Oblate Voices is a JPIC blog that follows stories of hope and is about how Oblates and associates live and experience mission work in the spirit of the Oblate founder, St Eugene De Mazenod of responding to the needs of poor and most abandoned around the world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Hosts Africa Braintrust Event

In 1970 African-American lawmakers hosted their first legislative gathering that continues today under the auspices of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. This year’s multi-day conference was held in Washington, DC. from September 20-24. Past events have drawn over 9000 people. The conference provides space for dialogue on the many complex issues affecting people of color in the U.S. and the world. Over 70+ workshops were offered at this year’s event under the theme ‘And Still I Rise.’ JPIC staff attended a full day panel on Africa. Key points are summarized here.

Renewing Our Commitment and Engagement with Africa

Several hundred U.S and African government officials, private sector leaders, academics, NGO staff and regular citizens attended the panel on Africa Braintrust: Renewing our Commitment and Engagement with Africa. Presenters spoke powerfully but also sought audience input on three broad areas that continue to impede the continent’s growth: security and insecurity, economics and the path to prosperity, and the importance of meaningful partnerships between foreign actors and African communities.

On security and insecurity in Africa, speakers examined how countries are faring after the wave of democracy in the 90s.  The good news is fewer Coup d’Etats occur today. Still, at least one happens every year somewhere on the continent. Intimidation and harassment of voters at polling places are also fairly commonplace. In the age of global extremism, terror groups are employing new strategies and enlisting African youth at an alarming rate. Panelists and the audience brainstormed preventive measures, for example encouraging more parental involvement, getting former combatants to share their testimonies with youth, strengthening partnerships with the diaspora, and appropriately labeling objectionable behaviors as what they are.
Photo Courtesy of Jerolinmek Matthew Piah, Liberia Executive Mansion
2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, was greeted with a standing ovation as she arrived on stage to deliver the morning’s keynote. She spoke of the successes and challenges during her 11 years in office and thanked Members of Congress who advocated for Liberia during and after the country’s long civil war. President Sirleaf cited the weak economy she inherited and the 2014 Ebola outbreak that left 11,000 people dead in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone as the lowest points of her administration.  She noted that Liberia’s 2017 elections on October 10, marked the “first time in 73 years that power democratically transitioned from one president to the next through elections, as is constitutionally mandated.”

Afternoon speakers addressed economic trends and paths to prosperity across Africa. At only 3%, Africa’s low share of global trade is a real impediment, partly due to heavy trade in raw commodities rather than value-added goods that fetch higher prices on the global market. African countries also trade less with each other compared to other world regions. But speakers laid out some positive trends. Value-added goods such as apparel and footwear are being produced at an accelerated rate, country stock markets are on the rise (there are currently 8 to 10 active ones on the continent), and an African Trade bill is in the works.  Known as the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), the trade bill is being negotiated and expected to be implemented by the end of 2017. The exchange was robust with panelists and audience representing a wide range of sectors in Africa, including insurance, technology and affordable housing.

During the final session, the group again engaged in dynamic discussions on how critical it is for foreign actors to understand African people and culture if they want to succeed. Development personnel, entrepreneurs and other visitors to Africa were cautioned to respect labor and environmental laws. Establishing Sister City Initiatives and getting pre-travel cultural orientation from a U.S. group like The Africa Center were among the recommendations for fostering understanding and partnership with African communities. Immigrants in the audience also encouraged potential entrepreneurs to establish partners on the ground in Africa as a smart way to overcome the issue of culture.
Photo Courtesy of Jerolinmek Matthew Piah, Liberia Executive Mansion
Delivering the day’s closing keynote was distinguished U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, whose foreign service career includes assignments in Switzerland, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, The Gambia and Liberia. She connected the dots from the day’s conversation, asserting that Africa is at a crossroads and experiencing a new reality in Africa-U.S. relations. She encouraged diaspora Africans to step up and not wait for a more favorable U.S. climate towards the continent. She highlighted Africa’s large youth population and people living in the diaspora as resources that could be better tapped.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield thanked the audience for their engagement and insight. Meeting notes and audience recommendations, she said, will influence follow up action by the Congressional Black Caucus and could potentially become legislation and resolutions to benefit Africa.

A reception immediately followed, where Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation with a lifetime achievement.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference (ALC) is the leading policy conference on issues impacting African Americans and the global black community.

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