What is a great question? A great question is one that cuts to the core and reveals something about CorpsAfrica that is significant, substantive, and/or interesting. They also cause us to think about the answer first – making sure it’s the right way to go. As we’ve been talking to literally hundreds of people getting CorpsAfrica off the ground, many of your questions have helped us shape the organization – the model, the approach, policies, attitudes, etc. We think CorpsAfrica is the better for it, so we wanted to share the questions that have helped make us who we are – and, of course, our answers.
Care to pose a great question? Send it to email@example.com. We’ll answer all questions. If it’s great, we’ll print it here, along with our answer. And yes, we reserve the right to determine if it’s great or not – so keep it clean and keep it great. Thanks!
Here are the great questions so far, in no particular order:
Great Question: What was the spark that started CorpsAfrica?
Liz Fanning: I guess you could say it started when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco (1993 to 95), although I didn’t know it then. I was chatting with a Moroccan woman named Fatima (I think that was her name, but I’m not positive) at a café, who was excited about the work I was doing in a remote part of the country and she asked if she could do what I was doing. I thought about it for a sec and then had to say no. As far as I knew, there was no similar opportunity for her – yet she was this young, ambitious, idyllic, educated woman who needed only an opportunity like this to shine. If you ask any Peace Corps Volunteer, they all know people just like Fatima. And opportunities to shine are desperately needed. But, like I said, it didn’t occur to me at the time to start something like CorpsAfrica. I finished my service, went back to America, got a Masters, landed a great job at the ACLU, moved to different cities and got other great jobs, yada, yada, yada – and the experience I had in the Peace Corps helped me all along the way. It’s not just the transformative experience of the actual two years of service – it’s the lifelong network of friends, the doors that open because of the term “Peace Corps” on the résumé, the help I received to pay for grad school (the Sargent Shriver Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Scholarship), and so much more. Africans need these opportunities – so they can continue to be a part of the solution for their own countries.
Great Question: Why model after the Peace Corps?
Liz Fanning: The Peace Corps model of embedding volunteers in communities so that they can learn the language, live with families, and become a part of the community in order to drive solutions from the community level, is so important. It ensures that projects are derived from the people they are meant to help and that efforts are inclusive of, and provide “ownership” to, the people they are meant to help. It promotes efficient allocation of resources. Instead of NGOs going into a community and telling them what they need to help them out of poverty – CorpsAfrica Volunteers will facilitate discussions to identify the communities priority development needs. They will ask the questions: Why is this community in poverty?; What does economic sustainability look like for this community?;
What will help us get there? Then they will help the people determine a project, assess the appropriateness and feasibility for that project (whether it be a school, a road, a bridge, an irrigation system, a health clinic – whatever), and develop the community buy-in by defining that project. The volunteer will then take that developed proposal to the best NGO already doing that work and direct their expertise and resources to a project that is likely to succeed. Peace Corps Volunteers go into a community with a job to do – they are assigned to a counterpart and a project – but they are also required to develop a “secondary project” on their own – one that they identify, create and implement. CorpsAfrica projects will be more like the secondary project model of the Peace Corps. They will not be based on pre-conceived notions of what the community needs. This approach is actually based on Bill Easterly’s thesis in his groundbreaking book, The White Man’s Burden. He says that, “The only plan is to have no plan” – and we think that’s right. Each community is unique, and what works for one community might not work for another – so we always have to start from square one.
Great Question: Why focus on accountability, transparency and evaluation?
Liz Fanning: Since that conversation with Fatima, I’ve had a lot of experience working with nonprofits, including those trying to help Africans. It’s encouraging how many amazing people are working hard to help people overcome poverty. But there are a lot of efforts out there that have the best of intentions, but fail to help – and (dare I say it!) can actually do more harm than good. It’s one thing to fail – but it’s another to hide that failure – from funders, watchdogs, even the beneficiaries themselves. This happens because of ego, competition for fundraising dollars, fear of losing one’s job, etc.
And, unfortunately, it happens a lot. Peter Singer talks a lot about it in his book, The Life You Can Save – fantastic, fantastic book! CorpsAfrica wants to be a model for transparency, accountability and evaluation. We believe that NGOs should be held to a higher standard than the ridiculous “admin to program” expense ratio that most charity watchdog groups care about. Whether the programs make an impact – on the lives of the people they’re trying to help – is the only thing that matters. Sure, it’s nice if their financial statements add up properly and their Board of Directors meets a certain number of times per year – but, as a donor – and as a fundraiser asking for donations – all I care about is impact. I’ve actually fought talked with folks at Charity Navigator, BBB Wise, and others about this – they say it’s too difficult and expensive to measure impact – but it’s only going to get easier and cheaper if we all start doing it. GiveWell is a nonprofit watchdog that does it right. Their mission is to help donors figure out whom to give money to. Check them out at www.givewell.org.
Great Question: CorpsAfrica wants to help encourage American philanthropy toward poverty in Africa?
Liz Fanning: Yes, it’s idyllic and ambitious and maybe even impossible – but we want to be part of the solution for funding needs in Africa. America’s international aid budget is subject to the whims of Congress and focused on helping America (as it should be). That’s not necessarily sustainable and it’s not necessarily efficient. Private efforts are needed in a big way. We think that Americans would give a lot more to poverty initiatives in Africa if it wasn’t such a giant abyss – if they knew precisely where the money was going, what happens to it, what the impacts are, and how those impacts compare to other initiatives.
Great Question: How does CorpsAfrica define success?
Liz Fanning: Successful implementations of projects that help people overcome barriers to economic development are only the beginning. CorpsAfrica can play a major role in the growing international effort to overcome poverty, which has challenged the most expert and well-financed individuals and organizations. CorpsAfrica can also help establish a path toward public service within developing nations by giving volunteer participants the opportunity to understand extreme poverty and the skills to help. Because of its reliance on native African volunteers, CorpsAfrica, unlike the Peace Corps, can operate in countries that the U.S. deems too dangerous for Americans. Ultimately, CorpsAfrica can serve all 54 African nations, beginning with the 35 countries that currently welcome U.S. Peace Corps operations. I think we can be bigger than the Peace Corps in ten years. After our three-year pilot phase, establishing programs in Morocco and a sub-Saharan country, we will start expanding to other African nations. My dream is to have 250 volunteers in twenty countries within ten years – and thousands of successful projects helping millions of people formerly in poverty –thousands of former volunteers getting advanced degrees through scholarship opportunities that we provide – leading NGOs in their own countries, working in government, journalism, businesses, whatever – skilled, transformed, and with the kind of understanding of poverty issues that only comes from living it. Ultimately, we want our country offices to operate and be funded completely independently – that will truly be a success.
Great Question: Who’s “Negash” and what’s up with the oath?
Liz Fanning: When CorpsAfrica was still an idea in my head, I went to hear Bill Easterly speak at a conference and someone stood up to ask a question. First, he noted how discouraging it’s been for him growing up in his native Ethiopia and watching so many development efforts come to naught – and actually having the effect of discouraging the people and places they were trying to help. He asked if people doing development work would consider taking an oath, like doctors, to first do no harm. There was wild applause. I have chills just writing about it. I went up to this man after the conference. His name is Negash Abdurahman. I asked Negash if we could use his name for an oath that our volunteers will take upon graduating from training – The Negash Oath – to swear tht they will first, do no harm. He was delighted and continues to be a good friend of mine and of CorpsAfrica’s.
Great Question: What will the role of the headquarters be – compared to that of the country offices?
Liz Fanning: We are designing CorpsAfrica national offices to be completely independent – staffed by country nationals and registered as NGOs with the authorization of the government to operate in their countries. The Country Directors will have the power to design the program as they see fit according to their countries unique situation. They will be accountable only for ther impact – through the projects that are implemented by volunteers, by the network and collaborations they build with regional NGOs, by the experience and ultimate success of their volunteers, and by reputation and prestige of the CorpsAfrica program within their own country. The headquarters, based in NY, will be responsible for getting the programs started, providing support for operations, fundraising, training, and inter-country communications. HQ will also be an advocate for the CorpsAfrica model to the greater international development community.
Great Question: Why are you starting in Morocco?
Liz Fanning: I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 1993 to 1995. I also was a founding Board member and Vice President for a nonprofit in Morocco from 2002 through 2008. My contacts are there and I know the place. But also, here’s such great need for opportunities for young, educated people in Morocco. The recent Arab spring has demonstrated the desire for people to take control of their own destinies and improve civil society in their countries. CorpsAfrica can be a part of the solution for them.
Great Question: Why is it appropriate to pay tribute to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke?
Liz Fanning: Many people don’t know that Richard Holbrooke served as Morocco
Country Director for the Peace Corps in the early 1970s. In fact, he said it was the best job he’d ever had (you can see the video of the speech where he said that on our Holbrooke Campaign page). Our Board of Directors and I wanted to honor him in a way that would be meaningful and significant. We came up with the idea of creating a project in his name to fund the Morocco Country Director position for the three-year pilot phase of CorpsAfrica, where we will perfect the model (in Morocco and a sub-Saharan country) before expanding to the rest of Africa. The Country Director, like all CorpsAfrica staff in Morocco, will be Moroccan. This person will launch the first initiatives, oversee the first group of volunteers, and put policies and procedures in place that will define the organization. This position is critical to the success of the Morocco program, as well as future expansion into other African nations. As the program gets underway and develops, having the Morocco Country Director position named for Ambassador Richard Holbrooke will give us much needed credibility and distinction. We are inviting Holbrooke’s friends, colleagues, the returned Peace Corps Volunteers that he led in the early 1970s, and all returned volunteers and other who knew of Richard Holbrooke, admired him, and were inspired by him to support the Holbrooke Campaign in his memory.
Great Question: Liz, who’s paying your salary?
Liz Fanning: Excellent question! No one. I am doing this as a volunteer in my spare time (like our Board of Directors and Advisory Council members). I hope this will turn into a full-time salaried position for me – but I won’t take a salary until after our first hire does – our Morocco Country Director. That’s when I’ll know that we’re off and running.
Great Question: When Peace Corps Volunteers move to a village they receive a certain amount of consideration because they’re Americans – foreigners in a foreign land, so to speak. Are you concerned that CorpsAfrica Volunteers – because they’re in their own countries – won’t have that benefit? – and might struggle to be accepted and/or effective?
Liz Fanning: Yes! At this point, everything concerns us – and we’ve discussed that very possibility. Communities are likely to be suspicious of a stranger moving in next door – particular in some African regions where tribalism is central to everything. First off, we will only send volunteers to communities that agree to host them – so the leaders of the communities will be responsible for ensuring their legitimacy before they even arrive. If tensions do exist, one possible solution is to give the volunteers a “job to do” immediately upon arrival – such as an assistant teacher in the school, or help out at the local health clinic. We might also find a Peace Corps Volunteer in a nearby village that would be interested in collaborating with our volunteer. In some cases, that might help, in others it may make things worse. Whatever we find, it’s important to note that the solution in one case won’t necessarily work as well in another case. CorpsAfrica is all about learning as we go – and constantly re-learning and trying again. The most important thing for us right now is to get the program started so we can see which of our concerns turn into real challenges and which simply solve themselves. We expect that the three-year pilot phase of CorpsAfrica will be all about problem solving – and we’re anxious to start solving problems.