In true Obama administration fashion, emphasizing open government and engagement, the State Department rolled out an impressive event Monday featuring top U.S. officials focused on U.S. diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa. With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rounding out the line-up and each official gamely taking audience questions, the point they were trying to make was clear: The Obama administration is fully focused on Africa.
The lengthy program and the frequent references to the trips Obama administration officials have made to the continent gave the impression that the key goal was to allay concerns that the administration is not living up to the expectations it set for engaging with Africa.
We heard from Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer, and Tim Shortley, deputy to the special envoy on Sudan, among the eight speakers in all. And the officials who might have been expected to participate all had good excuses. USAID administrator Raj Shah? In Senegal. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice? Attending a Sudan briefing in New York. Sudan Special Envoy Gration? Traveling in the region to negotiate with Sudan's neighbors.
The nearly four-hour long event drew a packed room of NGO staff, members of the African diaspora, researchers, students, and even two members of Congress, Representatives Donald Payne (D-NJ), who stayed for the full program and mingled with the crowd during breaks, and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).
A year and a half into the Obama administration, foreign policy pundits muse about whether the excitement progressives felt for President Obama were blinders that led many to misinterpret his priorities to suit their own passions and concerns. Perhaps we idealized Obama’s positions to the point that we attributed priorities to the president that he never articulated? This line of questioning is especially alarming when it comes from quarters that the administration didn’t expect to have to win over, such as the 300+ crowd gathered the auditorium in Foggy Bottom yesterday.
As concern mounts over the lack of preparation for the likely split of Sudan, the floundering Darfur peace process, the stranglehold of Shabaab militants in Somalia, ongoing sexual violence and massive displacement in eastern Congo – to name a few crises – many Africa watchers are frustrated that top officials in the Obama administration haven’t made these issues a higher priority and signaled that importance by getting directly involved in implementing policy. There was also a hope that the United States would hold its partners – like the Government of Southern Sudan, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, and the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame – accountable for undemocratic policies, backsliding on human rights issues, or corruption, whichever the case may be. (It was an interesting coincidence that Monday’s New York Times featured a photo of a child soldier in Somalia on the front page, with the headline “Children Carry Guns for U.S. Ally, Somalia.”)
So with Vice President Joe Biden just back from a week-long trip to Kenya and South Africa and USAID chief Raj Shah participating in an economic forum in Senegal, it was the ideal moment to do some outreach to organizations and individuals working on Africa and make the case that much is going on behind the scenes.
As the final presenter, Secretary Clinton seemed to sum up the goal with a direct appeal to the audience members:
“[W]e need to do a better job of spreading the word about the progress in Africa. So if you’re part of the African diaspora community, we want you to stay in touch with us to get information about what we’re doing and what the impacts are, and we also need your advice. If you’re a student, we want to look for ways to involve you in the work that is improving the lives of the African people, whether it’s in public health, agriculture or entrepreneurship. If you’re in an NGO, we want you to let us know what you’re doing so we can better partner with you and support you.”
It’s certainly true that daily news coverage focuses very little on Africa (the current month, with all eyes on South Africa, being an obvious exception), so undoubtedly much of the good work that the Obama administration is undertaking there is going unnoticed. But when we narrow in on Africa’s crisis zones, rather than try to generalize about the continent as a whole, the fact is that the people of countries like Sudan and Somalia are heading towards more suffering, not less.
Photo: Secretary Clinton takes questions from the audience at a briefing about U.S. engagement in Africa. (State Department)