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In Praise of the Ambassador’s Self-Help Fund



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

African State

(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-

sion questions.

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.