Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 81: ACAS Thirty Years On

A Greater Voice for Africa in the United States: An Analysis and Proposed Agenda for Africanist Scholars (1993)

February 2009


Africa is in danger of being discarded as “the Fourth World,” irrelevant to the global economy, and of being abandoned as hopelessly mired in insoluble problems. The continent has been utterly marginalized on the U.S. policy agenda by the end of the Cold War and by a new domestic fixation in the U.S. electorate. Yet Africa’s human needs are real and its problems are not isolated. Rather they are linked to the world economic recession, a global glut in many African agricultural commodities, and the effects of years of regional militarization.

Never before have the peoples of Africa so strongly needed the support of their friends in the West, and especially in the United States. Food aid is urgently needed in the face of drought and famine. More important is the rebuilding of an indigenous agenda for development beginning with basic human needs, setting aside the simplistic formulae of the modernization models and the Cold War tolerance of minority and repressive regimes. Such an agenda cannot succeed without changes by the wealthy governors of the world economy.

The Clinton Administration does offer opportunities for a fresh dialogue about U.S. policy toward African nations. Despite virtually no attention to Africa during the campaign, the principles of Clinton’s Africa statements merit support: attention to human rights and democratization, reform of development assistance, strengthening of UN peacekeeping efforts, and retaining sanctions pressure on South Africa. It is important to grasp these opportunities in order to respond to the remnants of 30 years of U.S. Cold War policy in Africa including — the rejection of democratic elections by U.S. client Jonas Savimbi, the continued South African ploys to avoid democracy and to foment ethnic strife, the banditry residual from the U.S. and USSR arming of Somalia, the continued support of Mobutu in Zaire and the failure to provide necessary international support to contain the disastrous conflicts in Mozambique, Angola, and Liberia (and its neighbors).

Thus, there is an urgent need for a more articulate and powerful voice in the United States advocating a larger, more compassionate, and serious policy focus on Africa. U.S. citizens must muster support for the future of this sub-continent from which so many of our peoples and so much of our American culture, heritage, and products have been drawn.

This paper calls on U.S. Africanist scholars to mobilize more effectively as part of a broader constituency dedicated to these ends. The Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS) has begun a number of new policy discussions to broaden and deepen the attention of U.S. Africanist scholars beyond Southern Africa to the entire continent. Organizationally, ACAS is expanding and re-organizing to respond to the new situation. We hope that these new directions will interest more Africanist scholars in participating in ACAS.

The African Crises and the World System

Like many Third World economies, most of Africa is in trouble. African countries are besieged by debt, further collapse of commodity prices (simultaneous with significant Won in the price of needed industrial goods from the North), devaluation, inflation, unemployment, political upheaval, some bad political leadership, erosion of the environment and infrastructure, food shortages, and massive health problems (the public health diseases of cholera, hepatitis, and meningitis; HIV; and the resurgent six WHO-targeted tropical diseases, especially malaria).

These burgeoning crises are occurring in the context of major structural reorganization of the global system, its economy, polity, and military power. Because of the relaxing of East-West tensions, most of the nations of the South -both government leaders and various political movements within them -can no longer automatically use the Cold War polarities to gain access to aid and support from the big powers of the North. The Eastern European powers have turned to their own crises, and the wealthier West has become largely disinterested, excepting those rare cases such as Somalia in which there is an apparent congruence of public outcry against the famine and the disorder and of U.S. politicos to find a new role for the military.

Despite this geopolitical reorientation away from Africa, we believe that Africa actually is deserving of more, not less, attention. In the 1990s, we have comprehended more than ever before the depth of human heritage and culture that is owed to Africa, especially in the culture of the U.S. and the Americas. We also are more attentive to the many products from Africa which enrich the consumption and quality of life of America.

In recent years, economic attention to Africa has been limited mostly to pressure from the World Bank, IMF, and U.S. for the many aspects of economic structural adjustment and for democratization. These changes can correct some of the distortions of prices, the lack of economic incentives, the high cost of centralized bureaucracies, and the lad of popular participation in some African nations; however, many believe they do not hold the key to — and may even block — addressing the depth and breadth of African economic problems. A large number of African states that are politically fragile have acceded to these pressures.

Even while dealing with these economic pressures, many African nations are offering internal political trans- formations. Democratic elections, multi-party rule, new leadership, and a priority on the basic human needs of the population are taking hold in many places throughout the continent. Despite both these economic and political changes, little foreign assistance or serious political attention from the West has been forthcoming.

Indeed, foreign aid to African countries has been minuscule. In 1990-91, total U.S. economic assistance for the 47 nations of Sub-Saharan Africa only barely exceeds that of Nicaragua and Panama together and totals less than one-tenth of the combined assistance to Israel and Egypt. In the early 1990s, the period of Africa’s most pressing crises, less than five percent ($800 million) went to Africa of the $17 billion total U.S. foreign development aid.

The Waning of Advocacy for Africa in the United States

Africa’s political transformations should create new possibilities for calling on the U.S. to truly support the democratic principles it purportedly seeks in Africa, as was not possible under the Cold War ethos. Nevertheless, at this time of potential new opportunities, interest in Africa has fallen among diverse U.S. publics — mass and elite.

The interest of U.S. politicians has been eroded by Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the broad perception that apartheid is bound for the rubbish heap of history, and the “donor fatigue” at the seemingly endless parade of new African problems. Distracted by pressing domestic issues of jobs, housing, health, education, and racism on which few victories are being won, even the traditional friends of Africa in the Congress and the Congressional Black Caucus have failed to mobilize effectively on Africa’s behalf, including on emergency humanitarian assistance and conflict resolution. Even some of the liberal politicians elected to the 1993 Congress campaigned on an isolationist platform to “bring our dollars home” to bolster the U.S. economy.

The attention of the Western and Japanese corporate and investment communities has shifted to new opportunities in the Pacific and Europe as U.S. investments and trade with Africa declined since the 1970s. The U.S. foreign policy-making elites, likewise, are riveted to global competition among the economic powers and the transformation of the Eastern Bloc.

For masses in the U.S., attention is focused on declining job and economic opportunities. The concentration of wealth in the Northern Hemisphere. Indeed this decline is paralleled by the greatest concentration of wealth in U.S. history. Many people in this wealthy nation are caught in a new experience of impoverishment, decline in standard of living and quality of life, and the prospect of downward mobility. Ethnic and racial antagonisms are on the rise. As in Europe, this experience of personal insecurity accentuates national chauvinism and myths about the threats of foreign peoples.

The media coverage of Africa available to the mass “viewing market” continues to demonstrate gross disinterest in Africa (with the obvious exception of the images of anchormen — in the midst of U.S. military operations in Somalia). Images of starving African refugees flow into U.S. living rooms, leading most to conclude that Africa is but a caricature of endless problems, bad government, and incompetence — an undesirable continent with which to link and identify. This translates into an inadequate market for good educational and media materials on the continent, small enrollments in many college classes concerning Africa, and the continuing dissemination of gross racial and social stereotypes of the peoples and cultures of Africa.

Most of Africa’s U.S. supporters have failed to mount any effective action on the pressing problems of the continent. Africa’s friends have become demobilized on a broad front — among churches and unions, on the campuses, and even among some Africa-focused organizations. The national organizations with which activist scholars have cooperated on legislative and pressure campaigns (Washington Office on Africa, American Committee on Africa, TransAfrica, and others) are suffering financially and organizationally in varying degrees in the post-Mandela release period. Simultaneously, while many major funders have focused even more of their resources on projects inside Africa, they offer little support for initiatives to build a constituency with a greater voice for Africa in the U.S.

The present political demobilization on behalf of Africa is particularly striking in juxtaposition to the success of the friends of Africa not so long ago. For 30years, key African- American, student/faculty, church, labor, and liberal groups mobilized against apartheid, achieving one of the most remarkable changes in U.S. foreign policy of the century. Building from campus, local, and statewide actions, the divestiture and sanctions movement eventually overwhelmed the President, the State Department, and a great majority within the foreign policy establishment with the Congress’ adoption of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. But after this important national victory, most Africanists and other friends of Africa have failed to maintain their activism on South Africa.

The Role of Africanist Scholars

Where do Africanist scholars fit into this picture? In the domain of mass education and culture, centers of African and African-American studies and teachers in African-American communities are making important efforts to give new attention to Africa’s complex histories and cultures. The resources available for this task from African studies centers are very limited. Probably only four or five percent of the total U.S. public and private budget for foreign language and area studies is spent in research funding for the study of one-fifth of the global landmass with more nations, cultures, and languages than any other world region.

Most academic Africanists, however, remain professionally dispassionate, and focused on occupational productivity and advancement, mirroring the turn to self-interest by many Americans in these insecure times. Younger scholars in many disciplines face more difficult roads to academic advancement than did the previous generation of Africanists. While scholars by and large decry the broad disinterest in Africa, they have not raised an effective voice to demand a U.S. response to Africa’s crises. Even those scholars who are politically engaged are largely geographically isolated and racially divided.

Why has Africanist activism waned? As with other segments of the constituency for Africa in the U.S., it is partly due to the loss of apartheid as a relatively simple target of U.S. support. Issues facing South Africa have become more complex and multi-faceted — democracy, ethnicity, jobs, affirmative action for correcting the discriminatory past, food production, and pent-up demand for social services and economic opportunity. These issues are similar to those confronted by the continent as a whole, and Africanists so far have failed to broaden their perspective or develop any strategy for addressing these multiple issues effectively.

Africanist scholars should be particularly suited for assisting the broader U.S. constituency for Africa to make the transition from focusing on apartheid to the various critical issues facing the continent. Many U.S. academic specialists on Africa have strong sympathies with the particular countries and people they know from their research and collegial relationships. They understand the impoverishment and fragility of the continent caught in a marginal position in the global system. The historic ambivalence in the scholarly community toward economic assistance should be translated into a cogent critique of those programs that hamper development for the majority of the people and strong support for humanitarian and longer-term aid that can be helpful. Scholars with experience in Africa’s environmental issues and problems should nurture the nascent environmental movements and groups in Africa. U.S. scholars should create opportunities for African experts to speak for themselves about the solutions to Africa’s problems and should assist these scholars to acquire the resources they need for their research and communication.

A New Agenda for ACAS

The Association of Concerned Africa Scholars (ACAS) has embarked on a plan to refocus the political attention of Africanist scholars, particularly among its own membership. Our major tasks in this period are to struggle to understand the new situation in Africa and globally, to explore both those policy issues in Africa that merit our attention in this new period and what needs to be said about them to U.S. policy-makers, and to redirect ACAS to become a more effective instrument of change.

ACAS has identified a number of policy issues to explore and has established Issue Working Groups (IWG) on each to address the problems and to recommend policies to advocate. Several of the IWGs have developed draft papers on their topic, which are published for the first time in this issue of the ACAS Bulletin. Earlier drafts and ideas were discussed at a Consultation held in Washington, D.C. in May 1992and at a one-day ACAS Conference in November 1992. We now encourage discussion and comments from all ACAS members or prospective members as we seek to set our organizational policy course for the months ahead. (Send your comments to the Research Committee listed on the back cover).

In addition, we suggest the following policy priorities for ACAS efforts in the months ahead:

• Support for just and stable terms of economic exchange between Africa and the industrial nations

• Support for sustainable forms of majority rule and democracy in Africa

• Financial and political support for the peace-enforcing, peace-keeping, and peace-making (conflict resolution) activities of a genuinely representative UN, OAU, and other multilateral agencies

• Support for appropriate development that gives primacy to the needs of children, women, and those who are socially and economically displaced

• Continued attention to achieving both non-racial democracy in South Africa and across the continent as well as peace and reconstruction in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and the conflict- and drought-damaged SADCC states

• Increased U.S. attention (research and assistance) to the health crises in Africa (public health, HIV, malaria, infant death, etc.) and the background nutrition problems in Africa

• Debt relief and investment capital for appropriate development work which serves the needs and interests of the common peoples of Africa

• Partnership with Africa to achieve environmental sustainability, based on an integrated social and economic development that does not harm the planet

• More attention to the increasing erosion of academic institutions and the academic capabilities and work of our colleagues in African universities under the assault of structural adjustment programs

• Support for individual African colleagues under attack by repressive regimes

• Proactively building linkages and coalitions with African peoples, especially African academic colleagues, who work for progressive change in the economy, government, and society at all levels of their societies

• As a means of affecting U.S. policy, collaborating with a broad spectrum of North Americans to build a more enduring and effective constituency in support of all African peoples and oriented especially toward the Congress and U.S. foreign policy-makers. To accomplish this, ACAS must address and join the wider U.S. constituency for Africa and especially African-American constituencies.

The Means for Achieving Our Goals

ACAS was formed in 1977 to activate scholars to use their academic skills to analyze U.S. policy toward Africa, to mobilize public critical commentary, and to provide scholarly knowledge and legitimacy for criticism and the alternative policies. ACAS was constructed as well to bridge the separation of scholars working in the African Studies Association (ASA) and the African Heritage Studies Association (AHSA).

ACAS has used several means toward this end. ACAS members have testified before Congressional committees and the organization has initiated legislative campaigns on issues including a broad array of Southern Africa concerns, harmful U.S. interventions in Africa (particular1y CIA intervention in Angola), emergency assistance for victims of African drought and famine, protection of individual scholars in Africa, dislodging foreign interests in the Western Sahara, and funding through U.S. military and intelligence agencies—for African studies programs and research. Like many Africa-focused organizations, our focus in the 1970s and 80s was on the southern part of the continent

ACAS members have received regular commentary, information, and action-relevant articles, status summaries of key legislation, and news of the anti-apartheid movement in the ACAS Bulletin. The publications and network provided by ACAS has also given indirect guidance or resources to individual Africanists working on their campuses, Africanist programs and administrators seeking to be supportive of political change, and even administrators inside the government arguing for more progressive policies toward Africa.

The primary arena for communication with the broader Africanist community has been several panels organized by ACAS at the annual meetings of the ASA and twice at the AHSA. The panels, which have regularly been well-attended and well-received, have been on key topics concerning Southern Africa, human rights, repression against African scholars, other struggles in the Horn and across the continent, and the potential uses of defense and intelligence agency funding in African studies. In the 1970s and 1980s, the panels often had liberation movement representatives.

The Issue Working Groups (IWG’s) are a new mechanism to bring several ACAS members together to develop analysis and recommendations on policy issues that we have not previously addressed.

A Strategic Action Plan for ACAS at this Juncture

In light of the growing crises in Africa and the radically altered global parameters, the membership of ACAS made a commitment at its 1991 and 1992annual meetings to seek to achieve a greater impact on U.S. policy-making in Washington by increasing our organizational capacity and our program and by expanding our membership.

ACAS has always been bedeviled by the lack of infrastructure to coordinate its willing membership in mobilizing to influence U.S. policy-makers. Until now, we have operated on a shoestring, partly by our intentional decision not to compete with the Africa lobbying organizations on which we and others rely. Now, when we need to diversify our political foci, we have decided that we cannot make an effective contribution without greater resources and staffing and that we must have an organizational presence in Washington, D.C.

Therefore, we have hired a part-time executive secretary in Washington, D.C., with the hope of eventually enlarging that position to full-time. A new staff person does not substitute for a network of active and informed members, but nor can scholars scattered across the country be effective without consistent information and mobilization.

ACAS has also established a closer working relationship with the African Policy Information Center (APIC), formerly the Washington office on Africa Educational Fund. We will also be coordinating ACAS activities more closely with pro-Africa organizations in Washington, including the Washington Office on Africa, TransAfrica, and other groups such as Africare, Bread for the World. Development Gap, and Africa Development Foundation, and with the American Committee on Africa in New York. We plan to organize several seminars and colloquia on issues of current policy, possibly in conjunction with other actors in Washington. And we will continue to inform and mobilize ACAS members on selected current policy debates in the Congress. In all of these efforts, we will work to expand our capacity to address more diverse political and economic issues of the entire African continent.

In 1993, with new opportunity for Africa in Washington, we invite the wider Africanist community to join us in our effort to transform and expand ACAS. Scholars have a special role to play — in explaining African realities, developing policy recommendations and critique, and adding a certain academic legitimacy to Africa’s constituency in the U.S. We believe that the new direction taken by ACAS in the past 18 months and the commitment of ACAS members to greater participation and financial support have positioned ACAS to more effectively assist scholars to make their unique contribution in the political arena. The problems of Africa which will be solved will be managed by the African peoples and institutions themselves; however, the pressing needs and challenges facing those people of Africa in a radically altered global system surely give us cause to seek a greater impact on U.S. policy.

The author acknowledges the contributing comments and suggestions of Christine Root and William Martin.

Originally published in ACAS Bulletin 38-39 (1993), pp. 9-13