The Last Word for May 2013By Steve McDonald // Thursday, May 30, 2013
May has been a busy month for us at the Wilson Center, with a trip to Kenya that served to convene new and original members of our Southern Voices Network, as well as hosting a number of local events. One major conference held here in DC on May 1 was on the subject of technology and innovation as tools to elicit social change amongst women and youth populations in Africa. A report of the whole conference can be found on the Wilson Center website, as well as some related interviews of conference.
This month’s blog posts reflect this theme through the eyes of a practitioner, African scholar, and mentor. First, you will find a piece from one of our partners in the Southern Voices Network, “Paying It Forward: How to Sustain New Generations of Female and Youth Leaders in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Africa,” by Edith Kirumba of the African Technology Policy Studies Network. Along with Edith’s piece include a submission by Liz Ngonzi, titled “Mentorship, Coaching, Board Service, Sponsorship…How Will You Pay it Forward TODAY?” and “Transformative Effects of Women, Youth and Technological Innovation” by Gregor Young of Management Systems International. Our monthly “Lessons from the Field” column was provided by Vivian Lowery Derryck titled, “Mali Matters.”
However, the big news this month, of course, is the President and First Lady’s trip to Africa in June, including a trip by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a short, precise statement issued last week, the White House announced that he and the First Lady would visit Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania from June 26 – July 3. The stated purpose of the trip was to “reinforce the importance that the United States places on our deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including through expanding economic growth, investment, and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and investing in the next generation of African leaders.” It further stated the President would meet leaders from “government, business, and civil society, including youth, to discuss our strategic partnerships on bilateral and global issues.” There were no further specifics, just a confirmation of the United States’ desire to cooperate in advancing “regional and global peace and prosperity.”
While this is a welcome and long overdue announcement, there are a number of concerns that arise by the way in which the trip has been planned and the focus it has been given. First, while the President will touch down in South, West, and East Africa, and include a Francophone country, which was an important and welcome gesture, he is avoiding any difficult issues and going with a very “safe” itinerary. Africa Up Close knows that the decisions on which countries to include were made after long and hard consultations with State, USAID, and the NSC. Other options than the three countries that were chosen include Kenya, Ghana (again), Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Malawi, and possibly others. Obviously, Central Africa has been ignored. While the selected countries may be wise for the sake of security, this trip doesn’t give Obama any insights into the problems of the most troubled regions of Africa. It plays out more as a celebration tour rather than a fact-finding one. Certainly, the inclusion of Tanzania will offer opportunity to underscore the importance of trade and investment, with major U.S. investment in energy projects underway, and South Africa also remains a major trading partner as well as a strong U.S. ally in the region.
One thing troubling all the Africanists in Washington and beyond is the fact that the president has let go of opportunities such as the Africa Union’s 50th Anniversary celebration , which took place on May 25; and the AGOA Forum in Addis Ababa, which will take place June 27-July 1, coinciding exactly with the President’s trip. While Secretary of State Kerry did make an appearance at the AU Anniversary celebration, it is exasperating to Africa watchers and to many Africans that the President did not make an appearance at that important benchmark event. It is also boggling that he is choosing to ignore the important AGOA Forum which is, after all, driven by one of the prime tenets of American policy towards Africa. In fact, we have suggested for years that the President needs to visit Addis and make the AU a priority, signaling his commitment to the whole continent and not just individual and favored countries.
One issue of massive importance is regional economic integration and the dropping of tariff and non-tariff barriers to intra-African trade. By avoiding meetings in Addis with the AU, the African Development Bank, and Regional Economic Community representatives, it appears this issue will also not be on the agenda. Another is the focus of the President on African Youth Leaders, a project that has been dear to his heart and Michelle’s, and has been a centerpiece in his policy towards Africa. While this is laudable, it is ignoring the marginalized youth of Africa – those street kids, former child soldiers, uneducated ghetto dwellers, prostitutes, etc. – who make up the bulk of the youth cohort of Africa. Again, the President needs to hear serious and sober African voices on issues like this.
Needless to say, the fact that President Obama did not take a lengthy trip to Africa in his first four years, choosing instead to make major addresses in Cairo and Accra without going further afield, was never seen as substituting for an in-depth visit. This visit needs to go beyond merely highlighting the Administration’s achievements and reiterating the various programs that already exist. The imperative needs to be a real fact-finding tour, in order to both listen and learn. U.S. policy towards Africa remains driven by American perceptions of its security and economic interests and concerns. These often run afoul of African perceptions of the same issues, and Obama needs to be listening closely to that African voice.
I am hopeful there will be some very serious behind-the-scenes consultations with key leaders and African analysts to not only discuss bilateral trade and development assistance, but also look deeply into the problems that still beset the continent, from the Sahel to the Horn to the Eastern DRC and beyond. Certainly the African world is watching and everyone is hoping for positive outcomes. Ranking minority Member of the Africa sub-committee in the House of Representatives, Karen Bass (D-CA), released a statement which probably captures much of what the Presidential objectives are: “President Obama’s travel to sub-Saharan Africa presents an opportunity to reinforce our deep and growing ties with the continent. I’m optimistic a Presidential visit, including that of the First Family, will shine a bright and positive light on many Administration accomplishments that often go under reported.” However, foregoing the AGOA Forum seems to be counter to that purpose, which is just further confusing observers as to the motivations of the Administration.
So, we will wish the Obamas well, and hope that far more emerges from this visit than seems to be planned. The President is late in making this trip, but has been known to perform magic where despair once existed, as he did in his campaign in Iowa in the early going in 2008. Will there be magic in Africa?
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