Grass-roots food initiative in Africa serves Clinton's goals

Group helps to match African farmers, especially women, with on-the-ground experts and better technology.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As she continues her seven-country tour through sub-Saharan Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will focus on the $20 billion food security and agricultural development initiatives that world leaders including President Obama launched earlier this year.

But as crucial as big dollars are, the key to meeting Africa's agricultural potential will be the connections fostered between Africa's farmers on the one hand, and new technologies – and the experts that understand them – on the other, some Africa specialists say.

To that end, an organization of former Peace Corps volunteers is developing a plan to help match up African farmers with the experts, technologies, and new ideas that can help African fields bloom.

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Called Africa Rural Connect, or ARC, the advocacy group aims to connect 200,000 current and past Peace Corps volunteers, the African diaspora, and farm and technology experts with Africa's millions of small farmers. Behind ARC is the conviction that, as useful as big international programs may be, sometimes the best ideas come from farmers or unsung development experts.

"Very often the programs and recommendations come from above, but we want to shine a light on the ideas that farmers and those who work with them can come up with," says Molly Mattessich, manager of ARC and the National Peace Corps Association in Washington.

The ARC idea appears to fit well with two of Secretary Clinton's stated goals laid out in a speech in Washington last month: to enhance the concept of "partnering" in US foreign policy, and to make better use of America's current and former development practitioners.

Stronger connections to Africa's farmers would also meet another of Clinton's goals – more focus on the role Africa's women play in development. As many as 80 percent of Africa's farmers are estimated to be women, producing between 60 to 80 percent of Africa's food.

"Given those kinds of numbers, we think it's a pretty good investment to put rural development money into the women," says Ms. Mattessich.

The Africa initiatives announced at this year's G8 summit of developed countries suggest rising rich-world commitments to that continent. But some organizations focused on the HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria threats to Africa are worried that talk of big dollars in some forums is masking a fallback in funding for Africa's health challenges.

"There is a huge amount of concern building in Africa about AIDS treatment shortages and Obama's decisions" to freeze US contributions to the UN AIDS fund and to reduce other Africa health funding, says David Bryden, a senior program policy officer at the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

In a letter this week to Clinton, a consortium of African health advocacy organizations expressed concern over signs of a "scale back" in US funding for fighting the three diseases. A draft six-year program for TB funding appears to retreat from funding levels agreed to last year, Mr. Bryden says.

ARC's Mattessich says the big dollars pledged by wealthy countries for African development sound good, but such donor pledges are often not met. That may be one incentive for working at the grass-roots level. "What we want to do," she says, "is create a dialogue or a platform to bring together the actors who have been on the ground in rural Africa."

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