Commentary by Dr. Samuel Mahaffy. In many communities in Africa, it is a tradition to welcome a visiting guest with a meal. Sharing a meal is a way of building and affirming relationship. The U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by the White House this week, affords the United States the opportunity to welcome 51 Heads of State and senior leaders from Africa. This unprecedented event should be an opening for the United States to change course in its engagement with the nations on the African continent. To the extent that the U.S. has recently paid attention to nations in Africa, it has largely been in the context of pushing its own economic and political agenda. We choose regional partners and exclude others based on our perceived interests. The U.S. agenda is valued above the relationship with African nations. Relationships that begin with an agenda are rarely long-lasting. The U.S. – Africa Leadership Summit has a transparent agenda of enhancing U.S. economic development and access to natural resources in the African continent. The text of remarks by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs states the explicit agenda for the Summit of “increased American investment on the continent.” Our first investment with the African continent ought to be in relationship building. A starting point would be to listen to our African neighbors. Some questions that might be asked at the dinner table of the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit might be: “What are the dreams and aspirations of your country?” “What can we do to support peace in the region?” How can the U.S. be good neighbors?” The great gift of the guest at our dinner table is what we can learn about ourselves from their presence. Does the U.S. have the courage to hear why its development agenda and even its proffering of economic aid is mistrusted in much of Africa? The President of Eritrea likely echoed the sentiment of other African nations when he stated that what Africa needs is investment partners and not charity. Unfortunately, that wisdom may not be heard at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, because Eritrea was one of just a few nations excluded from the invitation list to the White House. If the U.S. truly seeks enduring relationships with African nations and partnerships for both security and economic development, the foundation must be respect for the right of African nations to self-determination. Development agendas need to be their own and not driven by outside forces. The West has much to learn from Africa. It is time for the U.S. to be listening more and talking less in its relationships with African countries. A further step toward positive engagement with Africa would be to deepen our relationship with African immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. The U.S. Africa Leaders Summit ought to be less about playing ‘catch-up’ to the investment and development work that China and other countries are building on the African continent. It ought to be more about listening and learning from Africa. We have the potential to learn much from the 51 Heads of African nations gathered in Washington D.C. To do so, there must be respectful dialogues that lead to long-term trust relationships. We must be willing to listen not only to those African nations that are “in good standing” with the U.S. and aligned with our agendas, but those that have differing views, opinions and perspectives. Meaningful dialogue begins with inclusion and not with exclusion.
Samuel Mahaffy, Ph.D. was born and raised in Eritrea, East Africa. He is a non-profit facilitator and consultant who has assisted more than five hundred nonprofits and NGOs around the world. In addition to serving as a Senior Advisor to Salaam Urban Village Association, he writes regularly on topics of peacemaking, Africa and Eritrea on his website at www.samuelmahaffy.com and the Peace and Collaborative Development Network at http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/