WASHINGTON – As more than 40 African leaders gather in Washington for an unprecedented summit, Africa’s brand problem in America has grown significantly worse. Two events – the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram and a currently uncontrolled Ebola outbreak in West Africa – have tuned in clearly through the news and social media static. And they have reinforced existing public impressions of disorder and disease.
From this perspective, the timing of the U.S.-African Leaders Summit could hardly be worse. (Not to mention the questionable choice of scheduling the meeting during August, when members of Congress, and much of official Washington, have fled the capital as though the British were back to burn it.)
But Africa is not a brand. It is an impossibly large and diverse continent, which includes both Ebola hot zones and six of the top 10 fastest growing economies in the world. It encompasses the well-armed chaos of Eastern Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan along with the democratic stability of Ghana, Senegal and Namibia. Over the years, I’ve met kleptocrats and warlords (including one who collects wives and ostriches) as well as entrepreneurial billionaires who fund admirable causes. I’ve seen the sprawling, lawless poverty of Kibera and the orderly, middle-class aspirations of Kigali. I’ve met people dying from AIDS, and people living with AIDS (more than 9 million are now on treatment) and triumphing against it.
Which is to say that the word “Africa” does not convey the same (roughly) unitary content as “North America” or “Europe.” No one visits or invests in Africa; they visit or invest in Botswana or Somalia. And American attitudes toward Africa must learn to live with this contradiction.
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In both public policy and humanitarian advocacy, Americans struggle to reconcile two narratives: “Africa needing” and “Africa rising.” Both are true.
The Ebola outbreak is a textbook example of the way that weak or overwhelmed institutions in a distant part of the world can raise a potentially global threat. Prior to the current situation, the estimated number of Ebola cases in history was about 2,200 (in 23 outbreaks of varying magnitudes). The current outbreak of 1,400 is by far the largest. Prior incidents have been geographically restricted to rural areas. This one is in the urban areas of three countries with porous borders, where societal conditions have led to a deep distrust of institutions, including health institutions. Health care delivery systems are disorganized and dysfunctional. No one is fully in charge.
It is impossible in the near term (though needed in the long term) to fix the health care systems of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. What is required now is a lot of resources and help on the ground – a serious surge of money, equipment and personnel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and volunteer organizations such as Doctors Without Borders are sending larger teams. But the scale of the response, according to infectious disease experts I’ve consulted, is insufficient. It may be time for the U.S. military’s Africa Command to deploy field hospitals and other resources, working with the World Health Organization and local leaders to set up command-and-control mechanisms.
It will remain necessary, in the near to medium term, for America, Europe and other donor countries to supply for institutional deficiencies and limited resources in parts of Africa – while encouraging the creation of institutional capability. This is the continuing importance of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative and other forms of foreign aid – as well as peacekeeping and anti-terrorism efforts. Americans will need to remain engaged, compassionate and mindful that distant problems can metastasize into global threats.
But while “Africa needing” and “Africa rising” are both true, they are not equally true. The trajectory of much of Africa is toward rapid economic growth, greater trade and direct foreign investment. And this requires a shift away from a donor mentality toward a model of business networking – which is a stated intention of the U.S.-African Leaders Summit.
Give credit to the Obama administration for broadening the American approach to Africa beyond humanitarian emergencies to sustainable investments in the drivers of economic growth: agriculture and energy. Its signature initiative, Power Africa – involving loan guarantees, more than matched by private financing – would literally empower (and illuminate) large portions of the continent. All that remains is for the Senate to pass it.
For all its needs – some pressing – Africa is rising. And the savvy will buy in early.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.