Leading Africa Charity Taps New President

Africare is the nation's largest African-American-led organization focused on aid and development in Africa. This year the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary and has a new President to lead the way. Host Michel Martin talks to Africare's new leader, Darius Mans, about his vision for the organization and the potential of economic and political growth in Africa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we move from Europe to events in Africa itself. Apart from the travails of African immigrants, Africa has been much in the news in recent months. South Africa will host the World Cup Soccer tournament there later this year - a first for an African country. And many countries have been making significant strides in curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS. But still, political and civil turmoil plagued too many countries along with extreme poverty.

Through the last 40 years, Africare has been through it all. It is one of the largest American aid organizations operating in Africa, the largest that is African-American led, and now the organization has chosen a new leader. His name is Darius Mans, and he is with us now. Welcome and congratulations, your first week on the job, as I understand it.

Mr. DARIUS MANS (President, Africare): Thank you very much, Michel. I'm very happy to be here.

MARTIN: Why did you become interested in development? You've been in that field for...

Mr. MANS: I've been working in the field of development for over 30 years. I got started, to be honest, in high school. I had a high school professor of economics who emphasized the importance of the United States focusing on the challenge of poverty in this country, but also to think much more globally about poverty.

MARTIN: Why do you want this job? I mean, before joining Africare, you were the acting CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. For those who don't know, it's actually an independent U.S. foreign aid agency that provides large-scale grants to nations that meet certain criteria of good governance and economic freedom. Before that, you were the World Bank country director for Mozambique. What can you do in this job that you couldn't do in those?

Mr. MANS: I think this is a tremendous opportunity, which I am honored to have and humbled by. What Africare has a very rich, 40-year history of dealing with is helping to promote communities, building sustainable development solutions that create opportunity and lift people out of poverty by working directly at the community level.

MARTIN: One of the things that interests me about this is that often, these big institutions like the World Bank, like the IMF, like the - to a lesser degree the Millennium Challenge Corporation, is a relatively new entity - often are criticized by the countries in which they are trying to work because they feel, as you talked about, the top-down approach - and first of all, do you think, based on your own experience in working with these kinds of institutions, is that true? Is that fair? Is that a fair criticism?

Mr. MANS: I think everybody in this field of development has learned the lessons of experience. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC, was founded on what's worked, what hasn't over 60 years in the field of development. The World Bank has evolved over time. And I think the three key changes that have taken place in institutions like those, one of those is the importance of country ownership, that at the end of the day, countries have to own and drive implementation of development programs.

Another very important change is the need for a very sharp focus on results, because billions have been invested in aid to Africa without having the kind of effect that people would like to see.

So putting resources behind proven solutions and scaling those up, I think is a very important lesson that's been learned.

The third is the importance of accountability for ensuring that there's value for money, that people are getting a return on this big investment. And that is at the heart of the approach, that grassroots efforts like those, that Africare supports.

MARTIN: Many people will remember the drought in Niger that launched Africare. What are the organization's priorities now?

Mr. MANS: I think we are still very much focused on our roots. As you mentioned, the origins of Africare are in the droughts in the Sahel that led to an initial focus on water and in addition, a focus on relief, which was quickly followed by attention to getting at the underlying causes for food insecurity, in particular agricultural development. Water continues to be a huge challenge in Africa. In rural areas, only two out of five households have access to clean water. Only one out of five households have access to clean sanitation. These are important parts of what we do at Africare.

A third area that is front and center of what we do is the fight against HIV/AIDS and health more generally, whether that's malaria or HIV/AIDS.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Darius Mans. He's the new president of Africare. He just started this week. It's the nation's largest African-American led organization focused on aid and development in Africa. It's celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

So give me an example, if you would, for what exactly Africare does.

Mr. MANS: Let me give you an example in Uganda. We have had a food security initiative that started in 1997, working in a remote part of the country, very impoverished people living at subsistence with massive soil erosion, environmental degradation.

What Africare has done over a number of years is to try and lift people out of poverty. That included helping farmers to diversify into tree crops and to animal raising through demonstration farms, pilots that farmers could learn from by providing rural roads so that they can be connected to markets, by providing assistance for improving business management for small farmers and helping them to go up the value chain and become more than just subsistence farmers but able to provide resources for themselves and their families.

MARTIN: How do you decide? How does the organization decide where to focus its efforts?

Mr. MANS: We take the approach of, again, countries have to drive the priorities. So we engage very early on, at the village level, in helping to go through a visioning exercise. What are the priorities in this village, and how do we best support the village in being able to tackle those?

MARTIN: One of the stories that is in the news at the moment speaks to one of the things that people have always done when they are in desperate circumstances, which is to get up and move and go in search of opportunity elsewhere, whether it's searching for water or searching for work. And one of the stories that's come to our attention is the treatment of African migrants to European countries. There were awful race riots in Italy over the weekend. Does Africare have a voice on that?

Mr. MANS: The key is to focus on the root causes of the problem. That is the space that Africare is in, trying to find opportunities to promote growth, reduce poverty in countries, to reduce the drive for people to feel that they must vote with their feet and leave.

MARTIN: And what about this issue, this other issue that's very much on the minds of Americans, this young man from Nigeria who is implicated in this attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? Do you feel because of your work in the area, that you and others who work in Africare, is there any light you can shed, do you think, on how something like this happens?

Mr. MANS: Well, what we are doing in Africare is, again, trying to focus on root causes. I think for us, the challenge is to create economic opportunities for young people. We do that through providing support and technical vocational education in a number of countries.

MARTIN: But do you worry, though, that something like this causes Americans -who, I presume, provide the bulk of your financial support - to look at the continent in a way that is not positive?

Mr. MANS: I certainly hope not. I mean, there are a couple of things I think people should be aware of. In many ways, Africa is on the move. If you look at the tremendous progress that has been made just in the lifetime of Africare -when Africare was established, many countries were not even independent states.

So as I look at the story that we have to tell about concrete, tangible results in improving lives and helping to build futures for the people of Africa, I hope people will see that's a very important investment to be made in reducing poverty in the world, but also for ensuring that Africa becomes stronger because that's important to all of our futures.

As you may know, today, 25 percent of oil into the United States comes from Africa. Africa's stability is extremely important to the United States.

MARTIN: Do you think that it makes a difference that Africare is African-American led?

Mr. MANS: Oh, absolutely, precisely because of our heritage. I think it gives us an opportunity to raise issues that may be more difficult for others. And remember, the large number of Africans in this country, African-Americans whose origins are in Africa, the diaspora, if you will - that's a very important focus of our efforts, trying to help leverage that capacity that exists in the diaspora community for Africa's development.

MARTIN: I wonder, though, if it poses any kind of an existentialist challenge that the president of the United States is now a son of Africa. I mean, his father was a Kenyan, and he is the head of our government.

Mr. MANS: And I think it is so important that the president used his background, experience and heritage to give a message of tough love about the importance of the challenge of leadership, of accountability, of a focus on results in Africa.

MARTIN: But I wonder if it's a challenge for you, for your organization, because there are those who might say, well, we don't really need an organization like this. It's being handled. The government's doing this now.

Mr. MANS: Frankly, I think a lot of people see it as a great opportunity for the United States to regain global leadership on development, and create more opportunities for organizations like Africare, who are working directly at the community level to build on some of these global initiatives, to translate them down to how they're going to change the lives of ordinary folks living in Africa.

MARTIN: How will you know when you have succeeded in this job?

Mr. MANS: I see my job as helping to position Africare for the next at least 20 years - not that I plan to be there for 20 years, but I think there are enormous opportunities for Africare if we work more effectively in partnership with others. If we can leverage and broker knowledge for Africa, then I think we can make Africare a strong institution for many years to come.

MARTIN: Darius Mans is the president of Africare. He just took up his new post this week. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C.,studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MANS: Well, thank you very much for having me.

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