American companies can do more to help Africa

May 26, 2000|By James Clyburn, Earl Hilliard and Bennie Thompson

DURING a recent congressional recess, six congressional delegations went on fact-finding missions to Africa. The number of delegations visiting the continent was no coincidence.

Nor was it inconsequential when the United States used its chairmanship of the U.N. Security Council to make January "Africa Month" for the council. President Clinton's recently announced trip to Nigeria in June, the second to Africa in his administration, is a welcome bid to efforts aimed at putting the map of Africa onto the U.S. policy agenda.

The president's efforts are now being supported by members whose views on domestic policy span our political spectrum but who share a commitment to seeing an end to Africa's self-destructive wars and the establishment of an era of peace and prosperity on the continent.

Often, the only images of Africa the American public has the opportunity to see are those of carnage, corruption and catastrophe.

As reports of civil war in Sierra Leone, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to grab headlines in America's newspapers, we journeyed to Africa with the hope of highlighting a different image of the continent. Our delegation spent three days in one of the continent's smallest countries, Gambia -- made famous by author Alex Haley in his epic saga, "Roots," as the true-life homeland of the novel's hero, Kunta Kinte.

Smaller than any of our individual congressional districts, Gambia is a country of only 1 million people on the west coast of Africa.

The country makes up for its few natural resources with a modern deep-water port and one of Africa's most advanced telecommunications systems. Like many African countries, Gambia is struggling to define itself as a service economy, worthy of Western investment.

During our stay, we were bounced along seemingly impassible roads to isolated villages by our government hosts and saw that the much-vaunted "services" did not extend outside the capital city of Banjul. What we were shown was not a whitewash, however, but a stark example of an African country struggling to provide a better future for its people.

Between episodic power outages and seasonal floods, there exists in Gambia a hope and motivation to overcome and succeed. From what we were shown, Gambia can, and may already be, an African success story.

With the construction of many new hospitals and dozens of new schools, including the country's first university, the government of President Yahya Jammeh is succeeding where 30 years of autocratic rule had failed.

However, the technical, financial and educational resources of such countries are quickly exhausted -- leaving too many projects incomplete and ideas unrealized.

As the international assistance and debt relief to these countries has stalled in our Congress, or dried up completely, private, non-governmental groups have stepped in to fill the void in implementing essential development programs.

U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services has in place across Gambia, and the rest of Africa, programs that promote the role of women in society, provide HIV education and fund micro-enterprise projects -- all programs that formerly were undertaken by the U.S. Agency for International Development. However, these non-governmental organizations are themselves subject to competing congressional funding interests and so, too, remain sorely underdeveloped.

As in our cities, where corporate America has helped fund a rebirth of our inner cities, so, too, can it assist the nations of Africa in their own rebirth.

This notion of "trade not aid" is the cornerstone of the African Growth and Opportunity Act that President Clinton signed into law this month and should define the future of U.S. relations with Africa.

Those companies already at work in Africa and with Africans, are now ideally placed to provide the kind of business environment that ultimately creates a peaceful society.

A healthy and educated workforce is not only for good business but for stable and peaceful lives, free of war and poverty, sickness and migration.

As members of Congress, it is our hope and intention to help facilitate these partnerships wherever possible. We have seen the hope of a proud and welcoming people and will implore our friends and colleagues to help Africa keep hope alive.

The three writers are members of the Congressional Black Caucus from South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, respectively. Mr. Clyburn is caucus chairman.

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