Photo credit: MAMA/Karin Schebrucker

Opinion

For an American who cares about Africa, love takes action now

By Ambika Samarthya-Howard


I work for a nonprofit organization that leverages mobile technologies to improve the lives of people who need it the most. The majority of them live in Africa. Countries in Africa have some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. They fall behind on gender equity and girls’ rights global indicators.

I’m the only American currently working at the organization.

Domestic politics often affect Americans directly and in the short-term. America’s foreign policies are often not felt until months or years after they are instated. That’s not true for those working in sectors like global health or humanitarian aid. In 2008, I was working with in Nigeria on a long-term project around HIV and AIDS awareness. I had been on a renewable work visa for several months with no problems. When I returned to Nigeria after I visited home the following April, my visa no longer was deemed valid and I had to leave the country with a few days notice. The difference? The U.S. government had put Nigeria on its notorious terrorist list after the underwear bomber attack on a Northwest Airlines flight. This had heightened tensions between the two countries.

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration sent seven questions about Africa to the State Department. Many of these questions were around why the U.S. sends aid money to a continent filled with corruption. The sentiment is not unusual. A recent New York Times article highlighted the inaccurate view Americans have of foreign aid expenditure. Americans think the U.S. spends nearly 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid — but it’s really less than 1 percent. Still, many Americans do not understand the many ways foreign aid is implemented and prefer money to improve conditions at home first. The alternative often posed in these situations is to turn aid money into trade money. Most governments agree that the best way to help African nations is to increase trade agreements, which also benefit Western economies.

The flaw in these arguments rest in the fact that like many developing nations today, African countries do not only need more investments. They need a deeper level of commitment to improving growing inequity left by a long history of colonization and oppression. Instead, what they are often met with is deep skepticism and generally negative attitudes. Like my husband and friends who work in the field of climate change, people involved with issues that are no longer on the political agenda have to stay strong to their principles. How can those whose careers center on Africa stay true to their work within the new political climate?

The first step is to speak with integrity. Recently, the editor-in-chief of Reuters, Steve Adler, shared how their team was going to handle the new political climate. Many of his underlying principles carry over for organizations outside of media, too. His letter inspired me to share ideas for how Americans working in international development could respond to the doubts around our work.

We will:

  • Continue to work toward bettering the lives of those most in need.
  • Work with national governments and new administrations to achieve our goals. We will work within all local ecosystems as much as possible.
  • Focus on the rights of women and girls in the care of their families and bodies.
  • Persist in creating systemic change through existing technologies and mechanisms already in communities.
  • Advocate for diversity and marginalized voices.

We will not:

  • Shortchange our audiences by censoring our work.
  • Allow for partisan politics anywhere to deter us on our goal.

The work we do is fueled by passion and beliefs that cannot be changed by new elections, policies or presidents. In fact, it’s when our work is not widely supported that we are reminded of its importance.

This year, we are reminded that love turns into action every day for us. We will persevere however we can to advance the lives of those who have suffered from oppression. We will commit to this work. As Adler stated, “We already know what to do because we do it every day, and we do it all over the world.”

Ambika Samarthya-Howard is Head of Communications at Praekelt.org. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of Praekelt.org.