THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
In Praise of the Ambassador’s Self-Help Fund
BY ROBERT GR I BB I N
he Ambassador’s Self-Help
Fund has proven to be one of
our most effective diplomatic
tools in Africa. Historically,
each ambassador was allocated a pot
of between $50,000 and $100,000 that,
within reasonable guidelines, could be
allocated as the embassy decided.
Self-Help Funds exist—and, indeed,
were specifically created—for coun-
tries that did not have a bilateral USAID
program. The SHF gave the country team
an oar in the developmental waters that
advanced U.S. interests in terms of basic
development and solid public relations.
Usually, the SHF committee at post —
often headed by a junior officer—selects
brick-and-mortar projects like building
school classrooms, health clinics and
libraries or supporting women’s or youth
groups. Often there is a cumulative impact.
In Rwanda, for example, successive
SHF allocations during the 1970s focused
on rural health clinics. Over the years, the
several dozen clinics built by the embassy
constituted an important part of the
national health infrastructure.
And success was recognized. I remem-
ber the 1980 dedication of a clinic per-
formed by President Juvénal Habyarimana
in the presence of a crowd of more than
20,000 people. It was a testament to shared
U.S. and Rwandan values on the impor-
tance of basic health care.
In the early 1990s we conceived of a
project in the Central African Republic
An Africa hand, Ambassador Gribbin served two tours each in Bangui and Kigali
among a dozen African postings. He is the author of two novels, a memoir about
Rwanda and a chapter, “After Genocide,” in the newly released
The Crisis of the
(Marine Corps University Press, 2016).
to forward new aspirations for
democracy and human rights.
With our support, the Ministry
of Education’s curriculum com-
mittee wrote a textbook,
et les Droits de l’Homme (The
Student and Human Rights)
The text featured excerpts
from international human
rights documents, plus local
accounts about abusive situations
such as forced labor, early marriage and
corporal punishment. It also included
vocabulary words, illustrations and discus-
Initially we printed several thousand
copies at the U.S. Information Service facil-
ity inManila. Then we tapped year-end
fallout funds sufficient for a press run of
20,000, enough to put a book in the hands
of every other seventh- and eighth-grader.
No other textbook for those children had
such reach in the country.
After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the
nation was grappling with issues of recon-
ciliation, reconstruction and justice. More
than 100,000 persons accused of involve-
ment in the massacres were incarcerated
inmiserably overcrowded and unsanitary
jails. Although the international commu-
nity, including the United States, stepped
forward to help rebuild the nation, there
was little attention given to the plight of the
imprisoned except from the International
Committee of the Red Cross.
Part of the problemwas that few
citizens, including the
jailed, their families and
their jailers, understood the
applicable regulations. In
conjunction with the Min-
istry of Justice, we devised a
cartoon-format pamphlet in
Kinyarwanda that carefully
spelled out what prisoners could
expect, what treatment and health
services they were entitled to
and what support (e.g., food and cloth-
ing) families could provide and when.
The effect was to reduce tensions in and
around the prisons and help establish a
more responsive monitoring regime.
As part of reconciliation efforts in
Rwanda, we also supported various
women’s groups. The first objective was to
empower women in newways; the second
was to foster mixed Tutsi/Hutu ethnic
groupings; and the third was to launch a
viable, sustainable project.
My favorite was a mushroom grow-
ing cooperative. Who knew there was
an unmet demand for mushrooms? We
financed a damp, dark building especially
designed to grow them. It was quite suc-
cessful on all three counts.
In sum, SHF projects are key pieces of
the American presence inmany countries.
Look around—there are USAID plaques
hammered ontomany walls. Since most
grants provide support directly to local
communities for undertakings that they
have proposed, helped finance and will
manage, losses to overhead are minimal.
In addition, such projects offer wonder-
ful opportunities for embassy personnel to
get out and about, and to interact posi-
tively with host-country citizens.