Barack Obama’s presidency was expected to change the U.S. narrative of Africa as a backwater region that had colored its diplomatic and commercial relationship with the United States for decades. Eighteen months after the symbolically powerful inauguration image of the son of a Kenyan seemed to herald Africa’s time on the limelight, very little in that narrative has changed.
“What images does Africa conjure in the mind of the average Westerner? Probably skinny children in dire poverty, corrupt dictators and, thanks to Hollywood, blood diamonds. Africa doesn’t get much attention in the West beyond that,” reads the opening statement of Barron’s July 31 cover story, “The Final Frontier.” The story makes the point that investors will lose a huge opportunity if they avoid vibrant and changing Africa.
Now, less than a month after South Africa hosted, and efficiently managed, arguably the world’s biggest single sport event, the FIFA World Cup, President Obama, it appears, is taking steps to change the narrative for the long term.
In what’s being billed as The President’s Forum with Young African Leaders, the White House and the Department of State this week is hosting 115 young leaders from 46 Sub-Saharan African nations in Washington, D.C. The keynote event will be a Town Hall with President Obama at the White House today where the President will discuss with the young leaders their vision for transforming their societies over the next 50 years. [The Network Journal will host its inaugural Africa: Strictly Business Business Forum on Sept. 23 at Bank of New York Mellon, 101 Barclay St, New York City; and its inaugural “40 Under Forty Achievers Awards” in Ghana on Nov. 6. For more information, go to www.tnj.com]
The president’s forum presents U.S. officials and others with current and potential commercial and humanitarian interests in Africa an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the trajectories of African societies and to reflect on how the next generation of leaders is building their communities’ and their nations’ future. It will include small group discussions on topics such as transparency and accountability, job creation and entrepreneurship, rights advocacy and the use of technology to empower individuals and communities. African participants will have an opportunity to meet with U.S. organizations to share experiences and strategies.
At an opening plenary session this morning, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson will welcome participants and provide an overview of the core messages, themes and goals of the forum. The session will be followed by a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Wednesday, the young leaders will meet with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and other members of Congress. The closing plenary session on Thursday will take place at the Newseum, an interactive museum with exhibits tracing five centuries of newsgathering. Here, under-secretaries of state Judith McHale and Maria Otero will review key ideas emanating from the forum and announce follow-up events. A networking and partnering “unconference” will follow the plenary at the Newseum.
The State Department, under its International Visitor Leadership Program, is already hosting a parallel commercial dialogue with African women entrepreneurs. The African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program has been taking place in Washington since July 26 and is scheduled to conclude on Aug. 6 following a visit to Kansas City, Mo. The program is part of the 2010 U.S.-/sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum, also known as the AGOA Forum after the African Growth Opportunity Act that opens U.S. markets to African goods from countries that meet prescribed conditions, such as democratic governance.
The entrepreneurship program aims to help integrate African women entrepreneurs into national and global business networks. Its slate of activities includes meetings with officials from the Departments of State, Commerce and Agriculture, and from the U.S. Agency for International Development; presentations by companies and industry associations; networking sessions with non-profit, other private-sector organizations and African Diaspora groups; exchanges with Congressional members and their staff; and information sessions with local government, civic and business leaders in Kansas City. Organizers say these exchanges will help the women entrepreneurs to build business alliances, develop advocacy and communications skills, identify resources to advance women's entrepreneurship and take advantage of opportunities for U.S. partnerships through AGOA.
Follow-up activities in Africa, some of them sponsored by companies such as ExxonMobil, will include training and mentoring programs for the women and advocacy campaigns to implement systems that offer greater opportunities and support for businesswomen.
These programs are important in getting Africa and the United States on the same page. Ultimately, however, the central challenge facing Africa is going to be the building of cohesive states. The Obama administration could put more focus on helping Africans search for common ground and eliminate conflict across the continent, said African expert Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa program and the Project on Leadership at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Americans and Africans will continue to create opportunities that enable them to learn from each other and to develop innovative solutions to the challenges that lie ahead, Wolpe added.