local income generation are just outstanding.

About 75 percent of what we do is in some way related to food security or agriculture. It might be growing tomatoes, it might be growing onions. But 100 percent of that 75 percent is about income generation. The populations we work with think not just of the crop being consumable but also about how to make money off of it. We have mangoes that go from Tanzania to the Middle East.

The Kenyan media has been full of stories about famine in the Turkana area where you work, and the global public is aware of famine in drought-plagued Somalia. How do you address situations of acute need?

There has been a severe drought in Turkana, in northern Kenya, and Kenyans in other parts of the country responded with an outpouring of donations. This is a change, because the Turkana have long been a marginalized group in Kenya.

But even in these isolated areas in such difficult times, you meet some of the most remarkable people in the world – people with such great heart and competence. Through programs they themselves develop in the course of our projects – such as irrigation for crops, dry-land farming techniques and fisheries – we’re helping them work out ways to earn incomes and achieve food security. Lake Turkana is an extremely large lake. But unlike Lake Victoria, the fisheries there are not huge. The question is: how do you expand them and expand the market?

So you hope the lives of individuals and communities in those areas where you work ill improve. You could argue that that’s value enough. But is there a larger impact of your work?

That is a terrific question for us. Because our focus is on marginalized populations – and includes work in conflict and post-conflict situations – we believe we support the national interest of the United States in helping to create stable communities. When people have the pride of earning income, when people believe in themselves, they may – for the first time in their lives – have hope. If we can genuinely create economic stability, we think there’s a lesser chance that the bad people in the world will have an opportunity to play on that poverty, to play on that marginalization to recruit people.

Is there also, do you think, any kind of influence on policy makers in the countries where you operate? For example, if they can see that progress can be made among the poorest of the poor, is that an incentive for governments to do more themselves?

That’s one of the most interesting questions that we face. Marginalized populations are often marginalized right out of the political system. When we come in as a federal government agency, we have to have a bilateral agreement with the government, although we don’t go through the government on what we do. But we do sit down and talk with government officials and tell them we’re working with marginalized populations. Time after time, we’ve seen the countries start doing a lot more with those groups. And another thing – we work very closely with Nelson Mandela’s group, the Africa Forum, African elders and former heads of state, and they have completed a study that we financed  on the marginalized populations in Africa. They see working with these populations as a preventative way of avoiding conflict in Africa.

I’ve recently become more aware of the issue of science education – primarily through the work of RISE, the Regional Initiative in Science and Education, which promotes university-level training and research. Do you think investment in training African scientists is relevant to reducing hunger and poverty?

It is. Absolutely. There’s some great work being done – research that can be applied at a very local level – on drought-resistant seeds, for example. And there’s a whole larger value-chain question, in both food production and income generation, of how you get from the local level to a larger market, including food preservation and storage and transportation. All of that science and technology is very, very important.

You see ADF as playing a distinctive role. How has that been manifested in your years there – and, that’s how many?

Roughly four years. And at the United States African Development Foundation, both in Africa and the United States, the lights are always burning. We’ve got a very dedicated staff.

And in Africa, we have no Americans on our staff; it is entirely Africans. Every single country has an African managing their program. Nobody else can say that. We have oversight from our Washington staff, but we communicate that we’re mutually dependent on each other. “Your success is our success.”

So when I look at the things that I think are a success at a macro level, it is relying on Africans and having a belief that Africans can solve their own problems. They don’t need us coming in saying, “Here’s what you’ve got to do.” So that would be the first thing.

The other thing that makes ADF different is the ability to go into very troubled areas and start building enterprise development with individuals who don’t want to rely on humanitarian relief all their lives. But even though they want to get out of that situation, it’s a cultural change for them to adjust to doing things on their own. We work with that. We build in responsibility and accountability all along the line, beginning with our staff in Washington, through the local African staff to the community-level grantees that we work with. We see how much they want to achieve success – and they do it!

What was the personal journey that brought you to ADF?

I was staff on the [U.S. House of Representatives] Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which is the committee of the International Relations Committee that determines where U.S. foreign assistance goes. Loret Ruppe at that time was the director of Peace Corps, and she was selling it as President [John Fitzgerald] Kennedy did to my generation – as a way to serve your country. So I really wanted to be a part of Peace Corps and worked hard to get in and become Peace Corps country director in Ghana, Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland and opened the program in Zimbabwe.

That really helps me now, because Peace Corps volunteers go to remote areas. Getting to visit them and see on the ground what they were doing gave me that combination of a real, grassroots-level experience with an overall policy experience.

Is this as much fun as anything you’ve done?

Oh, I think it’s all been fun. I did commit at an early age that I would not take any job unless I really believed in what I was doing. And I think the work that ADF is doing really means something to the United States. We tell every villager that this money that we’re able to help you with comes from the American taxpayer. We’re not shy about that.

I’ve been fortunate to have been appointed by three different U.S. presidents. I’ve had the chance to be administrator for Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development; acting worldwide director of Peace Corps – and now to be with this wonderful small agency that we think has the lowest overhead in the federal government – but gets huge results. It’s all been good.

Source: African Deveopment Foundation – 3 Dec 2011