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Local nonprofits redefine aid to Africa

Some nonprofits here are leading the way toward a new model for helping Africa develop, replacing the top-down aid mentality with models of mutuality, transparency and friendship.

Gabriel Schlough of West African Medical Missions talks health with students in Sierra Leone.
Courtesy of West African Medical Missions
The Line

“Often in nonprofits, we think of ourselves as the experts,” says Daniel Wordsworth, president and CEO of the American Refugee Committee (ARC), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that provides international humanitarian assistance and training.  “When we talk about trust, we mean allowing the general public to peek in through a window to see what we’ve created.”

When ARC started working with the local Somali diaspora on the I AM A STAR program, they realized that, in Wordsworth’s words, “many of us in the nonprofit world do not trust the wider community to have something amazing to offer. So instead of a window, we created a doorway with this project, and we invited the community to co-create solutions along with us.”

Photo by Bill Kelley
Daniel Wordsworth

The resulting humanitarian aid project, which was developed in response to requests from the local Somali community, used a set of terms that were new for the nonprofit: co-creation, co-implementation, and radical transparency. Those terms translated to on-the-ground practicalities such an advisory council of Somali community members. With the council’s guidance, ARC began the often-laborious process of face-to-face connections with thousands of individuals at mosques, schools, and community centers.

“We reframed the discussion,” Wordsworth says, “so instead of seeing the diaspora as a population in need of help, we treated them as an asset to the city of Minneapolis and the country. As individuals, they had been providing help to family and friends in Somalia through remittances, but we worked to unite and mobilize them to provide lifesaving relief on a broader scale — helping people suffering from famine, drought and disease in that war-torn country.”

From relief to relationships

This sort of reframing, one that links the development of strong personal relationships to long-term success, is increasingly being referenced in the work of local agencies involved in the often highly political and strife-ridden world of African relief. ARC has received national and international attention for its groundbreaking work, including a $100,000 award from the Coca-Cola Foundation and the Drucker Institute to I AM A STAR as winner of the 2012 Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation.

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Connections between the Twin Cities and Africa are strong and deep. ARC confirms that our area has the largest Somali community in North America, estimated at 75,000 people. According to Matthew Holm, Communications and Fund Development Director for the African Development Center of Minnesota, which has offices in Minneapolis, Rochester, and Willmar, there are more than 150,000 African immigrants statewide.

Fire trucks for a sister city

And while Somalis represent a clear majority, other African countries are also represented in the community, both culturally and professionally. Eldoret, in western Kenya, is a sister city to Minneapolis, and has received two retired City of Minneapolis fire trucks, along with visits last year by members of the Minneapolis Fire Department to train its firefighters. The relationship was recognized by the Sister Cities’ International organization with its 2011 Innovation: Humanitarian Assistance Award.

About an hour’s drive from Eldoret is Ziwa, a farming community in Kenya’s Rift Valley, and the center of attention for The Mama Ada Foundation, a Hopkins-based nonprofit. Unlike ARC’s expansive seven-country base of operations, this group, founded in 2009, has a micro-focus on one small farming area in Kenya’s Upper Rift Valley. The inspiration for the foundation’s work is apparent in its name — Mama Ada herself asked them to meet her people, and they said yes.

Meeting Mama Ada

In 2003, Mama Ada Kuto, mother of nine children, traveled to Minnesota to visit a son and grandchildren who were living here at the time. Kuto attended St. David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka with her grandchildren, telling anyone who would listen about the struggles of farming in an area that is increasingly plagued by drought and hardship.

Julie Keller
Photo by Bill Kelley
“I was the mother of two young kids, and my only experience of Africa up to that point was seeing ‘The Lion King,’” laughs Julie Keller

“I was the mother of two young kids, and my only experience of Africa up to that point was seeing ‘The Lion King,’ laughs Julie Keller, who is now board president for The Mama Ada Foundation. “But the very first time I talked with Ada, she asked, ‘Come meet my people.’” It proved to be an invitation that Keller could not resist. The next year, she traveled with Jim Engel, who became the foundation’s first board chair, along with two other St. David’s representatives, Barb Milligan and Jim Cook (now board chair of the foundation).

“The Foundation grew from that first trip. It seemed like the only possible response we could have, as the natural evolution of a growing friendship. We met these friends who were in desperate physical need and felt a responsibility to help with the resources we have in our country,” says Keller, who has since made four trips back to Ziwa.

Authentic  and slow

While the building of authentic relationships has been a strong focus for the group, which has since sent more than 50 U.S.-based representatives to the Rift Valley, the outreach has purely practical implications, which usually boil down to funding for two things: seeds for maize and scholarships for school.

“One decision we made early on is that the scholarships would be for students to study only in Kenya, because we wanted them to invest in their own community and be committed to their beloved home,” Keller says.

Echoing the sentiment expressed by ARC’s Wordsworth, Keller is realistic about the slow-but-steady pace that comes from developing a model that is sustainable on many levels, including emotional ones: “Relationships take time, usually longer than we think they should,” she says.

From college student to nonprofit founder

Gabriel Warren Schlough, Executive Director and Founder of West African Medical Missions (WAMM), is also passionate about the superiority of local community wisdom over the top-down tactics often used by first-world outsiders. His organization was founded two years ago, when he was a 25-year-old neuroscience major at the University of Minnesota. His father, who now lives in the United States, was born and raised in Sierra Leone, and Schlough had always wanted to visit the country as a medical volunteer.

While touring hospitals and observing the country’s quality of health care, he was inspired to found his organization, which encourages visits to Sierra Leone from global health volunteers, many of whom are still in college, to make sustainable health-related contributions to local communities. (WAMM was a winner in The Nerdery Overnight Website Challenge, and garnered a stellar nerd team to redesign their site — as we reported here.)

WAMM builds health awareness via school groups
Courtesy of West African Medical Missions
WAMM builds health awareness via school groups

The organization, Schlough says, has met with early success, continuing to draw on  the philosophy that volunteers probably have just as much to learn as they do to teach. WAMM projects often pair volunteers with local students, working together on student-generated community health initiatives such as mental health, cholera prevention, and maternal and child health.

The local advantage

“We believe that people living in resource-poor countries know a lot more about their barriers to health than someone holding a master’s degree or Ph.D., who learned about global health in the classroom. We work to give local community members access to the forces shaping health in their community, then advocate for their presence to be of higher value and importance than international operators,” he says.

And while he plans to return to Minneapolis in November and apply to medical school next year, it’s a move that’s in line with his contention that best thing most nonprofits working in Africa can do is learn when to leave.

“The goal for most of our Sierra Leone community health projects is to be fully operated by independent local staff. One of our major tenets is that the efficiency and effectiveness of relief programs can be greatly improved if power and control is handed over locally,” he says.

The pure ask

Learning to listen and developing lasting friendships may seem like the logical way to approach someone in another country who needs humanitarian aid, but these three organizations have been hailed as innovative by many in the field. Their commitment to a human-scale model of relief gives them an energy and passion that can be missing in many traditional nonprofit structures.

“These are not relationships that have developed overnight,” Keller says. “It is so easy for me to ask for these people of the Rift Valley, because when you’re asking for help for your friends, it’s a pure ask.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.