Friday, August 27, 2010

Africa: United States’ Agenda for change

When Bako Sabo Kantiok recently completed his Masters Degree in Communications Development in the US, he could have opted to stay back like many others. Even without a valid visa, some would not mind being an illegal immigrant in the US and make do with any job they can find on the excuse that there is not much for them back home.

But Bako, now Programme Officer, Fantsuam Foundation, Kafanchan, Kaduna State, Nigeria, believes there is no place like home, no matter the problems Nigerians have to cope with. “If you don’t fix it, you won’t enjoy it,” he said. Last week, Bako was in the US with two other Nigerian youths, Taiwo Adegboyega Adewole and Ruth Nwukabu Audu, to participate in the first three-day Presidential Forum with young African leaders. Adewole is CEO/MD, Taiwo Adewole and Associates, while Audu is Programme Manager, Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP).
The youths not only had the privilege of hearing President Barrack Obama share his dream for Africa, which he hopes can be achieved through them, they visited the State Department where they were addressed by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton , met some US Senators and Congressmen/women and visited some organizations. While urging the participants to stay focused, Clinton noted, “Africa as a continent is brimming with potential, a place that has so much just waiting to be grasped.”

During his Town Hall meeting with the participants at the White House, some of the issues Obama addressed include the trend of US partnership with Africa, leadership/good governance and the need to accelerate the economic growth of African nations. Some of the highlights of his remarks:

High rate of African youth emigrating to the West

“…Given different stages of development around the world, one of the problems that poorer countries often have is that the best educated and the most talented have opportunities elsewhere. And so there’s what’s called the “brain drain” — people saying, I can make 10 times as much money if I’m a doctor in London as I can if I’m a doctor back home. And so this is a historic problem. Here is the interesting moment that we’re in, though — if you look at where the greatest opportunities are, they’re actually now in emerging markets. There are countries in Africa that are growing 7, 8, 9 percent a year. So if you’re an entrepreneur now with an idea, you may be able to grow faster and achieve more back home that you could here.

Now, it entails greater risk, so it may be safer to emigrate. But it may be that you can actually achieve more, more quickly back home. And so the question is for young leaders like yourselves, where do you want to have the most impact? And you’re probably going to have more impact at home whether you’re a businessman or woman, or you are a doctor or you are an attorney, or you are an organizer. That’s probably going to be the place where you can make the biggest change…”

The possibility that Taiwo, Bako and Ruth (Nigerian delegates) may one day wear President Goodluck Jonathan’s shoes

“What I’m hoping for is that some of you will end up being leaders of your country some day. And if you think about it, back in the 1960s, when all these — your grandparents, great-grandparents were obtaining independence, fighting for independence, the first leaders, they all said they were for democracy. And then what ends up happening is you’ve been in power for a while and you say, ‘well, I must be such a good ruler that it is for the benefit of the people that I need to stay here.’ And so then you start changing the laws, or you start intimidating and jailing opponents. And pretty soon, young people just like yourself — full of hope and promise — end up becoming exactly what they fought against. So one of the things that I think everybody here has to really internalize is the notion that — I think it was Gandhi who once said you have to be the change that you seek. You have to be the change that you seek.”

Africa has missed huge opportunities for too long

“When my father traveled to the United States and got his degree in the early ’60s, the GDP of Kenya was actually on a par with, maybe actually higher than the GDP of South Korea. Think about that. All right? So when I was born, Kenya per capita might have been wealthier than South Korea. Now it’s not even close. Well, that’s 50 years that was lost in terms of opportunities. When it comes to natural resources, when it comes to the talent and potential of the people, there’s no reason why Kenya shouldn’t have been on that same trajectory.

And so 50 years from now, when you look back you want to make sure that the continent hasn’t missed those opportunities as well. We want to make sure of that as well. And the United States wants to listen to you and work with you. And so when you go back and you talk to your friends and you say, ‘what was the main message the President had’ — we are rooting for your success, and we want to work with you to achieve that success, but ultimately success is going to be in your hands. And being a partner means that we can be there by your side, but we can’t do it for you.”

On the second day, the delegates met with some US Senators and Congressmen/women including Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Senator Isakon of Georgia, Congressman Donald Payne among others on Capitol Hill, after which they went to the Peace Corps Headquarters, where they discussed and explored innovative approaches to development through social entrepreneurship and increased civic engagement.

Edward Kemp, the Deputy Director Bureau of African Affairs of the US Department of States said the community service element of the forum was designed for the delegates to see how the US does community service and have them share their own experience with the different service organizations. The organizations they visited include: DC Central Kitchen, where delegates had a dialogue with the CEO and Head Chef, and then worked with the Chef; Boys and Girls Club of Washington, to interact with the staff and kids; Capital Area Food Bank, where they toured the facilities, interacted with programme heads and participated in sorting and preparing food for shipment; First Baptist Church Senior Centre, where they met with staff and participated in poetry reading, card and jewelry making with senior citizens.

Coming from a country where Senior Centre or home of the elderly is not popular, Miss Kane Aminatakone from Ivory Coast, who serves as the Vice President of Muslim Students back in her country, said the experience of meeting the elderly at the First Baptist Senior Centre left her feeling more empowered to initiate a similar project back home.

“This meeting shows me religious community can take care of the elderly,” she said. “It helps elderly people break loneliness and gives them a chance to live longer…it is a good social obligation,” added Elycheikh Ahmedtolba from Mauritanian. Ravat from Mauritius said the visit to the senior centre empowered him to see how senior citizens can stimulate young people.
Dayo Israel, social representative to the United Nations unattending the event had initially signed up for Boys and Girls Club of Washington as a result of his passion for youth issues, but later joined the team at the Senior Centre. He noted, “Sometimes we focus on the future and we don’t reflect and review our past. There is an African proverb that says “a youth without a link to the elders is like a tree without a root”…this is what spending time with the elderly did for us. I’m sure when they saw us, they saw hope.” One of the senior citizens said, “We are glad to have them. They are young and excited, so they made us feel good.”

On the last day of the forum, there was a Networking and Partnering Conference at the Newseum, aimed at developing new partnerships and deepen ties between public sector and civil society leaders in the US and throughout Africa. The networking session which provided a platform for participants to engage in discussions with leading US organizations focused on: Economic Opportunity and Entrepreneurship; Advocacy, Transparency, and Human Rights; Social Responsibility, Volunteerism, and Interfaith Action; Leadership and Youth Empowerment; and Innovative Solutions for Global Health.

A “Way Forward” plenary session was held earlier. The panelists included three representatives of the delegates-Thomas Kojo Quayson from Gambia, Lindelwe Fikile Karabo Nxumalo from Swaziland and Patrick Henrico Sam from Namibia; Others were Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs and Maria Otero.

Judith McHale in a closing remark promised that the US government will be reaching out to Embassies and Consulates in Africa to organize follow-up events with participants. “We want to support your efforts to use social media to continue your conversation and cooperation. We will offer small scale transformation grants to support future-oriented and creative proposals that focus on the themes of this forum... we know that with all the best will and efforts in the world, sometimes it takes a little bit of cash to get things going.” She also said that there would be African Alumni enrichment workshops involving African Alumni of US government exchange programmes in order to continue to expand the dialogue to give opportunities to youths active in their communities to be involved locally. “In the first quarter of 2011, there is going to be a follow-up forum in Africa…in different regions of Africa in order to engage more youths.”

She revealed that the Department of State is launching Apps for Africa effort all over Africa. “State Department looks to expand opportunities for technical innovators and programme developers to come together in each country in Africa with civil society leaders to develop technical responses to social challenges. Apps for Africa goals are to convene technologists and developers to explore potential for collaboration on addressing some of Africa’s challenges and creating new opportunities for development and growth. The approach will vary by region and countries. A pilot project has been launched in Nairobi, Kenya.”

She further said “All of you represent the future of this great continent. I would like all of you to move from an era of confrontation to one of collaboration, to an era where we can work together to achieve the full promise of all of your countries,” she said.
Reflecting on the programme and the way forward, Henrico Sam said there was the need to establish a balanced perspective on Africa. “We need to share best practices and success stories…everyone here is a valuable contribution to their community and humanity…we need to cultivate a culture of excellence in moving forward,” he said.

Lindelwe Nxumalo said there was need for more collaboration to achieve the African dream. “I’ll like to say that it is not going to be easy…it is going to take hard work. We have to agitate and keep pushing. It is not going to be a walk in the park. If we know where it is we want to go, the different statistics of things we cannot do can be changed. It is all about attitude and behaviour. Those of us here have the responsibility to do more. Yes, of course, poverty is what we have inherited but the answers to the problems we have are with us.”

Yohannes from Ethipopia added: “When we talk of leadership, it is about servant-leadership. We have seen it at the Peace Corps, the White House, the State Department, and with all the volunteers; it is amazing. We need to take all the things we have learned and share it with our community. For way forward, the most important thing is that we stay in touch, and share our resources to better do what we have been doing. We need to develop scenario of the kind of Africa we would like to see in twenty years… and use that as a frame work to live the rest of our lives to get there.”

According to Adewole, “The present African leaders are failures because they are not carrying people along. The way forward is for youths to be given equal opportunity. We should be carried along. The problems are there in Africa and the solutions are there too.”
Thomas Kojo Quayson from Gambia said, “What I am taking back with me is a lot of hope. When I listen to the way people are brimming with ideas. I know there is hope for Africa.”

By Jennifer Ehidiamen
First Published in The Nation,
August 8th, 2010.


Melanie Kahl said...

Great post, Jen. Glad you got to cover the event!

Faith Oluwalose Olaniran said...