Africa Policy at the African Studies Association Meeting
November 26, 2006
The 49th annual meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA) convened at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, November 16-19, 2006, under the over-arching theme of “(Re)Thinking Africa and the World: Internal Reflections, External Responses.” The myriad panels listed in the program dealt with many fascinating subjects, such as “Swahili Poetry, Past and Present,” as well as with timely matters of pressing importance, including “The Future of Nigeria: At Home and Abroad,” or “Recovering From Genocide and Civil War in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.” To further the cause of the CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum, which I edit, I decided to attend those sessions most directly related to U.S. Africa policy, where I distributed fliers and listened for new ideas and insights. I also presented a paper of my own on Bush Administration policy with respect to democracy and governance in Africa.
Two topics highly relevant to Africa policy were not well covered at the convention – China’s rising influence in the region, and the role of evangelical Christians in the making of Africa policy. To point this out is not a criticism of the ASA, but rather a call to those interested in Africa policy to propose panels on these important topics for the next ASA meeting, to be held in New York in October 2007. China’s influence was referenced in several papers – it could hardly be overlooked. At a panel on the “New Scramble for Africa,” Sanusha Naidu, fellow at the Centre of Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch University, presented an interesting paper on whether China’s rise represented “mutual opportunities or hidden threats” for South Africa. But China was not the exclusive focus of any of the panels, and this was an opportunity missed. The influence of evangelical Christians has been an important factor in rising U.S. assistance levels for Africa under the Bush Administration, particularly for the fight against HIV and AIDS. It would be extremely useful to hear scholars evaluate the evangelical impact on Africa policy in a systematic way – as Walter Russell Mead has recently done with respect to U.S. foreign policy in general (http://www.foreignaffairs.org/2006/5.html). The possibility that evangelicals and advocates for Africa in the secular community might come together in an expanded and more effective coalition in support of U.S. engagement with the region needs to be explored.
U.S. Africa policy was criticized by many who presented papers at the convention, perhaps nowhere more sharply than at a Friday morning roundtable entitled “Where is Africa in U.S. Geo-Strategic Thinking,” sponsored by the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. Here, in a small room that could not accommodate all who wished to attend, the Bush Administration was portrayed as bent on exploiting Africa’s natural resources and determined to spread U.S. military power around the continent. Administration initiatives to assist the region were described as seriously under-funded or consisting of promises that will be left to future administrations to keep. These are important perspectives that merit serious discussion, but it seemed to me that some of the views expressed here and at some other panels were unduly pessimistic about U.S. Africa policy and its prospects. There are indeed worrisome trends and developments, but the lively debate that takes place on Africa policy, even within government, holds out possibility of change and improvement – and this debate can only intensify with the shift in power in Congress. Meanwhile, it should be acknowledged that U.S. aid to Africa has increased under the Bush Administration (though to what degree is controversial), and that valuable work is being done through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief as well as in other areas.
Immediately after U.S. policy had been so roundly criticized, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, appeared in a sunlit ballroom with a spectacular view of San Francisco’s skyline, to deliver a well-attended address that presented, not surprisingly, a completely opposite view. Ambassador Frazer spoke of the Administration’s “transformational diplomacy” in Africa, focused on expanding political freedom, encouraging economic opportunity and growth, fighting HIV and AIDS, ending wars, and combating terror. This approach did not respond directly to the criticisms of Africa policy advanced in various panels throughout the convention, and several members of the audience asked sharp but thoughtful questions of Ambassador Frazer on a range of issues, including Darfur, Zimbabwe policy, and policy in the Horn of Africa. Her response was generally to elaborate on and defend specific actions taken by the Administration, while arguing that in several areas, such as the possible diplomatic recognition of Somaliland, the United States had to wait for Africa to take the lead.
The Assistant Secretary said that she encouraged conversation and dialogue on Africa policy, and her willingness to speak at length and to take questions was an important step in that direction. If her appearance marks the beginning of a tradition that will see senior policy makers regularly address the annual ASA meeting, it will be remembered as an important occasion indeed. Genuine policy dialogue in such a setting will always be difficult, however, because critical analysis is in the very nature of scholarship, and deflecting criticism is probably intrinsic to policymaking. Moreover, the format of panels and plenary sessions at an academic meeting, which consists of formal presentations followed by questions with little opportunity for follow-up, seems antithetical to conversation. Perhaps an alternative format could be devised which would allow policymakers, academics, and other experts to truly converse, but a spirit of give and take would be required on all sides – as well as a moderator with a firm hand.
Policymakers sometimes say that they would like to be able to take away constructive expert suggestions from the ASA meetings, and certainly many valuable, policy-relevant ideas were advanced at panels dealing with the African state, peacekeeping and conflict, development and foreign assistance, and individual African countries. One must hope that these ideas were heard and will have some influence. But the main outlines of foreign policy are determined in Washington in furtherance of the priorities of the President, and this will always limit the impact of anything that might be said at an academic convention. I suggested, for example, that the reputation of the United States as a defender of human rights in Africa might be strengthened if the Administration became an advocate of the International Criminal Court, rather than a detractor; but I have no expectation that policy on the ICC will change substantially. It was pointed out at the meeting that the United States might have greater freedom of action in dealing with corruption and authoritarian leaders in oil-rich countries if it strengthened energy conservation policy at home – but again, there seems little reason to expect a policy shift in that direction from the White House. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that urging such ideas at the ASA meeting as part of the broader foreign policy debate will contribute in some measure to policy improvements over the long term.
I was disappointed that three panels I sought to attend on subjects relevant to Africa policy were canceled. Some cancellations may be inevitable due to illness and schedule conflicts, but organizers and participants might be able to do a better job in terms of arranging backups and substitutes.
Ray Copson is editor of the CSIS Online Africa Policy Forum and teaches part-time at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.
The Online Africa Policy Forum is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).