Listen to Ordinary Africa

Mistori Kibibi and her family work their small plot of land in southern Tanzania growing red onions. It’s harvest time, and she’s waiting for the buyer to arrive. Every year, he buys her onions and ships them to local and regional markets where they are prized as some of the best onions in this part of Africa. Every year, it’s been the same -- his price is always low, but she has no choice. She and hundreds of other nearby families have no other way to ship their onions to market.

Mistori Kibibi and her family work their small plot of land in southern Tanzania growing red onions. It’s harvest time, and she’s waiting for the buyer to arrive.

Every year, he buys her onions and ships them to local and regional markets where they are prized as some of the best onions in this part of Africa.

Every year, it’s been the same -- his price is always low, but she has no choice. She and hundreds of other nearby families have no other way to ship their onions to market.

She will tell you that if the families could get together, buy a truck and build a small storage shed, they could use their leverage as a larger group to quadruple their incomes. She could send her children to school. Their lives would be transformed.

As President Obama’s Administration embarks on a long over-due policy review of foreign assistance, they should listen to the Mistori Kibibis of Africa.

For too long, all of us have only seen the images of starving children, gun-toting warriors and corrupt dictators in Africa. Only Africans can develop Africa. Outsiders can help but only if they understand it, work with it.”

Nearly thirty years ago, Congress created a small federal agency called the African Development Foundation (ADF) to explore innovative ways to provide assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.

ADF was a pioneer in what is called “participatory development” -- the idea that local communities participate in both the planning and implementation of development projects. Unlike many larger aid organizations that rely on local African governments or non-governmental organizations to distribute assistance, ADF provides grants directly to local community organizations and enterprises that support people like Mistori Kibibi in Tanzania.

And unlike aid organizations that typically employ Americans to manage their programs in Africa, ADF’s fifty-five employees in Africa are all African.

And, incredibly, African governments don’t feel left out by the ADF model -- in fact, seven African governments match ADF’s grants to their countries dollar for dollar.

Of course, working at the grassroots level in Africa is not easy. It requires a long-term commitment and it requires patience. And in development jargon, it’s not easily “scalable.”

ADF couldn’t even begin to manage the much larger budgets of sister agencies like USAID or the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). But there are important lessons; ones that should help guide new development policies. Here are a few to consider.

First, recognize that the “development establishment” has a vested interest in portraying Africa’s poor as hopeless victims.

Over the years, I’ve been to many African communities and seen dedicated foreign aid workers who give so much of themselves in the service of others.

But I’ve also seen the insidious effects of so many well-intentioned people -- communities wholly dependent on aid organizations, where the only buildings with windows belong to NGOs and the only vehicles on the streets are emblazoned with agency logos.

The best development programs will be the ones that empower local citizens.

Second, just as there is poverty, war and corruption in Africa, there are also good things to report. There is an incredible spirit of entrepreneurship on much of the continent.

More Africans than Americans own cell phones, and it’s the fastest growing mobile communications market in the world. Most Africans do not live in a war zone, and they care about the same things the typical middle-class American cares about right now -- jobs, healthcare and education for their children.

Third, when it comes to development in Africa, “fish where the fish are.” The vast majority of people in Africa derive their livelihoods from farming, and yet development assistance for agriculture has declined year after year.

This is one of the most hopeful signs of the new development policies of President Obama’s Administration. The President announced earlier this year that agriculture and food security would be the centerpiece of his development strategy.

He has followed this up by appointing Dr. Raj Shah, who ran the Gates Foundation’s agricultural development program, as the new Administrator of USAID. It was a long time coming, but he is the right person for the job.

Amid the reports of doom and gloom, I remain an optimist on Africa. Africa will find its own uniquely African path to development. And we can help, if we just listen to ordinary Africa.

Jack Leslie was recently appointed by President Obama as Chairman of the African Development Foundation.

 

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