How Everything (including AEF) Begins with Integrity
I lived in Ghana from 2003 - 2004 while volunteering for a non-profit organization that is known throughout the world for its focus on clear values, honesty, and integrity. I learned pretty quickly, however, that these values were still developing (to put it lightly) within the West African operations.
Even among the volunteers with avowed good intentions, it seemed to me that lying, cheating, and stealing were more the norm than the exception. These were not the first impressions of a newly-arrived American, but rather my observations after living with, working alongside, and developing trust in many individuals. Unfortunately this trust was betrayed repeatedly-- to the point that I had nearly lost hope in my ability to make a difference because, to me, there could be no collaboration or partnership without trust.
My ability to trust others was continually weakened as I took on more responsibilities within the organization and my negative experiences tallied up. But then I encountered two individuals who consistently demonstrated impeccable integrity. I was initially impressed, but remained distant and found ways to observe their actions, reports and work ethic in a variety of settings, including when they would not know I was watching. It became increasingly clear to me that their character would pass any test.
I wondered what I could attribute their honesty to, but there were no simple explanations. These young men had been brought up in the same, if not more destitute, poverty as most of my other colleagues. One was from a rural Ghanaian village (Richard) and the other from Congo (Noel). They both had experienced tragedy with close members of their family.
I finally opened myself up to these young men and they became leaders within the organization. Not only did they maintain their integrity as their responsibilities grew, they had a noticeable effect on the others. They became some of my closest friends and I desired to learn about them and from them.
The three of us all finished our volunteer work about the same time. I returned to the U.S., to the comforts I had grown up with, and into educational and professional opportunities. My friend from Ghana took a bus back to his village. There, his daily lot was to farm or perform other manual labor for his basic sustenance and shelter. I knew that he would and could bear these burdens, but it bothered me that this great leader would spend his hours in this fashion. I received a regular barrage of e-mails and calls for assistance from others in Ghana, but somehow the one person who wasn't asking for help, but who I knew was tirelessly working and developing a plan, always stayed on my mind. Even as a college student without a post-graduation job lined up, I spent much of my time thinking about Richard.
By the time I was in my first job, I was able to cobble enough support together to help Richard obtain basic post-secondary training in business management and IT systems, but there were no jobs or internships to be found. My preoccupation with Richard now turned into helping him create his own opportunity through entrepreneurship.
At this point, I had become more versed in various models for international development, social enterprise, and Africa-focused aid. Much of the data was not good. It told me of the corruption and management issues plaguing non-profits and aid organizations in Africa. It reiterated the difficulty of operating profitably. The legal commentary suggested that there was almost no legal recourse or remedy against borrowers who chose to disappear. Essentially the informal, entrepreneurial sector had to rely on trust--something that was not in high supply according to my own experience--and now further attested to by the textbooks. I did seek feedback from others who had tried various models in West Africa, and though they found joy in their service--positive results remained a hypothetical concept for most. Despite all of this negative feedback, somehow I just ignored it. Somehow, I was now the wide-eyed optimist about West Africa--and I think the difference was that I knew Richard and Noel. I knew they could be trusted with the tools for success. I knew they would make the most of any opportunity given to them.
It was at this point that I began to collaborate with others about creating a successful business model in Ghana. The advice, support, and assistance I received from friends and mentors resulted in the formation of AEF and our first start-up venture, Global Link Internet Cafe. With our assistance, Richard successfully launched this business. The financial reporting tools and technology he received in this process turned out to be as valuable as anything else. Other businesses and entrepreneurs in the community came to the cafe not only to browse the web, but to receive coaching from Richard on how to manage their small businesses. Soon Richard was able to hire other employees at the cafe and once it had proven it's financial success, AEF called upon the now more experienced Richard to take on a larger project with Empower Academy. Today, Richard is a husband, father of 2, entrepreneur, and leader in his community. Sure, he has received support from AEF, but I personally attribute his ability to rise out of poverty to the karma that follows good character. That is the secret. Proverbs 3: 32-33