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Anita McBride

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First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush Show American Compassion in Africa

Posted: 07/03/2013 12:25 pm

President Obama thanked President Bush in Tanzania this week for what he called President George W. Bush's "crowning achievement." Tanzanians also held up placards thanking President Bush for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the initiative he spearheaded and is credited with saving millions of lives. One of the central pillars of PEPFAR was a solid plan to deliver life-saving medicines to the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic.

The images brought back a trove of memories from my time as First Lady Laura Bush's Chief of Staff from 2005-2009 when I traveled with her on four trips to more than 10 African countries. She brought first-hand accounts back to President Bush on the dramatic impact life-saving programs such as PEPFAR, the President's Malaria initiative (PMI) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation were having on the continent. Launched in 2003, reauthorized in 2008, and now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Americans on both sides of the aisle should be justifiably proud of PEPFAR. After all, it is their generosity that made it happen. But we can also point to another outcome -- when our political leaders have courage to think big, work together, find common ground, and make tough decisions -- they can change the world.

PEPFAR is one of the greatest examples in recent times of bipartisan support around a single issue and represented the largest commitment in history to a single disease. President Bush made a strong case to the Congress about American moral responsibility, and the direct link to U.S. national security interests. It also demonstrated a collective compassion which bridged the all too often bitter partisan divide found at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and within Congress.

I am in Dar es Salaam with the Bushes again where yesterday I witnessed a conversation between the current first lady and the former first lady of the United States along with multiple African first ladies in attendance. Building upon the success of the PEPFAR platform brought the Bushes back to Africa this week -- one of several trips since leaving the White House. The Bushes hosted the African First Ladies Summit entitled "Investing in Women: Strengthening Africa" highlighting public-private partnerships including Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, an initiative launched by the George W. Bush Institute. With this initiative, the infrastructure that delivered critical health services to HIV/AIDS patients is now also being used to diagnose and treat cervical and breast cancer.

The Summit also gathered experts in the public and private sectors who highlighted other critical and effective interventions in education, technology, agriculture, and women' s health. By convening Africa's first ladies at this momentous meeting, the Bush Institute underscores the critical role first ladies play in creating lasting change in their countries and globally.

I witnessed first-hand how a first lady can leverage her position to make a difference. Both as first lady and as the current chair of the Laura W. Bush Women's Initiative at the Bush Institute, Laura Bush is a powerful voice in global health, education and the empowerment of women. Laura Bush used her position to advocate for PEPFAR, PMI and other important programs and through her many trips, speeches and interviews, she helped build the public case for their continued support. She was my inspiration in my co-founding the RAND African First Ladies Initiative in 2009 -- an effort aimed at helping the First Ladies of Africa and their advisors strengthen their office and maximize their effectiveness. I am delighted that the Bush Institute is building on this and launching their own First Ladies Initiative.

Africa's first lady are making a difference. During this week's summit, Zambia's first lady Christine Kaseba highlighted her work as an obstetrician gynecologist and patron of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon. Just last week, she accompanied President and Mrs. Bush in Livingstone, Zambia, where they cut the ribbon on the newest Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon clinic. Sierra Leone's First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma highlighted her initiatives that combine education and economic empowerment strategies to improve women's lives.

Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, moderated a distinguished panel of policy makers and practitioners on empowering women entrepreneurs through technology -- a particular passion of hers. Mrs. Blair, a steadfast supporter of the African First Ladies Initiative, openly shared the importance of setting priorities.

As we approach this July 4th, Americans have a lot to celebrate in not only their elected presidents but also their first ladies who represent bipartisan commitment to empowering women and improving the health and well-being of the people of Africa and around the world.

 
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