Benton Leary ’20

Africare, Washington, DC

This summer I worked as an International Business Development Intern at Africare, an NGO that focuses exclusively on development initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Our role is to find partners who are ideologically and financially committed to our key issue areas (women, healthcare, and agriculture). These partners—usually foundations, companies, and governments—award grants to Africare to accomplish specific goals. We then design a plan and implement it through our employees and contractors in SSA. As an intern I had two primary responsibilities: provide oversight on existing projects, and develop a new project.

Oversight involved learning about projects at various stages with a “fresh set of eyes” and giving them a holistic review. My first project was a maternal health program called ZAMS (Zambian Maternal Shelters). ZAMS are shelters adjacent to a medical center where pregnant women can stay for the week preceding their expected due date. This ensures they have adequate medical care during childbirth, which is the most important step towards reducing maternal and infant mortality during childbirth. My work involved crafting the success story of the ZAMS to attract additional support from the Zambian Ministry of Health and health-focused foundations. For both organizations this involved research into their campaign promises, current political climate, and public reports. Using this information, I tailored public release memos touting the success of our projects that would align with the interests of these organizations. Another project involved an assessment of the efficiency of an ODF (open defecation free) program which had a far higher impact than originally anticipated. The local program manager used a distributed model for impact, wherein every other village was targeted to become certified ODF. Their certification placed social pressure on the untargeted villages to undertake ODF programs on their own, doubling the effectiveness of Africare’s program. To ensure the sustained success of this program and others that are run by Africare, we employ IGAs (income generating activities) to ensure a constant stream of income for upkeep. This financial self-reliance allows programs to continue operating even after a development organization leaves, or external funding is no longer available.

I developed this idea of financial self-reliance into a model for resilient business development (RBD) among marginalized communities of rural Sub-Saharan Africa. Dependency on external organizations to provide development or aid has a destabilizing effect on local communities. A system that can work and grow without any outside assistance is key to the independence and autonomy of rural Africans. I generated a flexible education curriculum that teaches savings, financial literacy, basic business, and how to use publicly available data to enhance business opportunities. When combined with the strong sense of community that these folks have, this education program will allow many underserved folks the ability to provide for themselves instead of being subject to the whims of national governments and foundations.

Working in the midst of the grant industry was an exercise in losing naïveté day by day. The incredible effort and care of Africare’s employees was juxtaposed with the obviousness of the solutions we were working towards. It begged the question: Why were so many NGOs having to work so hard to get money for initiatives that are proven to be important (healthcare, clean water, education, etc.)? All of the work we were doing was implementation of issues that have already been solved. Healthcare, water, and education are not only a moral imperative, but a sound long-term financial investment.

I asked this question of my co-workers at Africare and other human-focused organizations like USAID, the UN, and Relief International. Their response was consistent: These problems exist because folks in power allow them to. While NGOs compete over $100k grants, over $100 billion is lost to corruption every year in SSA. Rights to resources and labor is sold to foreign countries while citizens suffer from chronic malnutrition. It is incredibly important to highlight that this is not an “African problem.” Despite being the richest country in the world, the United States lags behind almost every developed country when it comes to the health and education of our citizens. As I worked on clean water initiatives for rural Zimbabwe, I couldn’t help but laugh at the bitter irony that Flint, Michigan, could use the same development. In the United States as in Sub-Saharan Africa, the lack of solutions lies in the structure of government, the motivations of business, and how they choose to allocate resources.

These sobering realizations have brought me clarity and confidence as I undertake my last year at Williams and prepare for a career after graduation. I began my time at Williams with the understanding that markets are the best way to organize a society, and a democratic government should support those interests. My internship at Africare served as the culmination of three years of education to the contrary. The interests of global capitalism are dominating every corner of the world, and are a direct challenge to our democratic institutions. Knowing a problem is the first step to fixing it. As such, an understanding of those forces will be a necessary component of combatting its influence. My last classes are centered on the future of capitalism, neoliberalism, revolution, climate change, and societies in turmoil. I might have taken these same courses, albeit with a very different mindset, had it not been for this internship. I look forward to engaging with the material from a realistic policy lens rather than an academic one, and engaging professors with a honed edge of skepticism rather than acceptance. Williams has also afforded the chance to get on-the-ground development experience through a Winter Study in Liberia, where I will be studying the culture, structure, and effectiveness of their education system.

My internship was instrumental in helping me bridge the gap between global development in academics and practice. This was not a summer of revelations, but of confirmations. I had the freedom to live in the global capital of DC and work and learn alongside people who have spent their lives working for those people in the world with the least opportunity. They helped me contextualize the impact of changes on the horizon, and to think critically about how to secure human rights and justice going forward. This was only possible for me through your generosity. I am thankful for it, and look forward to paying your kindness forward as an alumni soon enough.