I recently returned from a conference hosted by the Aspen Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with a number of scholars and members of Congress. Over a period of several days we did an in-depth exploration of the myriad issues encompassing U.S. relations with the 54 nations of Africa.
One thing became clear: Africa is a land of opportunity and promise for its people and for the people of the United States. First, there is incredible economic potential waiting to be or already being unleashed across the continent. The IMF predicts that by 2017 11 of the world's 20 fastest growing economies will be African. As economies grow and opportunity spreads the potential for U.S. businesses is astronomic. As President Obama recently said, "The world is investing in Africa like never before... So I see Africa as the world's next major success story."
Some of that success is attributable to US investments in health care from HIV/AIDs prevention, malaria and tuberculosis treatments as well as maternal health. Particularly in HIV/AIDS the establishment of PEPFAR, a bipartisan Congressional accomplishment led and administered by President Bush, has saved literally millions of lives and changed the demography and future of numerous African nations. President Bush may be viewed as a polarizing figure in the United States but he is beloved by many African people for his commitment to health and the fight against HIV. This story of bipartisanship and the federal government often goes overlooked outside of African development professional circles but the tremendously positive impact US taxpayer dollars had on the lives of HIV positive or at risk Africans has been a resounding success.
One experience in Ethiopia that particularly affected me was a visit to a Peace Corps site in Amboo, a town of some 80,000 about two hours from Addis Ababa. Three Americans were working there as volunteers teaching in the local school, helping a health clinic treat disabled children and assisting subsistence farmers to increase their yields and have more success with their crops. There is an emphasis in the Peace Corps that volunteers bring their skills to bear where they serve to build lasting capabilities that will continue to improve the lives of the community where they serve. Americans from across the U.S. sign up for two-year commitments (though many often extend their stay to complete their work) and are totally cut off from their families and from amenities and comforts we take for granted in this country. Peace Corps volunteers are model citizens for their peers back home and excellent ambassadors of the hope, dedication and kindness that embody the spirit of the American people.
Seeing these volunteers commitment to service and to improving the lives of their fellow man was a refreshing reminder that, even though our system of government may be limping along and the mood in Washington is weary and bleak, out in the world the United States can still be a force for tremendous good.
Dan Glickman accepts friendship bracelet at middle school in Ambo, Ethiopia