Since late December 2013, the deadly Ebola virus has ravaged communities in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. As the world failed to take notice and devote resources to combatting the epidemic, it swelled to infect over 20,000 people over the course of a year. While international organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross are popularly seen as the crusaders of this fight, Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng recently spoke to Solome Lemma, founder of Africans in the Diaspora and the recent initiative Africa Responds, which seeks to spearhead the African Diaspora’s response to the epidemic. In a candid conversation, Solome tells us about the genesis behind the idea for Africans in the Diaspora and critical role that Africans have to play in philanthropic efforts on the continent by investing in their communities.
How did your background and heritage fuel your desire to start Africans in the Diaspora and, most recently, Africa Responds?
I’m originally from Ethiopia and came to the United States in sixth grade. When I first arrived, I lived in Marietta, Georgia, which is a predominately white suburb. I was very shocked at the lack of knowledge that my peers had of Ethiopia and, more broadly, of Africa. Like many Africans, the first questions I was asked was if I was eating, if I was fed, if Americans saved me by bringing me to the States…
I’m sure the old pictures from the Ethiopian famine didn’t help.
Exactly. It was particularly bad because I hated food growing up, so I was very skinny and that perpetuated the theories in school. But I was really shocked because at the time, I didn’t even know that there had been a famine in Ethiopia. Probably because I was very young when it happened and it was somewhat isolated to northern parts of the country. The famine was also much more of a political famine than it was natural disaster. But experiencing that ignorance really affected me and I became a staunch advocate for Ethiopia and for Africa. I didn’t know what that meant, so I remember as a young girl telling my parents that I wanted to be a human rights lawyer or a civil rights lawyer.
When I went on to college, I realized I wanted to go back home to Ethiopia and other parts of Africa to work, so I did the typical International Relations route and moved back to Ethiopia to work for the UNDP after graduation. That was a really significant experience because I gained some key insights. One, I started to question how international development worked – I didn’t know if it was reaching the communities we supported or if it was lifting people out of poverty like our stated goals. I left the UNDP with those questions in mind. But during that time, I met with some brilliant young people who were born and educated in Ethiopia and worked alongside me at the UNDP. I started to question what my role was as a member of the Diaspora with my Western education. Was it my role to go back and take up jobs? Or is it to add value? At the time, I thought that those young people could probably do a much better job than I could, so I decided being at the UNDP might not be the best role for me.
I left after a year and came back to the US where I worked at Human Rights Watch and then went back to grad school at Harvard to get more training to work in the areas of social change and social justice. A pivotal point for me was the summer between my first and second year in grad school when I consulted with a big international organization in Liberia where I got to work with local women’s associations. I saw a big disconnect. There were all these great ideas but we couldn’t fund them because our donors wanted to fund something else. It really got me asking a lot of questions about what it means to be doing development work if it’s not driven by the people we are supposed to be helping. Again, I asked myself what my role was as a member of the Diaspora? When I got back to the States, I knew I didn’t want to work for an international organization, I knew I didn’t want to go back home and start an organization because I thought that there were already so many great people doing work on the ground. I searched for jobs and found a great position at a foundation that supported grassroots organizations working with children and youth. I worked there overseeing the Africa portfolio for close to six years. While there, I had the chance to work in and visit over twenty-five countries across Africa and really get a panoramic view of the tremendous amount of innovation at the social level across the continent. I loved that job but one thing that bothered me was that during my travels, whenever I met with partners, they were always shocked to see me. It was always “you’re young and African. We expected someone different like a white man.” At first, it was amusing but after hearing it repeatedly, I realized it was one symptom of a systematic problem around how social change and development work in Africa. Africans aren’t perceived as leaders or resources, so I started asking if me being at a foundation directing resources enough or is there more we can do. That’s where the idea for Africans in the Diaspora came from.
During that time, I realized my role as Diaspora was to be an intermediary, a connector with access to education, resources, and networks here. I wanted to support the African organizations that are doing amazing work but are underfunded because they are out-competed by these big organizations with much better access to resources. Africans in the Diaspora is harnessing African resources and skills in the Diaspora to support work on the continent by grassroots organizations that spearhead the changes we want to see in our communities.
How did the experience of starting Africans in the Diaspora translate into the impetus to start Africa Responds?
It absolutely was motivated by similar sentiments. Africa Responds is an initiative within Africans in the Diaspora. When the Ebola outbreak became news last June, I started calling organizations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I had been there several times before and had relationships on the ground. We wanted to learn about what they were doing, how they were affected and what kind of support they needed. We heard similar stories across the board: we’re not getting any support; we’re the first to respond; nobody’s engaging us in the response. That was huge – stopping Ebola requires that people reach communities and change practices, attitudes, and behaviors.
I was Facebooking about my conversations and thoughts when a friend of mine, TMS Ruge, reached out to me saying that Africare was doing work with frontline responders. He wanted to know if there was a way for us to do the respond together. We came together and founded Africa Responds, a special emergency response initiative with the idea that often when there are emergencies, the African voice is not always heard. We wanted the media and the world to know that this is not a story about the world saving Liberians and Sierra Leoneans. This is a story about communities helping themselves.
What advantages do African civil society organizations have over Western-based international organizations?
With public health issues, you need local, national, and international action working in tandem. The problem with Ebola was that in the beginning, the local African part of that conversation was pushed to the side. Resources went to big agencies or to governments. The advantage of working with local communities is that these organizations are very closely connected to their people. They know who lives where, they understand the local vernacular, what kind of education people will respond to. This can make them more effective in outreach and response to problems. These local organizations have been in the area long before Ebola and they will be there long after whereas international organizations will parachute in because there’s an emergency then leave. Local organizations provide continuity and consistency. The Ebola outbreak is not only a viral outbreak, but it’s also a social issue. It’s a breakdown in the socioeconomic system – schools have been closed, over 5,000 children have been orphaned, farms have been abandoned, the price of cassava has risen over 150%. Who is going to resolve these issues? It’s certainly not the big international humanitarian organizations who have to leave eventually to respond to the next pressing global issue. It’s the local groups and national governments. It’s important to make sure we support local agencies to make sure that they can not only stem the outbreak in the short term, but also really help re-build communities so they can start thriving again.
Africa Responds is such an amazing initiative and I wish that we had similar coordinated responses for other issues on the continent. How do you think that we can better harness African philanthropic potential and better build connections between the continent and the Diaspora?
It’s a great big question. For me, Africans in the Diaspora and Africa Responds have been my own personal answers. But the Diaspora can reach out to and support grassroots organizations directly. That’s my simple answer, but I think the first step would be education. I think there’s great need for Africans in the diaspora to learn about issues on the ground. We think we know them, but we need to also learn about the best responses and best ways to solve issues. For example, with Ebola, there are a lot of people who want to send supplies. But when you have an emergency that’s not always the best response because the logistics of sending something there is so cumbersome that it can make it much harder for the individuals and organizations on the ground. In an emergency like this, the best thing you can do is get financial and human resources to people on the ground so they can react as quickly as possible. We often send money home to friends, families, and neighbors, but we need to educate ourselves on how to turn those cash flows into strategic investments in people and in institutions. There’s a lot of mistrust of civil society in some areas. I get a lot of questions like “how do you know these organizations are accountable?” so there’s a great need to re-build that broken trust and let people know that there are systems of accountability and monitoring to ensure that your resources are being used wisely. There is so much value in social investments. Once you have a well-informed and educated population, the way that they will engage in philanthropy will be very based on their own interests. I personally believe that the best form of philanthropy is to support grassroots organizations. That might not work for everyone, so it’s important for people to be able to identify what issues resonate for them and who’s on the ground working on the issue so that they can support that work. There are many options. Online fundraising can be a great avenue for us to pool our resources, but there is also amazing offline fundraising occurring in spaces like churches and women’s groups in the Diaspora. Those also deserve an equal amount of attention.