Who Speaks for Africa?
Judging by the press coverage, it would seem that Europeans are the only ones concerned about conditions in Africa. But perhaps the media isn’t telling the whole story.
By Michelle Nealy
Called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, war-induced hunger and disease has killed more than 180,000 people and driven two million from their homes in the Darfur region of western Sudan over the past two years. A number of regional conflicts are driving already poor nations deeper into poverty, and more than 25.4 million Africans are living with HIV/AIDS, adding to the misery.
While national governments and non-governmental organizations struggle to respond to the crisis of African nations, celebrities have used their fame to bring attention and resources to Africa. Leading up to last month’s G8 summit of leading industrial nations in Scotland, the hoopla surrounding the Live 8 concerts led by Irish rock veterans Bono and Bob Geldof set the stage for world leaders to pledge a $50 billion boost in aid to Africa debt relief for 14 African countries.
If one was to believe only what they saw on television, one would think that Europeans are the only ones looking out for Africa, or is it simply that they receive more press coverage?
Oprah Winfrey and actors Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard are a few of the high-profile African-Americans who have made impressive contributions on Africa’s behalf, but who and where are the other members of the African-American community willing to become socially and politically involved in the future of their ancestral homeland?
“There are a lot of Black people who do a lot of work on behalf of Africa,” says Mark P. Fancher, chair of the National Conference of Black Lawyers’ Section on International Affairs & World Peace and the author of The Splintering of Global Africa: Capitalism’s War Against Pan-Africanism. The grass-roots work that is being done by organizations in the diaspora completely dedicated to fundamentally changing Africa’s predicament are organizations [most individuals] will never hear about.”
Organizations such as Constituency for Africa, Africa Action, Africare and TransAfrica Forum are relatively unknown to most Americans, regardless of race. But these U.S.-based organizations, which are under African-American leadership, are devoted to improving Africa’s future, and have been for decades. They may not have been present at the Live 8 concerts but their presence in Africa’s politics has been steadfast and indispensable.
Africa Action is the oldest African advocacy organization in the United States. They have been promoting political, economic and social justice in Africa for more than 50 years. In May 2005, Africa Action launched a petition drive to gather 400,000 signatures demanding immediate U.S. action to stop the genocide in Darfur. The petition has thus far received more than 50,000 signatures. Africa Action also facilitates an African health campaign, and a public education outreach program.
“We are not interested in charity. We are interested in justice,” says Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action. “Our work here targets the U.S. government, the Congress. We want to change their policies toward Africa. We have to help prevent the U.S. government from being obstacles to Africa’s own effort.”
TransAfrica Forum, probably the most well known of the organizations due to its high-profile and long-serving previous president Randall Robinson, serves as a research, educational and organizing institution for the African-American community, offering constructive analyses of issues concerning U.S. policy as it affects Africa. The Forum sponsors seminars, conferences and community awareness projects. The aim of their programs is to raise awareness in the United States regarding issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
“We are trying to build and organize a constituency within Black America that cares about foreign policy,” says Bill Fletcher, TransAfrica Forum’s president, who was appointed in December 2001. “Without a constituency, everything else is bluffing.”
When asked about his organization’s efforts, Fletcher attributes the lack of knowledge by the larger community to ineffective media outlets.
“Bono and Geldof have secured a great deal of funding and attention in the press that organizations like ours just are not getting.”
Black organizations have also used high-profile celebrities to bring attention and resources to Africa. TransAfrica Forum has a number of celebrities on its board of trustees. Harry Belafonte carries the title of president. Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and best-selling author Walter Mosley are also members.
“As widely loved as Danny Glover is, Bono can show up and get a meeting with someone from the Bush administration and get an immense amount of press attention. That’s not going to happen with Danny,” Fletcher says.
Some Black celebrities have received extensive media attention for their work on behalf of Africa, notably Oprah Winfrey. She has made several high-profile trips to South Africa with her foundation, contributing $10 million to open the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. In addition, nine Morehouse College students in June joined the Oprah South Africa Leadership Project, a cultural exchange program funded by a $1 million gift from the talk show host. The program focused on studying the impact of AIDS in South Africa. The trip, sponsored by Winfrey and the Alcoa Foundation, allowed the students to interact with government and social organizations, as well as do volunteer work. Actor Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, were recognized during the BET Awards in July for their $1 million contribution to Save Africa’s Children, a faith-based initiative under African-American leadership, which helps poor, homeless and AIDS-infected children. The Washingtons are also Lifetime Founder Members of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, where they donate $100,000 a year to help combat poverty in some of the world’s poorest nations.
Melvin Foote, executive director of Constituency for Africa, says one reason African-American efforts have received for the most part little press is because it is no longer a novel thing for African-Americans to champion African issues.
“When you read the mainstream media like The Washington Post or The New York Times, rarely will they publish that African-Americans pushed the president to focus on Africa. But the fact that his wife is in Africa [is proof of our work].”
Comedians Will Smith and Chris Tucker have both traveled to Africa on numerous occasions. Intermittently, they may bring up Africa’s situation during a press conference or during an awards show, but they are not leading any movements to improve the situation in Africa. “One can do a film or a poem or a song [about Africa] and think that that is the same as activism, but it’s not,” Fletcher says.
While many may argue that this year’s G8 summit made tremendous strides in providing a foundation that will someday stabilize sub-Saharan Africa, only time will tell what these efforts will actually accomplish. Many remain skeptical that anything positive will occur, including Dr. Susan E. Rice, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Rice served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1997-2001. During that time she orchestrated the implementation of U.S. policy for 48 sub-Saharan countries. In a recent editorial for The Washington Post, Rice countered Bush’s lofty goals with a dose of reality.
President Bush says that he will double aid to Africa by 2010. Rice highlights the fact that little of the aid money that the United States has pledged on Africa’s behalf is actually new money. The United States will simply give Africa the remainder of the money it was promised but never received in 2002 as part of Bush’s Millennium Challenge Account, Rice explains.
Booker, of Africa Action, also doubts that much will be achieved by the G8’s efforts. “When Europeans in power start talking about saving Africa, you know that it’s time to run and hide,” Booker says. “That’s what White folks said they were doing with slavery — saving heathens and savages with Christianity. They justified colonialism and neo-colonialism on the basis of saving Africa from savage practices. They have been saving Africa for about 400 years which is why Africa is as impoverished as it is.”
Continues Booker: “These celebrities may have helped to contribute to a more critical discussion [about Africa]. But we have to be careful that their voices don’t obscure the voices of the people who really matter. The people on the ground and at the frontline of the struggle.”
Members of the G8 — Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Britain, Japan, the United States and Russia — protect their own markets against exports from the poor countries through the implementation of import duties and quotas. G8 countries continue to subsidize their own agricultural markets, making it impossible for African farmers to compete internationally.
According to Rice, the Bush administration has embraced limited debt cancellation and announced a new malaria prevention program, but it will not commit to the 0.7 percent eradication target or to ending agricultural subsidies.
Fancher, of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, insists that Africa needs neither aid nor debt reduction. What it needs, he says, is to control the wealth it already possesses in diamonds, oil and other natural resources. Currently, the NCBL is developing a model law that can be adopted by African governments to protect their land, traditional knowledge of medical procedures and scientific discoveries and natural resources. Furthermore, he says that Western capitalists have no right to claim that Africa was ever indebted. Considering all that was stolen from the continent, he says Western and European governments owe Africa.
‘An Endless Cycle of Misery’
Recognizing that Africa’s success weighs heavily on U.S foreign policy, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation recently launched its African Globalism Initiative. Projects under CBC’s African Globalism initiative include efforts to promote international business opportunities for African-American entrepreneurs and to create educational and cultural exchanges among young people. The CBC has worked closely with Africa Action to end the genocide in Darfur, and every CBC member has signed the advocacy group’s petition.
Unfortunately, neither the CBC nor the established Africa advocacy organizations can force the media to focus on Africa when Tony Blair and Bono are not around. When the tsunami in Southeast Asia killed an estimated 300,000 people, there was an outpouring of media coverage. Tsunami victims told their stories of loss and triumph and the media was there. The civil war in the Congo has claimed the lives of four million people and few have heard the story of children who are cooked and eaten as a result of vicious warfare tactics. The Michael Jackson trial consumed the American public during the summer, while the war in northern Uganda has gone virtually unnoticed.
In an interview in the July/August edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, Jan Egeland, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, attributed the lack of coverage to African crises to what he called “an endless cycle of misery.”
“People do not like endless cycles of misery, they like a beginning, and they like an end. … It’s not so clear who’s the good and the bad as it may be with the tsunami. Nature is bad, people are good and aid workers succeed. It’s a good story to tell. In Uganda, its incomprehensible terror carried out by an elusive rebel force,” Egeland said. “Northern Uganda and eastern Congo are among the losers of our attention lottery, and I find it incomprehensible because in terms of drama, needs, cruelty, human touch and heroic efforts to help, the situations there are on par with the tsunami and northern Iraq and Afghanistan and Darfur.”
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