Recently I attended the Africa Brain Trust 2012 forum entitled "Africa Rising: A Continent of Opportunity," hosted by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) as part of their Annual Legislative Conference, in Washington, D.C. The event's lineup included a diverse range of experts, policymakers, diplomats and business leaders interested in economic and human development, as well as regional security and stability on the continent. It concentrated on reinforcing support for promising development-aid strategies, providing a networking venue for interested professionals, encouraging foreign investment and promoting the leadership of the CBC in advocating fair and just U.S. policy toward the many countries of Africa.
The annual Africa Brain Trust gatherings are an outgrowth of tireless work by the late U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) and the advocacy and policy making of the CBC at large. Throughout his two decades in congress, Rep. Payne was a "trailblazer" of U.S. policy toward Africa, serving as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a ranking member on the Subcommittee on Africa and founder of the Malaria Caucus. The CBC has honored his legacy by expanding the scope of the forums and maintaining its commitment to shaping U.S. policy on the continent.
The first panel, "Africa's Growing Economies," aimed to counter the incorrect and misguided narrative that African countries are dependent charity cases and instead chose to tell development success stories that properly framed the continent as one ripe with investment opportunities. Although the panelists initially focused mostly on gross domestic product (GDP) figures, the question-and-answer discussion highlighted the importance of the Human Development Index (HDI) as an indispensable measure of how wealth is used to improve the lives of citizens.
The second panel, "Health Investments for Africa's Future," featured presentations about HIV/AIDS and malaria progress, food security, agricultural development and high-impact health initiatives. The panel underscored the need for most African countries to increase investments in domestic health care systems.
One of the panelists on the health panel, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), has authored or co-authored every congressional bill concerning global HIV/AIDS, including the landmark President's Emergency Pan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). PEPFAR has provided antiretroviral treatment for over 4.5 million men, women and children, directly supported HIV testing and counseling for over 40 million people and provided care and support for 13 million people.
Two other promising initiatives mentioned during the panel were the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which promotes agricultural growth and food security through public-private partnership investments in African-developed agricultural plans and nutrition programs, and the Purchase for Progress Program, a World Food Programme (WFP) effort that leverages WFP's purchasing power and expertise to provide farmers with access to agricultural markets.
The final panel was entitled "Emerging Threats to Political Stability." The contributors analyzed democratic trends, emerging security threats, U.S. policy and China's relations with African countries. Although the panelists and forum participants did not all agree on approaches to democratization, security threats and foreign policy on the continent, the discussions did make clear that civil society and advocacy organizations, international organizations, donor nations and governments in Africa all recognize the unique partnership opportunities that now exist to advance homegrown solutions to country and region-specific problems. These new opportunities have arisen as a result of economic growth and the progress made toward achieving some, but not all, of the Millennium Development Goals.
Overall, the 2012 gathering was informative, substantive and at times even inspiring for those committed to supporting the advancements made in various African countries. The contributors and participants embraced the complexity of the topics but provided clear policy visions or informed critiques of existing policies. However, one issue that should have received more attention, the problem of "capital flight," was notably absent from most, if not all, of the conversations.
In an October 2012 research report, "Capital Flight from Sub-Saharan African Countries: Updated Estimates, 1970 - 2010," James K. Boyce and Léonce Ndikumana of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst define capital flight as unrecorded flows of capital between a country and the rest of the world as a result of illicit transactions such as money laundering and tax evasion. Their work reveals that in the period from 1970 to 2010, a group of 33 sub-Saharan African countries have lost a total of $814 billion (in 2010 dollars). This staggering figure far exceeds both the $659 billion in official development aid and $306 billion in foreign direct investment that these countries received during the same time period. Furthermore, the authors estimate that if these funds had earned interest at the short-term U.S. Treasury Bill rate, the total would be closer to $1.06 trillion.
These disturbing observations bring to the forefront the necessity of political and financial institutional reforms in many sub-Saharan African countries. If the estimates provided by Boyce and Ndikumana are correct, many of these countries could eliminate a large portion of their debt-financed aid and instead focus more earnestly on attracting the right investments and building equitable trade relationships. Civil society organizations, human rights advocacy groups and citizens of donor countries can play a role in making this a reality by pressuring the financial institutions that process these transactions to stop these practices. International law scholars and practitioners can also be instrumental in this effort by developing more effective new laws and regulations while continuing to improve enforcement mechanisms for existing laws. Ultimately, however, it will be the demands of the citizens of these countries for more accountable governance and transparent institutions that will dictate the progress made in the struggle to curb capital flight.