For Africa, more than aid

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 9:19 PM

A Minneapolis businessman has served two presidents with his passion to build much-needed infrastructure.

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Ward Brehm made his first trip to Africa in 1993 and never expected to go back. He's since gone 35 times. He bought bracelets on his first trip and he never takes them off as a reminder of the place and the people he's met. "I was so impacted by what I'd seen," he said. Brehm said he saw misery and heart break but also beauty, mobility and simplicity. And "faith you could cut with a knife," he said, from his office Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, in Minneapolis, MN. The Brehm Group is a boutique life insurance planning and counsulting group. (DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune.com Businessman Ward Brehm has served the Bush and Obama administration as chairman of a federal agency that oversees African aid-and-development projects over more than a decade. he's also taken 35 trips to Africa, some on his own nickel. He's seen too much federal money squandered on Washington consultants and otherwise. He and the entrepreneurial head of U.S. Aid for International Development are about to launch a pilot program in a Democratic Republic of Congo refugee camp a cellphone-based development program designed to give funds directly to recipients and help them pay for essentials, grow food, find skills and jobs.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Businessman Ward Brehm is the founder of the Brehm Group, a board member of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee and a veteran of 35 trips to war-torn, poverty-stricken parts of Africa. He has served U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush on the board of the U.S. African Development Foundation.

QHow did an insurance guy from Minnesota get involved in Africa?

AMy first trip was in 1993 at the invitation of my church pastor. I knew nothing about Africa. But my heart was broken and I also developed a respect for the poorest of the poor who live noble lives of simplicity despite the enormous challenges they face. I recall holding the hand of a young woman who died of AIDS. She left four children. I've tried to be something of a voice for her. Our family supports a lot relief and development work in different parts of Africa. We've got a wind-pump project in northern Kenya, just south of Sudan. The water table is 300 feet below ground. If you solve Africa's water problem, you solve a lot of other problems. So we, including some business associates from Minnesota, started building wind pumps.

QTell me how you have worked to increase the effectiveness of U.S. aid.

AThen-Sens. Norm Coleman and Mark Dayton realized if we're going to have an impact in Africa, we needed to improve the way we provide aid. I was introduced to the U.S. African Development Foundation. Its mandate is to help Africans provide grass-roots solutions for their own problems.

Most aid is money [given] to U.S. organizations that just dispense the money. They are the grantors and the recipients have to go through all this stuff to access funding for things they may or may not need or want. It was all with the best of intentions ... but the results were dismal. People were poorer.

Our agency is trying to focus on results. For every dollar we invest, we look to increase jobs, incomes, lower child mortality rates. Measurable results. See what's effective. Most importantly, rather than imposing Western solutions, we try to ask them for [local African] solutions. If you were poor, you'd want somebody to ask your opinion.

QHow does it work?

AWe open an office in countries where the government asks us in. Local entrepreneurs come in and ask for grants and they are measured. I was appointed chairman of the board by President Bush in 2004 and subsequently reappointed by President Obama in 2009. Our budget is under pressure ... it will be somewhere between $25 million and $30 million next year. We're doing fantastic things. We work with women in Tanzania who get microloans, maybe $500 ... for materials to make baskets. I brought samples to Target.

I said I don't want the Target Foundation. I want to meet with the buyers. My pitch on behalf of the ladies was that they were better quality and design than what Target was selling in its global marketplace shops. Target ordered 100,000 baskets. The most we could produce out of all our female cooperatives was 7,500. Target bought them. My point is that the poorest women in the world are capable of doing business with one of the richest corporations in the world. In Rwanda, widows make hand-crafted Christmas ornaments. Macy's imports them.

QDescribe your partnership with Dr. Rajiv Shah, formerly with the Gates Foundation, who is Obama's representative at U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

AUSAID is so large and the mandate is so wide that I never thought of it as effective. But that has changed since I met Shah, a medical doctor who was with the Gates Foundation. He's highly effective but he doesn't have an ego. He has a heart for the poor. His vision is bold and controversial: to deliver the aid to Africa. Not 70 percent ending up in the hands of Washington contractors -- "beltway bandits" -- who know the system and who represent recipient organizations and take a way-too-high percentage. The idea that we can't find responsible organizations in those countries is ridiculous. [Shah] has won bipartisan congressional support among Republicans and Democrats.

QHow do you work together?

AI recently visited Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). People in camps live like barnyard animals. They were secure, but you would feed the food to a dog -- I came back heartbroken. How do you fix this? I went to Dan Wordsworth, CEO of the American Refugee Committee (ARC), which is innovative and highly effective in Somalia and elsewhere, partly by embracing and working with Africans and Somalis who are here.

I said let's ... get scale. Measure the results. There needs to be a profit motive. How do we treat a 60-year-old woman with a crooked back waiting for a dirty bowl of beans? Put the solution in her hands. Give her an inexpensive, durable cellphone that accepts voucher-like credits for her to buy the basics she's now given. Food, education, stove, health care, maybe child care and job training.

We're going to create a pilot "enterprise zone' in one of the DRC camps. The idea would be a Congolese board of governors, local doctors, teachers, village elders, to be the fund trustees. The heath clinic, the water franchise, the cafeteria will all have financial books and be owned by Congolese entrepreneurs. They will come up with money, skin in the game; maybe $500 for a $5,000 health clinic. You run it like HealthPartners, like a franchise.

Once you create a market, say for highly efficient cooking stoves, you can build a manufacturing plant nearby. Virtually everything is imported right now from the donor nations. It should be manufactured in the Congolese enterprise zone. We're creating this with USAID. We'll send an assessment team to DRC in October. The initial expense is low. We have a plan.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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