African rebirth is up to U.S.

Meeting: A summit to be held this weekend in Baltimore will seek to deepen America's commitment to the emerging continent.

September 05, 1999|By Leonard H. Robinson Jr.

NEXT WEEKEND, about 1,000 people are expected to gather at the Baltimore Convention Center to attend the East Coast Regional Summit on Africa. A number of prominent figures are scheduled to participate in the Sept. 9-11 conference, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the honorary chairman. Slated to speak are Kweisi Mfume, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, and Susan Rice, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

This will not be another conference where audiences sit passively and politely applaud mundane foreign policy speeches. That is not what the National Summit on Africa is about. Instead, as has been the case in previous regional summit conferences in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco, participants will engage in a series of dynamic debates on five themes -- democracy and human rights; peace and security; trade and investment; sustainable growth and the environment; and education and culture.

At the end of these discussions, the participants will have drafted and adopted an action plan that reflects their beliefs about what U.S. policy toward Africa should be. The National Summit on Africa will hold an even larger conference in Washington in February.

Far too many Americans perceive Africa as a remote and inhospitable environment. To some, the continent is a vast ecological reserve of exotic animals and impenetrable rain forest. In many media accounts, Africa is a place of unending bloodshed and civil war, widespread suffering, disease and death. Why should Americans, or their government, care about Africa? The answer is simple -- Africa matters. And as we enter the new millennium, Africa will matter more and more to America and Americans.

Africa's growing importance was underlined last year by President Clinton's historic visit to six African countries. He was the first sitting president to make an official visit to sub-Saharan Africa since Jimmy Carter in 1977. President Clinton's visit was official recognition of the tremendous progress that African countries have made since the end of the Cold War.

Twenty years ago, Africa's economy was stagnant. Dictatorial regimes were in power, and several conflicts were raging across southern Africa. Centrally planned economies discouraged investment and overall growth -- just 1 percent per year on average -- which were easily outpaced by increases in population and unemployment. Africa's level of trade with the U.S. was static.

So much has changed.

A new generation of African leaders has emerged, many of them democratically elected, who have enacted free-market reforms. With astonishing results, they have preached the gospel of trade -- not foreign aid. Overall growth in sub-Saharan Africa is averaging 4 percent. According to the World Bank, three of the world's four fastest-growing economies are in Africa -- Botswana (fastest at 13 percent), Ghana and Uganda.

Some countries, like Mozambique, embroiled in civil war just a decade ago, have experienced several years of nearly double-digit economic growth. Africa has become the world's newest emerging market. According to the Commerce Department, the level of trade between sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. has grown to more than $20 billion -- an amount larger that between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

As impressive as these figures appear, they do not tell the complete story. The United States ran a $16 billion deficit with Africa, an indication that we imported far more than we exported. Most importantly, these figures indicate a lost opportunity to sell U.S. goods and services.

This year, President Clinton convened an unprecedented meeting of African economic ministers in Washington. He told them that 150,000 American jobs depended on trade with Africa. The president added that there was no reason why that total could not be doubled, or tripled. Our continued economic strength clearly is linked to the global market, and Africa is becoming a larger part of that market.

Yet, Africa is more than markets. Nearly 800 million people live in 54 different countries in Africa, speaking perhaps 1,000 languages. Africa's cultural wealth is making a larger impact on the global village. African musicians, like Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Miriam Makeba and Maryam Mursal, are capturing new audiences in the United States. Nobel Prize-winning authors, like Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka, have penned thought-provoking literature.

Also, strong human bonds link Africa and the United States. Africa is the ancestral home of 45 million Americans, a reminder of the Atlantic slave trade. But human contact has always been a two-way street. Since the founding of the Peace Corps, more than 58,000 Americans have served in 46 African countries, more than in any other region.

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