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.
Most Americans immediately recognize NBA stars Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria and Dikembe Mutombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But they belong to a talented, hard-working group of 4 million immigrants, many of them academicians, students, doctors, lawyers and an astrophysicist from Mali who designed the Sojourner probe that roamed the surface of Mars.
Despite a wealth of links stretching back more than 400 years, the United States has never had a dynamic African policy.
The Clinton administration, to its credit, has been far more engaged with Africa than any of its predecessors. U.S. diplomats were vigorously involved in helping to bring about the recent transition that returned democracy to Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. The State Department has focused on helping to resolve a number of conflicts. These include the border war between former allies Ethiopia and Eritrea, which led to the deaths of an estimated 70,000 (about seven times the total of those killed in Kosovo). The Clinton administration has also pushed for the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which would, among other things, further open U.S. markets to African goods and provide valuable economic incentives.
Still, this is not enough. Despite an activist posture toward Africa, official economic assistance to sub-Saharan Africa has remained static at about $500 per year. That amount is 25 percent below the level of funding earmarked by Congress six years ago.
We, as a nation, could and should do more for Africa. Africa should take its proper place near the top of the national foreign-policy agenda. All that's lacking is the national will to sustain a new era in U.S. foreign policy.
After World War II, for instance, U.S. citizens gave their support to the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt war-shattered Europe. The basis for the Marshall Plan, a massive package of time, money and know-how, was rooted in the pursuit of peace and in the deep ethnic and cultural ties between Americans and Europeans.
Similarly, in Japan, the U.S. committed its resources to rebuilding its former wartime enemy, which became a key force in post-war Asia. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration launched the Alliance for Progress with Latin America during the height of the Cold War. After the 1967 Six Day War, the United States committed itself, economically and militarily, to Israel. A decade later, the U.S. commitment was extended to Egypt to help consolidate the Camp David peace agreement. Recently, the Clinton administration has called for a $15 billion effort to rebuild Kosovo.
Strong public will
In most cases, these efforts reflected a strong American public will, which was sustained despite changes in presidential administrations. The reason was evident: The public perceived a national interest in a region, or a nation.
Since the end of World War II, no grand-scale commitment has been made to Africa. Instead, national indifference has denied Americans the change for a closer, more positive image with Africa. For this to change, as it should, America's perception of Africa needs to change. Our foreign policy should be driven by a more truthful, more positive and more optimistic image of Africa. That is why the National Summit on Africa was formed three years ago.
There remains tremendous need in Africa. The continent is home to many of the United Nation's 25 poorest nations. Poverty, the human immunodeficiency virus and long-term debt threaten to undermine the hard-won gains that have been made by many African countries in the last few years. An "African renaissance" could be stillborn without the kind of assistance the continent needs and deserves. The United States has another opportunity to show its greatness through its generosity. We can give so much more to Africa and ourselves.
The East Coast Regional Summit on Africa in Baltimore is yet another important step in the effort to effect a positive change in America's relationship with Africa. And, if the experience of previous regional summits are any indication of the national mood, there is a growing enthusiasm about Africa that did not exist a decade ago.
This enthusiasm cuts across racial, geographic and religious lines. At the conference in Atlanta, we saw such odd political bedfellows as Andrew Young and Newt Gingrich come together to advocate a closer bond with Africa. Businessmen, government officials and college students debated issues related to Africa.
This is precisely the kind of grass-roots support that has changed government policies in the past to reflect the desires of the people. It is happening because more and more Americans are learning that Africa does indeed matter.
Leonard H. Robinson Jr. is the president and CEO of the National Summit on Africa in Washington, D.C. He also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1983-85 and 1990-93