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Thanks to timely words of an avid Africa in DC reader, I learned of a CSIS event on Africa this afternoon, courtesy of their Project on Prosperity and Development.  I was excited to see the new CSIS office and it was quite impressive, although their conference rooms do not yet have any audio visual capabilities in play.  Shari Berenbach, President of the United States African Development Foundation (ADF), was given a forum to offer a primer on her organization.  Ms. Berenbach came to ADF from USAID and has a strong background in micro-finance.

This is appropriate, because as I learned, ADF works at the grassroots and offers small grants (nothing over 250k).  Ms. Berenbach noted that ADF is ‘largely supporting…village based enterprises’, ‘enabling Africans…to implement their own projects’ (ADF can only fund African organizations and individuals).  She noted an emphasis on work in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa and other areas where USAID does not have a significant presence.

Although I was only present for about half the talk, I must say that it reinforced my skepticism of international development work writ large and do-gooder idealist talk regarding Africa in general.  Berenbach cited the importance of ADF funds to build important but simple infrastructure, mentioning ‘very simple equipment’ and ‘small shed(s)’ with which to store food.

Are Africans so helpless and pathetic that they cannot even build small sheds and obtain minor equipment without US financial assistance?  If indeed they are, might it perhaps be due to our support of autocratic governments in states like Burkina Faso and Angola who siphon off the wealth of the country?

Berenbach also spoke of the secondary benefits of the work of ADF to strengthen the capacity of its African employees, contractors, and consultants.  Apparently, Africans not only need American support to build their sheds, they require American support to learn basic western office etiquette.

I wish I could have stayed longer to hear Berenbach’s oozing oratory of condescension, but my lunch hour cut the festivities short.  I also found it ironic that while Berenbach spoke of ADF’s supposed emphasis on ‘village based enterprises’, a significant component of her remarks focused on the positive role of large scale mobile phone corporations like Safaricom and Celtel in transform the lives of simple villager.  She spoke of an ADF role in supporting the Washington Fellows (an assuredly elite group) and Power Africa (an assuredly elite initiative), see below.

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