The plight of the African continent has been at the forefront of international activism and concern for much of the past two decades. This period encompasses the nearly three years I spent on the frontline of public diplomacy as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. During this time, we have watched China and India increase their geo-political power and achieve greater economic stability. Conversely, Africa, the world’s second most populated continent, has slid into an increasingly violent and impoverished condition. With all the celebrity attention and government goodwill directed towards Africa in recent years, it is paradoxical for the continent to languish in such a dangerous state.
Much of the focus given to Africa has been on the rampant disease and armed conflict on the continent. The AIDS epidemic has hit the African people to a disproportionate degree. UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, has focused much attention on the abhorrent acts that are perpetrated against women on the continent, ranging from forced marriages to genital mutilation. The U.N. has also dedicated an office to deal with the famine, droughts and emergencies that plague the region.
The goals of these offices are indeed worthy and, unfortunately, much needed. However, in order for this magnificent land to reach its aspirations, it is imperative that the world community focus on the root causes of these problems and eliminate them. The abject poverty and economic strife in the majority of African countries are unmatched anywhere else in the world. A 2003 U.N. report ranking the wealth of the world’s countries found that the bottom 25, hence the poorest, are African.
For Africa to prosper, and not merely survive, the world community must work with the African people to create an environment that encourages enterprise and cherishes human life. The good news is that there are practical economic solutions to Africa’s distress that don’t require huge overhead and governmental involvement. These are solutions and efforts that side step the corruption and bureaucratic inertia that frequently render the U.N. and governments ineffective.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a perfect example of people taking action and creating positive change in an African community. These people were not rock stars or billionaire talk show hosts, but a group of Ohio farmers imbued with the American spirit of generosity and concern for their fellow man. The project that these farmers embarked on is simple in its concept and powerful in its results.
The farmers of Archbold, Ohio worked with Foods Resource Bank, a Michigan-based organization that connects urban churches to rural ones and allows for a “people helping people” approach to solving problems. The farmers bought, bred and sold cattle on the plains of northwestern Ohio with the expressed intent of sending the proceeds to a struggling African community. They also held an annual “Burger Bash” to highlight their work and gain donations, raising over $7,000.
The money was sent to Machakos, a poor farming community in Kenya, where residents had been forced to walk up to 10 miles a day to get water to nourish their parched fields. The Kenyan farmers hired an engineer to design a dam and provided the labor to build it themselves. Within a month, Machakos had an ample, accessible supply of water, and the farmers had built irrigation canals to supply their fields. No longer forced to walk miles a day to get their water, they had time to work on other projects, namely building a road to get their goods to market. One farmer saw his yearly income increase fivefold with his newfound business.
The farmers of Machakos named the dam project the “Mercy of God.” The love of God was surely its motive, just as the American spirit was its fuel. In his book, Democracy in America, the famed political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville writes, “When American(s) ask for the cooperation of (their) fellow citizens, it is seldom refused; and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great good will.” Archbold farmer Jim Rufenacht demonstrates that special character of our countrymen, but he sees it in characteristically simple terms.
“It’s nothing special,” he said, visiting the Mercy of God for the first time and addressing its jubilant builders, “We’re just farmers like you.”