When Lindsay Clarke was 21, she studied overseas in Cameroon as part of a college program. She returned a couple of years later and raised $12,000 from friends and family to help the village of Doumbouo finish a school and build a library for the community. After the buildings were complete, Lindsay knew she had to keep working to help, and she started the nonprofit organization Breaking Ground with the goal of helping Cameroonian communities complete projects that they initiate.

Lindsay juggled the founding, operation and guidance of Breaking Ground while working full-time as a teacher and has spent the last couple of years transitioning the organization to a new executive director before enrolling in grad school at Columbia University in New York City.

In the days since that first school and library were built, Breaking Ground has started a women's empowerment program disguised as a soccer league, an entrepreneurial class for women, and the West Cameroon Coffee Project, which trains farmers in coffee bean processing and market negotiation. They built a bridge.

Lindsay is a strong green leaner and was an early founding member of the Portland, Maine, food co-op (soon to have a brick-and-mortar location a block away from my apartment). Here are seven questions with Lindsay Clarke. (Note: I should probably mention that Lindsay Clarke is my girlfriend. That aside, she's also one of the most remarkable people I've met; that's why I'm dating her.)

MNN: Does the world need saving?

Lindsay Clarke: Humanity is in trouble. Even as the world's population sky rockets, we have yet to begin planning in earnest how we'll live sustainably with the limited resources available to us. The world's leading superpowers have grown their economies of mass consumption at the expense of the poor — both those within their borders, in urban ghettos and rural villages, and those in the unseen underbelly that is the Third World. The "triple disaster" in Japan has shown that even those societies at the forefront of modernity are not invincible. Japan's economy has gone into hibernation for lack of fuel and electricity; its food and water have gone toxic. The Japanese are struggling to share the resources they've long been accustomed to, which are ultimately the same kind of resources that must be shared with the world's almost 7 billion people. Granted, for most us who live in the comfort of the First World, it's unlikely we'll lose access to our precious resources as rapidly as Japan has, but the example is a frightening reality check. It's past time to start making some real changes in how we consume our planet's resources.

Equally as important is that we First Worlders recognize that most of the world is already living in the perils we fear for the future — and most, if not all of us have contributed to their plight. Through the food we eat, the gas we guzzle, the products we buy, and the politicians we elect, we impact the lives of people around the globe.

Currently, the world has plenty of food to feed its population and plenty of solar, wind and water to fuel our energy needs. Call me a bleeding heart liberal (I won't take offense), but I believe that each kid born on this planet should have the right to not die of dirty water, to eat nutritious food and grow strong, and to get an education that will allow him or her to provide the same advantages for their children.

We need to stop building our economies on the backs of the less fortunate, and start living within our means — the means of our local communities, nations, and planet — and within the means of humanity as a whole. Whether we can do it or not, I don't know, but this is how the world needs to be saved. Even if the world, or humanity, cannot be saved, can we really live with ourselves if we don't try?

What's the difference between green and greener?

Admittedly, the work Breaking Ground does is more humanitarian than environmental. We're 100 percent committed to sustainability, which for us means the ability of the communities we work with to reap the benefits of our contribution long after we've implemented a project and left. We're in the business of long-term solutions, not just relief. Implicit in that notion is environmental sustainability.

For instance, we work with palm oil producers. When grown en masse on monoculture plantations, palm trees strip the soil of its nutrients and render the land useless. The farmers we work with, however, are small-hold farmers. They rely on their land not just for the palm oil they sell in the market, but for the food they feed their families. Their food crops are interspersed among their palm trees, thus if they exhaust the potential of the land, they'll go hungry. (This, by the way, is not something any American NGO needs to tell them. They know far more about living sustainably than any city- or suburb-bred Westerner does. What we do is help them access microcredit to diversify their trade, and help them cut out the middlemen transporters who rob them of their profits.)

Thus, our work is both social and environmental, and I think an analogy can be made here regarding the "green" vs. "greener" question. Breaking Ground enables Cameroonians to implement their own local solutions to the problems they face as a result of living at the periphery of the world economy. We aren't trying to fundamentally restructure the world, at least not in the large scale. The coffee and cocoa farmers with whom we work, for instance, sell their products into the same global system that exploits them. We help them work that system by sustainably increasing their yields and getting a more fair price at the point of sale, but ultimately, we're not changing the system. In that sense, I guess we help them achieve a position in the world that is "fairer" but maybe not "fair."

I think the same relationship applies to "green" versus "greener." Being "greener" means making meaningful steps to the way in which you consume resources without fundamentally changing the structure of your life: using compact fluorescent light bulbs, buying organic food, driving a hybrid car, etc. To be "green" would mean starting from scratch and making real changes in the way you live: going off the grid, eating seasonally and growing your own organic food, or trading your car in for a bike or your own two feet. Trendy as the concept might be, I think few people actually achieve "green," but I think the "greener" movement is a great step in the right direction.

Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?

At Breaking Ground, we're all about local, grassroots solutions to community improvement. One person applying that same principle to my own home community of Portland, Maine, is Emily Graham, co-founder of the Portland Food Co-op. She not only works tirelessly to make the co-op run smoothly, but also selflessly stands back to truly allow the members to democratically lead the organization. The result? Portland residents gain access to fresh and organic food, support Maine's farmers, and strengthen the local economy.

What do you say to the idea that foreign aid has hurt Africa more than it has helped?

First, let's be clear about what we mean by foreign aid.

For most of us, I think, foreign aid refers to the massive loans made to "developing" countries, brokered by the IMF and World Bank. Anyone who thinks there's anything altruistic about these loans is deluding themselves. With their neoliberal policy prescriptions, they're set up to benefit the business interests of lenders, or of the multinational corporations and powerful states thinly veiled behind those lenders. While the funds injected do in many ways trickle down to the population, often in the form of large infrastructure projects, this practice of lending traps borrowing countries in a helpless state of debt and dependency, and often also serves to enrich corrupt dictators who stamp out any possibility of democratic elections. The more recent influx of aid by China is not much better. While they may not prescribe the same destructive structural adjustment policies as the IMF, the Chinese have a reputation of turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses in the countries where they invest.

This spring, I attended the African Economic Conference at Columbia University and heard a talk by Dambisa Moyo, author of "Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa." Moyo, an economist, argued that African states need to be borrowing from other states, not the coercive IMF and World Bank. Like any other borrowers, she said, these African states need to be held accountable for the repayment of their loans. If they conduct credit ratings, she said, their governments will be forced to stamp out corruption and start dealing honestly. While Moyo is right about the destructive cycle of aid and dependency and the need to hold African governments responsible, I think that she (along with most of the economists in her camp) is wrong to think that top-down solutions like these are an end-all solution to poverty in Africa. You can’t (or shouldn’t) talk about “poverty” without talking about the real people it affects.

There’s a whole wave of activity in Africa trying to combat poverty where it hits hardest: community organizations, government agencies, and local and international NGOs. If we speak about “foreign aid” in terms of the presence of foreign NGOs and foreign advisors to national programs, there are plenty of cases in which more harm than good has been done there, as well. In most of these cases, I think the intentions are good.  All too often, foreigner NGOs come in with supposedly brilliant ideas about what a community needs, build a school or a well or a hospital, but then return a year later to find their project has fallen into disrepair or hasn’t been used at all. When communities aren’t consulted and local knowledge isn’t applied, the resulting projects don’t address true needs or introduce appropriate solutions. The harm is done when these communities get branded as “backward” for their reluctance to embrace what some foreigners are convinced is the best and only path to modernity.


Lindsay used some free time to teach local kids how to play Ultimate Frisbee and left them with the gift of a bag of discs.

What are some of the things Breaking Ground has accomplished in Cameroon?

Cameroonians make our job easy. The whole premise of Breaking Ground is investing in the local knowledge and solutions of communities who are mobilized to address their most pressing needs. We do this by seeking out communities who have prioritized a need within their community, collectively decided upon a solution to that need, and actively begun taking steps to pursue that solution independent of outside assistance. We provide funding to communities like this so they can carry out their own project plans. We don’t get involved in needs identification or the prescription of solutions, but we do support the communities by providing engineering assistance and other resources.

In following this model, we’ve overhauled the construction of a school, constructed a community library stocked with books, and built a bridge linking 34,000 villagers to the markets, schools, and hospitals of a larger city. We’re currently in the process of completing the construction of a preschool that will open in September and also serve as a multipurpose community center.

We believe that a truly sustainable approach to fostering community-supported development is the empowerment of local community members. We run programs in women’s entrepreneurship and sustainable agriculture through which participants acquire skills to increase their income generation and gain access to microcredit, allowing them to better invest in their enterprises, their families, and, ultimately, their communities. Our Women’s Entrepreneurial Program in the city of Ngaoundéré has worked with nearly 200 women, and we're in the process now of launching the program in Dschang (pronounced “chong”), the city where our headquarters are located. Through our Sustainable Agriculture program, we’ve worked with coffee farmers in the West Region to improve their organic practices and help them market their product internationally. This winter, we’ve been running a successful pilot project with palm oil producers and cocoa farmers with the Southwest Region, and we’re looking forward to expanding that project this year.

What's the best way for your average American to help people in Cameroon?

No one person can possibly feed the world's hungry, heal the world's ailing, save the planet, or create jobs for the jobless. But each and every one of us can do good and make a measurable difference.

The best way for the average American to make a real difference in Cameroon is to stop trying to figure out how to help and instead support Cameroonians in the work they’re already doing.

This can be done by donating money (ahem, to organizations like Breaking Ground), by raising awareness and fundraising among your own network, and sometimes by donating goods or services.

Back in 2006, fresh out of college and living in Cameroon, I didn’t have any extra cash lying around. I asked my friends and family to consider giving up the cost of their morning latte or their evening pint of beer in the hope that I could raise $500 so the school where I was teaching could cement the floor and plaster the walls of just one classroom. After seven months, I’d raised more than $12,000, cemented, plastered, and painted six classrooms, built a library from the ground up, and even had money leftover.

$5 goes a long way in Cameroon. $25 or $50 or $100, well, that’ll go a lot farther.

Here are some concrete ways you can help:

If you’re interested in learning about and supporting other organizations in Cameroon, I recommend both RIDEV (the Research Institute for Development), our partner organization, which does great work ranging from human rights protection to using information technology to advance community development, as well as the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), which fights corruption and protects wildlife.

(Shea's note: I asked Lindsay to come up with and answer her own question) I get asked this all the time, so it’s likely you’re wondering this, too: Where is Cameroon, and what’s it like there?

Image: CIA.gov

Cameroon is located in west Central Africa, with Nigeria to its west, Chad and the Central African Republic to its east, and the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea to its south. It’s often referred to as “Miniature Africa” due to its diversity of environments and cultures. Its varied landscape stretches from the lush shores of the Gulf of Guinea to the arid plains of the northern Sahel and is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, including the Bamileke, Fulani and Baka. Cameroon’s official languages of French and English are spoken in addition to about 250 indigenous languages and both Christianity and Islam are practiced alongside the many indigenous belief systems.

Because it’s so diverse, it’s hard to generalize about Cameroon. I will say this, though: it’s got great food and music, warm and welcoming people, and a pretty good football (soccer) team, too. The Cameroonian population is just under 20 million, and the life expectancy is about 54. An astounding 40.5 percent of the population is under the age of 15 (so let’s build some schools, eh?). Only 33 percent of girls and 41 percent of boys make it as far as high school. Most families grow at least a portion of food they consume, including corn, beans, and tubers like cassava (manioc) and yams, as well as fruits like papayas, pineapples, and plantains. Cameroon produces a lot of agricultural commodities for export, too, including bananas, rubber, cocoa, and coffee. It’s main export commodities include oil and lumber.

For more information on Cameroon, I recommend checking out the CIA World Factbook and UNICEF’s profiles on the country.

Shea Gunther is a podcaster, writer, and entrepreneur living in Portland, Maine. He hosts the popular podcast "Marijuana Today Daily" and was a founder of Renewable Choice Energy, the country's leading provider of wind credits and Green Options. He plays a lot of ultimate frisbee and loves bad jokes.

Lindsay Clarke on how we should be helping the developing world
Clarke's Breaking Ground is a nonprofit organization that works on the local level to help communities complete projects like bridges, libraries and schools.