Summit attempts to raise awareness, develop guide to U.S. policy on Africa; About 1,000 attend gathering of officials, academics, specialists


Look beyond the red-black-and-green medallions that were recently fashionable and the flurry of public interest stirred by President Clinton's trip to the continent last year and it seems most Americans don't know -- or care -- much about Africa.

But that may be changing.

Through today, an unusual gathering of about 1,000 government officials, academics and Africanists is meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center to discuss trade and investment, conflict and peace and health and human rights in Africa. Aside from raising awareness about Africa -- its democratic success stories alongside its devastating wars and health crises -- the participants also aim to draft recommendations to guide U.S. foreign policy on Africa.

The unofficial theme of the convention, organized by the Washington-based National Summit on Africa, is Africa Matters.

"This is unprecedented for any region of the world," said Leonard H. Robinson, director of the National Summit. "We are trying to mobilize and energize an activist pool across the country to be more supportive of Africa."

Robinson may be onto something.

The local meeting included Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; Kweisi Mfume, president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Several thousand people around the country already have participated in meetings organized by the National Summit, which was founded in 1997. The organization has held four regional gatherings in the last 18 months in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and plan a sixth in Denver later this month. Finally, the recommendations of the regional meetings will be taken up at a national conference in Washington in February.

Registration yesterday was about 600, but nearly double that number attended, organizers said.

"There is certainly increased interest at the local level but until now it has been somewhat disconnected and it has certainly not been connected to national politics," said Imani Countess of the African Policy Information Center in Washington.

"This coordinated attempt to devise an Africa policy has unearthed scores of people interested in Africa," she said.

At the meetings, participants debate issues pertinent to the world's second-largest continent and draft recommendations for a new approach to U.S. relations with Africa. The recommendations pool the knowledge of interested citizens, diplomats, academics, humanitarian assistance workers and religious leaders from around the world.

"Look around this room," said Geri Sicola, director of global relations for Catholic Relief Services, a co-sponsor of the Baltimore event, gesturing to the virtual who's-who of Africa specialists at a reception Thursday night. "Everyone you can think of is here."

Said John Prendergast, a veteran Africa specialist from the U.S. Institute on Peace, speaking on one panel, "It's very encouraging for me and my colleagues to see this room is full and this building is full of people concerned about Africa. I've never seen anything quite like it."

He gave partial credit to Clinton, who last year took a 12-day trip to Africa -- the most extensive ever by an American president.

At the conferences, participants address many issues, including relief for African countries struggling under huge foreign debt, how to get American schools to teach African history and legislation in the Senate that would strengthen trade relations with Africa.

"It is long past time to treat Africa as we treat the rest of our trading partners," Rice said. "This bill is the only bill to do that."

Next spring, these recommendations will be condensed into a policy guidebook that will be published and distributed to national and local public officials, educators, researchers and the public.

"It will be a blueprint, a people's manifesto, if you will," Robinson said. "People are recommending this become a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Africa."

In the process, organizers hope, Americans will learn that many African-American links already exist. For example, the United States imports as much oil from Africa as from the Middle East; the United States does more trade with Africa than with the former Soviet Union, National Summit officials said.

Still, the underdeveloped ties between Africa and America are stark: Trade with Africa accounts for only 1 percent of American foreign trade; Africa imports $5 billion more from the United States than it exports here, according to officials from the National Summit.

Thursday and Friday at the Convention Center, conference organizers and participants continually used the phrase, "Africa matters." But some felt that implicit in that theme was a key question:

"Why is an event like this needed to put Africa on the American agenda?" Sicola asked. "We haven't needed to do that for any other region of the world. It's a lot easier to get attention for issues in Europe or the Balkans."

The United States spends about 11 cents on each refugee in Sub-Saharan Africa; that figure is $1.23 for Kosovo refugees, according to Countess.

Mfume has for months criticized U.S. officials over the aid disparities between Kosovo and some African nations. He sparked applause at a conference meeting when he said, "Let's talk about the double standard that exists for predominantly white refugees and predominantly black ones. Food aid and other help should be based on need, not skin color."

But some argued that political leaders tend to respond to public pressure or, in the case of Africa, the lack of it.

Mark Clack, a staff member in the House of Representative's International Affairs Committee, said that Americans -- including African-Americans -- rarely engage in foreign policy on Africa. Many view the vast land as remote and underdeveloped, a place that, for some, conjures painful reminders of American slavery.

If average Americans remain uninterested in Africa, he said, most national officials will follow their lead.

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