The plight of the African continent has been at the forefront of international activism and concern for much of the past two decades. This period encompasses the nearly three years I spent on the frontline of public diplomacy as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission. During this time, we have watched China and India increase their geo-political power and achieve greater economic stability. Conversely, Africa, the world’s second most populated continent, has slid into an increasingly violent and impoverished condition. With all the celebrity attention and government goodwill directed towards Africa in recent years, it is paradoxical for the continent to languish in such a dangerous state.
Much of the focus given to Africa has been on the rampant disease and armed conflict on the continent. The AIDS epidemic has hit the African people to a disproportionate degree. UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, has focused much attention on the abhorrent acts that are perpetrated against women on the continent, ranging from forced marriages to genital mutilation. The U.N. has also dedicated an office to deal with the famine, droughts and emergencies that plague the region.
The goals of these offices are indeed worthy and, unfortunately, much needed. However, in order for this magnificent land to reach its aspirations, it is imperative that the world community focus on the root causes of these problems and eliminate them. The abject poverty and economic strife in the majority of African countries are unmatched anywhere else in the world. A 2003 U.N. report ranking the wealth of the world’s countries found that the bottom 25, hence the poorest, are African.
For Africa to prosper, and not merely survive, the world community must work with the African people to create an environment that encourages enterprise and cherishes human life. The good news is that there are practical economic solutions to Africa’s distress that don’t require huge overhead and governmental involvement. These are solutions and efforts that side step the corruption and bureaucratic inertia that frequently render the U.N. and governments ineffective.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a perfect example of people taking action and creating positive change in an African community. These people were not rock stars or billionaire talk show hosts, but a group of Ohio farmers imbued with the American spirit of generosity and concern for their fellow man. The project that these farmers embarked on is simple in its concept and powerful in its results.