Below is the full response that Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Governing Board Co-President, Diamond Empowerment Fund and I did for an interview with the Atlanta Post.
Can you explain how you came to develop your stance on the diamond industry as it relates to African development? Who and what influenced your ideas on this matter?
Further, we visited schools both in Botswana and South Africa, such as CIDA City Campus in Johannesburg. We spoke with workers, family members, and visited schools and hospitals in mining communities. We also met with tribal leaders in both Botswana and South Africa who expressed their support of the diamond industry’s contributions to the ongoing development of their communities. We assessed first-hand our observations of how these communities were being positively impacted and the quality of life in these communities was being directly improved as beneficiaries of revenue generated through the diamond industry. We also met with miners, as well as native Africans who were working throughout the chain of the diamond pipeline, specifically those employed in the sorting, cutting, polishing, and valuation of diamonds. These are all highly-skilled workers, and seeing all of these people at work was in direct contradiction to what we were told – that no black Africans were employed in the diamond industry in Africa.
One of the key questions of our fact-finding mission was to determine the extent to which the diamond industry was being accountable to these communities. Of the various industries that extract minerals, and other natural resources from Africa, we were encouraged by how the diamond industry works with communities at the local, regional and national level to adhere to standards of engagement that have led to the empowerment of people and communities where diamonds are a natural resource.
Not withstanding our documenting the current level of support that the diamond industry contributes to Africa, we wanted to build on the foundation that had been laid to engage the international diamond jewelry industry in greater support for Africa, particularly around access to education. The mining that occurs in Africa is just one component of the international diamond and jewelry sector. We wanted to sensitize the entire industry to the needs of the people in the communities in which many of their materials are extracted with the intention that they would get involved to help the cause. Simply stated, the Diamond Empowerment Fund exists to raise awareness and support for greater empowerment through education for indigenous people in diamond producing nations, especially the youth.
My relationship with DeBeers is not business. Simmons Jewelry Company is not a diamond company, it is a jewelry company. When I got into the jewelry business, I wanted to find a way to be helpful and bring a cause element to Simmons Jewelry Co. Africa was a natural fit given the tremendous need for greater support for Africa and the fact that many of the materials used in jewelry, including diamonds, are extracted from Africa. As a result of being in the business, we met the people from DeBeers and established a relationship through the founding of the Diamond Empowerment Fund that is purely philanthropic.
DeBeers support of the establishment of the Diamond Empowerment Fund did not happen as a result of our position on the Blood Diamond movie. In fact, we did not issue criticism of the Blood Diamond movie as a result of financial support from DeBeers. The establishment of the Simmons Jewelry Co predated the Blood Diamond movie. Our relationship with DeBeers came as a direct result of the Simmons Jewelry Co being in the industry. Simmons Jewelry Co. is a small company and through our company we have given at least 10 times as much as I have earned to support access to education in Africa.
There needs to be a distinction made between alluvial diamond mining and formal diamond mining. Formal diamond mining, prevalent in Southern Africa is able to be ring-fenced with proper procedures and safety measures put in place. Alluvial diamond mining (diamonds found in river beds, ocean floors, shore lines, etc) is prevalent in Western Africa and is impossible to ring-fence given that most alluvial diamond deposits are spread across huge geographic areas which cannot be easily isolated or monitored. These deposits tend to be mined by individuals, families or groups – commonly referred to as diggers. There are a number of issues concerning the working conditions of this type of mining including the unhealthy, unregulated and sometimes dangerous environments in which the diggers work, together with the fact that the majority of diggers do not know the true value of rough diamonds and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation. This type of mining was exploited and as a result there was social and economic unrest Sierra Leone, which then financed the country’s brutal war in the late 1990’s – and is also, of course, the backdrop for the Blood Diamond movie.
Compared to most countries on the continent, African countries with formal diamond mining do well in terms of human development; if you take a look at the HDI map (Human Development Index which measures long-term well-being and quality of life through factors such as life expectancy, education and income) http://www.diamondfacts.org/difference/hdi_popup.html, you’ll see that compared to most other African countries, those countries with formal diamond mining do well in terms of human development. In fact, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia are all in the top six among countries covered in the map.
Did you not expect the backlash when you initially critiqued the film?
Our position is that there should be no conflict diamonds. We did not initially critique the film and therefore if there was any backlash, it was as a result of misunderstanding and misinformation of our position.
What do you think of Naomi Campbell’s initial reluctance to getting involved with in the war crimes trial for former Liberian President Charles Taylor?
Naomi Campbell is a strong supporter of human rights, not only in Africa but also for people throughout the world. We do not have any information about allegations concerning Naomi Campbell.
In keeping with the Diamond Empowerment Fund’s mission of supporting education initiatives that develop and empower those most disadvantaged in African nations where diamonds are a natural resource, the organization looks to fund projects that have proven success in providing African youth with high-quality educational experiences, including skill-building and vocational training initiatives. A philosophical and pragmatic commitment to self-determination is important to D.E.F. as it takes a partnership approach in selecting organizations that will be recipients of funding. D.E.F looks for efforts where there is a proven history of educational excellence, sound administrative management, and a clearly articulated financial need.
CIDA (Community and Individual Development Association) was established to provide higher education designed to encourage human, economic and social development for the large population of South African youth living in disadvantaged communities. In the mid 1990s, CIDA began by running projects in township schools designed to upgrade the levels of education offered to students. With this focus on greater skill building, high school students were putting great effort into passing their final year and succeeding, only to be stuck in a spiral of poverty with no money and basic resources to further their education and little possibility of finding work with a 70% youth unemployment rate. Thus, the impetus for starting an institution that could be a model for low-cost higher education for Africa’s poor was established. In 2000, CIDA City Campus was launched in Johannesburg, South Africa as Africa’s first virtually free college to provide opportunity for the huge numbers of students who had no access to furthering their education. The school combined self-development initiatives with an academic focus on a business degree program, along with skill-building programs for students not yet prepared for higher education. Student service to the school and the student’s own community was also a fundamental principle. CIDA City Campus currently serves nearly 1,000 students of great financial need who are benefiting from full scholarship in pursuit of their business degrees. CIDA City Campus students achieved a collective pass rate from 2004 to 2008 of 70%, and a corresponding 80% employment rate for graduates. With the access to higher education, we see CIDA City Campus graduates getting well-paying jobs that help them support not just themselves but also their extended families. For further information visit www.cida.co.za .
Diamond Empowerment Fund’s contribution to CIDA’s endowment fund has been used to acquire CIDA Extension Park, a parcel of land and existing buildings next to the CIDA Park Campus. This building is crucial to the school and most importantly students as they avoid long commutes to school. Categorized as a property asset in the form of an endowment, this building already provides housing to 250-300 students.
In 2009, D.E.F. selected a second beneficiary organization, the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Founded with the belief that ethical leadership is the key to transforming the African continent by developing, connecting and supporting its future leaders, the ALA is based in Johannesburg, South Africa but with a truly Pan-African approach. They are an innovative two-year college-prep school with a student population drawn from all 54 African countries and a unique focus on leadership, entrepreneurship and African studies, designed to prepare. For further information visit www.africanleadershipacademy.org .
D.E.F.’s involvement at ALA
D.E.F. has created the “D.E.F. Scholars” Scholarship Program for students from diamond producing countries. There were 32 students at ALA from seven diamond producing countries who comprised the first group of DEF Scholars who graduated in June 2010 and are now preparing to attend college in the United States, United Kingdom, Africa. They are committed to returning to their African nations of origin after they get their education to help serve and lead their communities towards brighter futures. To see a profile of each scholar visit: http://www.diamondempowerment.org/category/scholars/ There are currently 56 students at ALA who are about to become “DEF Scholars” when they begin classes at ALA in September 2010.
Can you describe one of the greatest successes of the Fund?
The greatest success is for the past three years, DEF has made a positive difference in helping the young Africans at CIDA City Campus and African Leadership Academy who are getting an education, getting good jobs, empowering themselves, their families, and their communities.
Do you utilize the expertise of African-based leaders, academics or other experts to inform the fund’s strategy?
Yes, we do utilize the knowledge and expertise of African-based leaders, including on our Advisory Board. We also regularly seek the perspectives and recommendations of Africans who first-hand expertise in the needs and best practices of educational organizations in the African communities that are the focus of our outreach. We also believe its essential to have third-party evaluation of our grantee organizations, and do comprehensive independent evaluations of our beneficiaries, including the curriculum, matriculation and college acceptance or post-graduation employment rates, organizational governance and finances.
How many people compose the fund’s staff?
We have a full-time executive director who is joined by a small staff in the New York office, including individuals who are native of Africa. We also utilized the expertise of several independent consultants and volunteers.
As a public figure and a business leader, you have a lot of influence. Do you consider the needs of Black America when endorsing certain projects or ideas or do you ultimately rely on your own personal opinion?
Every business venture, and political and social ventures I run is to help underserved communities. As a yogi, my calling is to relieve the suffering of others. There are no communities around the world where there’s more suffering than in Black communities.
http://www.shout-africa.com/wp-admin/post-new.phpWe make business decisions based on what we think is right. We do not make decisions based on race, skin color, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ideology or geography. We are proud of our work in Africa, as well as our work in America and other parts of the world. We have been committed to the empowerment of people in struggle through our business ventures and non-profit work for more than 20 years.