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CARE's GC Gets First-Hand View of Niger Food Crisis
Kent Alexander plunged into the unfamiliar world of relief agencies a year ago when he became the general counsel of CARE, the poverty-fighting nonprofit based here in Atlanta.
He made his first trip to a crisis region in late March, journeying to the West African country of Niger to see first hand the work CARE does. Niger, which straddles the Sahara desert and the semi-arid Sahel belt, is in a food crisis from a severe drought, which Alexander said is one step below a full-scale famine.
"This is poverty like I've never seen," he said. "It really is like watching a slow train wreck."
The CARE job is a big change for Alexander, who spent a decade as the GC of Emory University. He was also a partner at King & Spalding and the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
He left Emory in 2010 to become GC of Allscripts, based in Chicago, but gave up the post after two months and took a sabbatical to think about what he wanted to do that would be meaningful, he told the Daily Report last year. "CARE was one of those 'aha' moments for me," he said then.
Niger ranks 186th out of 187 on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, just behind the Democratic Republic of Congo as the least developed country on earth. Eighty percent of the landlocked country is covered by the Sahara desert.
"It's a hard region to live in. It has a desert-like terrain with a short rainy season," Alexander said.
Along with CARE's national directors from France and Austria, Alexander spent a week visiting several villages where CARE sponsors relief projects, some in partnership with the United Nations. He said a business trip to West Africa for cases in Mali and Ivory Coast prompted the visit to Niger.
Alexander said most of the people he met were eating only one meal a day, which they shared with the visitorsa goat milk yogurt mixed with millet that is drunk out of a bowl.
"I don't know how long you could go on that," he said, adding that in one village, the storage facility was down to its last two bags of millet.
In the village of Maijanjaré, he saw one CARE projecta barren, terra-cotta-like field with hundreds of 3-meter wide craters. "I didn't know what it was at first," he said. "It really did look extraterrestrial."
He learned that the residents used picks and shovels to dig the half-moon craters in the brick-hard ground, so that when the rains finally come in September, the water will catch in the hundreds of basins instead of washing over the slight slope of the plain and flooding farther down the incline.
"The ground softens, so it's fertile for growing sorghum, millet and other crops," he said, explaining that the Nigerians grow lots of grains that can be dried and stored for the hungry season.
They are in the hungry season now, he said, hoping to have enough food to last until the fall harvest, after the rains come. Alexander said people are so malnourished that they aren't strong enough to dig the catchment holes out of the hardened earth. That's where CARE comes in.
The relief agency pays the residents a very small wage to dig the irrigation system. That infuses money into the impoverished village to buy food and supplies. "At times like this when there is a real drought, the economics don't work unless there is outside assistance. Otherwise they run the risk of becoming another Horn of Africa," said Alexander.
Severe drought has caused thousands of deaths in the Horn of Africa, where the U.N. has declared a famine in southern Somalia.
In another village, Bangoukoirey, he attended a meeting of one of the savings and loan programs that CARE supports. About three dozen women members meet weekly, and each contributes her week's savings of about $1 or less into a pooled fund from which they make small development loans.
He said the members are illiterate, so they recite their rules at the beginning of each meeting. That way everyone learns them, and "they become part of the lore," he said.
The group's president told Alexander that she has used loans to buy poultry, two oxen and a cart in her six years of saving, and she has repaid all the money with interest. But eking out a living is still a struggle, since the drought strains an already fragile mode of living.
At a welcoming ceremony for the CARE visitors in Ayyawane, he said, children presented them formal requests in envelopes. Water was No. 1.
Alexander said the droughts used to happen five or six years apart, but Niger's last drought was just three years ago. "It takes a while to bounce back from a drought. If they come in more rapid succession, people don't bounce back," he said.
"Seeing the crisis itself helps me work more effectively on the advocacy, fundraising and consciousness-raising," he added. "It hits home in a very big way."
"Everyone always hears of starving children in Africa. This is it," he said.
One of the majo r adjustments to working for a far-flung international relief agency, Alexander said, has been trying to get a diverse array of legal work done on a tight budget.
Alexander has a small but experienced staff of three lawyers and a paralegal, but he said this is the first time in 30 years in practice that he hasn't had an administrative assistant: "Microsoft Office and I have become very tight."
He said he hopes to enlist more Atlanta firms to do pro bono work for CARE, which moved its headquarters from New York to Atlanta in the early 1990s.
"At a university with an endowment, you look for discounts," he said of his prior GC job at Emory. "But when you've got a [non-governmental organization] where the bottom line is the mission of helping the poor, there is a reluctance to spend money on legal fees. This goes beyond discounts to true pro bono work."
He said some Washington firms have "been phenomenal" in providing legal services pro bono, likely because there is a culture in Washington of working with NGOs, adding that several Atlanta attorneys have been generous with their time.
"I plan to be knocking on some doors of Atlanta law firms," he said.
Alexander said he's working on employment, tax, regulatory and bequest issues, as well as what he said is a whole realm of practice unique to NGOs.
That includes the spinoff of local CARE projects in more advanced countries such as India and Peru, where they can sustain themselves. Alexander travelled to India for a deal to make the branch there a separate CARE organization. His next trip will be to Peru, which has just closed a deal with CARE to go independent.
Another challenge has been deciphering all the acronyms.
"The global NGO world is a world until itselfreplete with more acronyms than you could ever imagine," said Alexander.
He's keeping a file of all the acronyms he comes across, which has grown to 20 pages, representing a plethora of organizations and programs. "I just added another 150," he said. "Fortunately, not all of them are in use."