NPCA's Green Acres

I was on a conference call yesterday sponsored by the NPCA and their new Africa Rural Connect (ARC) “experiment” which is, they write, a  “global collaboration. We put our collective thoughts together to assemble the best business plan for agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

This project — with website — is being paid for with a $400,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, and is managed for the NPCA by Molly Mattessich (Mali 2002–04) who also runs their website, PeaceCorpsConnect.

In on the conference call was RPCV Arlene Mitchell (Niger 1974–76) senior Program Officer in the Agricultural Development Market Access team in the Gates Foundation. She was, more or less, the ‘authority’ on the call.

Additionally, there were several other RPCVs on the one hour call who had real life farming experience in Africa, and are with NGOs that work daily with trying to grow food and find water in Africa.

The problem for me on yesterday’s conference call, and thinking about it today, is trying to figure out why the NPCA is involved with this “experiment in global collaboration” in the first place, given their limited staff and the purpose of our non-profit National Peace Corps Association. Isn’t the NPCA around to help RPCVs with finding work after the Peace Corps, getting funds for graduate school, dealing with health issues, readjusting to life again in America, and supporting the Peace Corps itself by lobbying for its growth, i.e. the recent MorePeaceCorps?

Worthy as this Africa Rural Connect effort might be, when Molly, who is very nice woman, emails me a sentence that reads: “We will be leveraging our Peace Corps contacts to get them and the Diaspora involved in the website.” I ask, what contacts? What leverage?

The vast majority of  RPCVs know very little about farming in Africa. My guess is that less than 10% of the PCVs in Africa worked in agriculture. The majority of them have little to no experience in farming before going to Africa (I speak as someone who grew up on a Midwest farm), and when these Volunteers come home to the U.S. they do not study agriculture or go into farming.

And to prove my point, the nicely designed website AfricaRuralConnect (much better designed, by the way, than PeaceCorpsConnect) has a contest where your good ideas for African farmers can earn you prize money. However, the four judges selected by the NPCA to ‘judge’ the good ideas have little to no experience with farming in Africa.

  • Carol Bellamy is from a city in New Jersey and was a PCV in health in Guatemala. She is now president of a college, not a farmer. Before that, Carol lived in Brooklyn! No urban farming there I can assure you.
  • Wilbur James is with a venture capital firm and involved with the African Wildlife Foundation (by the way, AWF is always fighting with farmers in Africa because farmers kill wild animals who attack their livestock and crops). At least Wilbur was a PCV in Kenya.
  • Angelique Kidjo, West African singer/songwriter and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador, is the founder of the Batonga Foundation. Born in Benin, Angelique relocated to  Paris in 1983, and now lives in New York City; her foundation is involved with helping young girls.
  • Bruce McNamer, is the CEO of TechnoServe, a fine NGO whose “programs focus on developing entrepreneurs, building businesses and industries, and improving the business environment” was a Volunteer — in Paraguay.

My point — and I do have one — is that if the organization is going to involve the NPCA with agriculture in Africa, then shouldn’t the first step be to get RPCV judges who had agriculture experience in Africa, both in terms of degrees and experience, and not have a grab-bag of individuals who have only a passing knowledge of what is happening on the farms of rural Africa?

Some of the RPCVs on the conference call yesterday  had more knowledge of agriculture in Africa (and are directly involved with the issues facing the farmers on the continent) than these four judges, nice and good people as they might be.

If the NPCA wants to be taken seriously — and if they can give a good reason why they are involved in this project in the first place since it  has nothing to do with helping RPCVs — then they really should put forth our best ag RPCVs.  I suggest that Molly and the RPCVs running ARC go up to Cornell University on any evening and hang out at the bar just off campus where the RPCVs getting their advanced degrees in agriculture hang out in their informal Camel Marketplace Club and they’ll learn more about the problems in rural Africa and how to solve them in a half hour than they will in any hour long conference call with strangers on the telephone.

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  • I share John Coyne’s concern, but with a twist. In my final years at Africare, where I was responsible for programs in Southern Africa, we had substantial success in crop diversification and food processing programs which were farmer-driven and focused on food security, NOT on market linkages or cash crops. These were funded by the Gates Foundation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Rockefeller Foundation. One would have thought that these institutions would listen to African farmers–particularly in Zimbabwe, of all places–and learn something to guide their funding priorities. Sadly, they continue to rely on foreign experts, who persist in promoting the marketing of cash crops as the solution to Africa’s food security problems. Relying on celebrity panels to pick promising agricultural initiatives speaks volumes. Why not a panel of African farmers?

  • Kevin–a simple and obvious point….African farmers might know a thing or two about making a living off the land.

  • The really sad part is the NPCA are all RPCVs. What are they thinking?

    On a personal note: it’s nice to pick up Arlene Mitchell’s thread–lost her after her stint with FAO. She has an illustrious history with PC and if anybody can cut through BS, or make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, she can.

  • …as you said John, why is NPCA involved in this? Could it be the administrative” overhead that they will be paid for their effort? I am concerned that we are going in the direction of monument building with this effort and that is not in the best interest of Peace Corps Volunteers. But if NPCA is going to be involved, then get real RPCV’s with Agricultural backgrounds and not Public Relations! The NPCA should check what they are not doing for Volunteers as they COS…talk to any Volunteer that is near the end of service and ask if they know anything about NPCA and how do we stay in contact after service? You know, implement the Third Goal! There is still a role for NPCA, Bob

  • John and others, thanks so much for your interest in Africa Rural Connect (ARC) and the efforts of the National Peace Corps Association to help insure that we assist RPCVs to fulfill their 3rd goal initiatives. I’m writing now to answer your questions and help set the record straight on the goals of the ARC project for those who read this blog.

    First, ARC is PRECISELY a way for RPCVs to use the knowledge that they gained while in service to share it with the world! As a PCV who served in Mali, I can attest that we are people who, even if we do not possess as much agricultural knowledge as a rural African farmer, have an understanding of the language, culture, and climate of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to offer up some ideas and help weigh in on these aspects of a development plan. (Arlene Mitchell also shared this sentiment on the phone call.) I personally have corresponded with many RPCVs who are extremely interested in this project, and their contacts are their friends and geographic community members who are from Africa or have similar interests in development.

    Second, RPCVs can use this space to collaborate with Africans and scholars to develop ideas. We are empathetic and inspired listeners who might have experience and English language skills to create a plan from the ideas of someone who does not have as much writing experience. That is the beauty of the ARC website as opposed to any other social networking website that exists today: post an idea, and others can build upon it. It’s not just a blog. It’s a work collaboration space.

    Third, I have contacted all of the Agriculture and Africa Studies programs in the United States and most of the ones in Africa to find RPCVs and Africans who might be interested in this unique community.

    Fourth, our ideas contest judges bring to the table a variety of experiences whether related to starting businesses, working in international development, living in Africa, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, or working on agriculture projects. I was not able to include full biographies of all of the judges on the Contest page, but if anyone is interested, all of their background information shows up on their respective business homepages. If you know of someone who would be a good judge, please do let me know! I’d like to add 1-2 more to the mix!!

    Fifth, we have very appropriately skilled moderators who have worked on agricultural projects in Africa and are lending their insights to the plans as well.

    I hope that helps to unpack the reasons why Africa Rural Connect can help RPCVs to establish an even bigger voice in the international development community, and why NPCA has undertaken this effort. I, for one, am really excited about it and hope that it helps add value to what the NPCA is all about.

    We would love to expand this network to include projects related to health, HIV-AIDS, infrastructure, water resources, education, and any other areas of interest to RPCVs where we can continue the relationships that we developed with host-country nationals, not just in Africa but on other continents as well.

    Of course, making the ARC project global depends on the encouragement, outreach, insight, and information that we receive from RPCVs like you all. Our motto on the ARC team is, if you see something you don’t like, don’t just comment on it, make it better. Please do reach out to me if you have suggestions to make ARC better for our community. Better yet, post your ideas on ARC!

    Thanks!
    Molly Mattessich

    You can reach me at: arc@peacecorpsconnect.org

  • I think that this is an excellent exchange of perspectives, all too lacking, all to often, in project launches. John Coyne raises legitimate questions. It would seem to me that Africa Rural Connect is precisely what Peace Corps should be doing, not the NPCA.

    Carol Bellamy, in addition to being from New Jersey-the Garden State, served as Peace Corps Director in the Clinton Administration She left to work with UNICEF. I don’t know her position, I believe it may have been as Director. She is certainly knowledgeable about Africa and its recent political histories. However, I think the idea of “judging ideas” and awarding prizes is bizarre. Why not award micro grants to actual farmers will to implement projects? Or perhaps I don’t fully understand the program.

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