Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Obama’s Africa Outreach

When Barack Obama became President, he inherited two wars and a global economic meltdown. He also inherited an Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that has stagnated in terms of broadening the benefits of trade for buyers and sellers in African countries, as well as in the United States. The AGOA Ministerial was held last week, but President Obama “flipped the script” so to speak by importing two delegations of Africans who may play a major role in helping to achieve the promise AGOA has always held.

The Obama Administration brought in 35 women business people from AGOA-eligible countries. They own and/or manage agriculture companies, communications companies, textile manufacturers and firms in other sectors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has long championed the concept of empowering women, which is critical in the African economic sphere.

“Economic marginalization of women across Africa has left a void in this continent that undermines progress and prosperity every day,” Clinton said while in Kenya during a 2009 visit.

Indeed, it is a widely accepted fact that African women comprise two thirds-of the economies in their countries and that genuine economic development cannot be achieved without taking into account the welfare of women entrepreneurs. So the Administration’s plan was to encourage their involvement and that of their networks as part of their national and the global supplier systems and to challenge the AGOA ministers to promote more inclusive legislation and practices for women by next year’s Ministerial. This is why they were made a part of this year’s Ministerial so that these ministers would be confronted with the need to move on enhancing the role of women in the AGOA process in their countries.

Similarly, though the young African leaders from about 50 countries were not brought in specifically for the AGOA Ministerial, their visit did coincide with this event, as well as the advent of the United Nations International Year of the Youth. Africa’s younger generation is less ethnically divided, better educated and more aware of Africa’s position on the global stage. They provide yet another nudge to the African officials that we are not entirely dependent upon them to make the reforms necessary to enable African progress, as President Obama told the young leaders prior to the start of his ground-breaking town hall meeting with them last week.

“You reflect the extraordinary history and diversity of the continent. You’ve already distinguished yourselves as leaders – in civil society and development and business and faith communities – and you’ve got an extraordinary future before you,” the President said.

The potential for change represented by both the women entrepreneurs and the young leaders is tremendous. That was clear to anyone who had the privilege of speaking with them over the two-week, overlapping period in which they were in the United States. Their respective programs allowed them to meet and learn from various government agencies, business people and civil society organizations. However, if these innovative contacts are to be maximized, there will have to be substantial follow-up activities that build on what must be acknowledged as a good start. This is why members of the African American Unity Caucus (AAUC), a coalition of dozens of Diaspora organizations focusing on American policy toward Africa, have accepted this challenge.

Members of the AAUC made a presentation to the women entrepreneurs about accessing the American consumer market through AGOA. As impressive as these women business people are, many of them had not understood what AGOA was or how to utilize it prior to that presentation. Given the prominence of African women in the continent’s economic sphere, such a lack of knowledge about the premier U.S. trade process cannot be continued. Furthermore, a better understanding of the specific limits faced by these business women regarding access to land, credit and education can only help in the effort to remove them. So programming is now being developed to enhance their ability to take full advantage of AGOA to access the world’s largest consumer market.

The AAUC as a coalition participated in the networking session with the young African leaders and is itself developing a project to provide either mentoring or peer-to-peer engagement for those leaders contacted. This AAUC project is being developed in partnership with the Black Leadership Forum, an alliance of Diaspora organizations focusing on advocating for the legislative and policy interests of the Diaspora nationally and internationally. This unprecedented coalition of coalitions provides resources across a broad spectrum of dozens of American organizations.

The Administration has offered a follow-up one-day conference in multiple regions in Africa, but the AAUC believes ongoing sharing of information and mutual advocacy on an individual basis would be more beneficial to both sides in the long run.

It was inventive of the Administration to create connections with women and young people in Africa. The old guard has not broadly distinguished itself in empowering the continent to realize its destiny. Better integrating women and youth to create a more productive future is critical. However, the AGOA Ministerial has become a talk shop with no plan to remove obstacles that continue to be identified each year. Creating new talk shops for women and youth will serve no useful purpose. Those of us who can help the Administration achieve its stated goals through plans for action should step up and make a way for this to happen.

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