Melvin P. Foote
After an introduction by Executive Vice President, Michael Van Dusen, Steve McDonald, Director of the Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity opened the discussion by posing the question of who makes up the African Diaspora. He identified the African Diaspora as Africans living in the U.S.; African Americans whose history is rooted in Africa; and people of the Caribbean of African descent living in the U.S.
Dr. Julius Garvey MD, Associate Professor of Clinical Surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, agreed with this definition of the Diaspora. He added that it is essential to consider the Diaspora from Africa as a whole, and this Diaspora needs to be “united as Africans on the continent and more importantly as Africans abroad.” Garvey stressed that unity among the Diaspora will come through dialogue and communication. In order to advance African issues in the U.S., the Diaspora has to make “intelligent decisions; analyze what the problems are; and how we relate to those issues.”
Charles Stith, Director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center of Boston University began his remarks with some background of the impact that the Diaspora has had in the past in U.S. policy toward Africa. In that vein, he talked about the evolution of attitudes in the U.S. toward the continent from the period of slavery until the presidency of George W. Bush. He acknowledged that over the years, Africa has become more important for each presidential administration as African Americans’ consciousness began to evolve. According to Stith, the Bush administration marks the period during which Africa gained momentum in U.S. foreign policy with successive African Americans at the helm of the State Department. Thus, Stith concluded that “the more power the African Community has acquired, the more impact they have [had] in shaping U.S. policies.” Although Garvey concurred with Stith’s assertion that African Americans have made progress in changing their political and economic status in the U.S., he noted that there was still more to be done. He posited that one of the challenges that African Americans face is their lack of a “cohesive plan on how they are going to use their political and economic power to advance their social power.” Consequently, they need to mobilize, organize and design a plan to influence U.S. policies toward Africa, the rest of the world and toward themselves as African Americans.
How the Diaspora Impacts Policy Toward Africa: Nasserie Carew, Managing Director of Public Affairs at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and originally from Sierra Leone, detailed the activities of the organization with respect to development in African countries. She emphasized that “diaspora groups are in a powerful position to affect change.” In fact, the opinion of civil society and diaspora groups is determinant on how MCC engages with partner countries. She maintained that if a country does not accede to the selection phase, MCC asks the diaspora to hold the country accountable and push them in the direction of compliance with the necessary criteria. Also, MCC asks the partner country to consult with civil society and the private sector to ensure that the proposed projects correspond with the country’s actual needs for economic growth. Partner countries are required to be transparent in regards to funding, contract spending, management and program status. Furthermore, MCC gives individuals and businesses with diaspora ties the opportunity to get involved with projects in their countries. Given the important role of the diaspora, MCC works to consolidate its relationship with diaspora communities via open forums and conferences.
Moon Yousif Sulfab represented the Congressional African Staff Association (CASA). CASA’s objective is to inform staffers on the Hill about African issues and success stories. Originally from Sudan, Sulfab encourages the Sudanese community in the U.S. to participate in changing Africa’s narrative. He tries to embolden them to integrate into the American system and provides avenues for civic engagement. Sulfab remarked that elected officials depend on information and feedback from their constituents. Therefore, it is indispensable for diaspora communities to actively engage their representatives in Congress, so that their issues and concerns are brought to the forefront. He pointed out that the first generation of the Diaspora community has not been able to utilize the “pluralistic system of activism in the U.S.” to maximum advantage. Sulfab elaborated that though the Diaspora has the capability to influence policy and debates on the Hill, the challenge is that “their goals and intentions tend to be not necessarily in the same boat” because communities have divergent perspectives and interests.
Melvin P. Foote said that the Constituency for Africa (CFA)’s role is to galvanize Americans of African descent to support Africa. CFA educates them on African issues and encourages them to address those problems systematically. In much the same fashion as Garvey, Foote acknowledged that African communities have made progress with an increased number holding positions of power in the government. However, he stated that African communities still have a long road ahead. According to Foote, there are some challenges that need to be addressed such as a lack of resources for the Diaspora to properly mobilize and organize to impact foreign policy toward Africa. Another challenge he mentioned is the absence of a “Black Think Tank” of the Wilson Center ilk that reflects on critical issues relating to Africa. He emphasized that it is necessary for the African Diaspora “to develop the capacity to think, to rationalize and to come up with some views that might be contrary to U.S. policy views, but can also offer insight into the direction of U.S. policy.”
Where does the Diaspora go from here?
There was a clear consensus among the speakers that the African Diaspora plays an incontrovertible role in shaping policy. They also identified various challenges that, if managed appropriately, would increase its effectiveness in impacting policy. It is imperative for Africans to unite, organize, and perhaps more importantly to construct a strategy to advocate for their issues to the U.S. Government. As McDonald stated, communities should not be preoccupied with the idea that U.S. foreign policy is dictated by a narrow reading of its own strategic interests. He also asserted that “there needs to be a redefinition of our strategic interests as it applies to Africa… Africa needs to be much higher on the totem pole.” Ultimately, Diaspora communities in the U.S. should educate themselves on African issues and inform their representatives on Capitol Hill accordingly.