The Urgent Need to Build New U.S.-Africa Connections
For generations, Americans engaged in campaigns for social justice and human rights have recognized that a global perspective is essential for analyzing societal problems and devising strategies to address them. In almost every case, the social justice issues that demand our attention here are also international in scope. Examples include human rights issues affecting people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants; growing income and wealth inequality; under-funding of vital social programs facilitated by laws that allow wealthy corporations and individuals to evade their fair share of taxation; and failure to act on climate change that is already having devastating effects in the United States, worldwide, and especially in Africa.
The connections between Africa and the United States have been particularly closely linked to internal issues of race and inequality in U.S. society, and this has been reflected in the evolution of citizen action linking Americans and Africans. The most prominent manifestation was the anti-apartheid movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. International action against racism was fundamental to the decades-long anti-apartheid movement, to the benefit of people throughout the movement. South Africans gained political equality, though the struggle continues for the fruits of that equality. Americans of all races worked in a diverse network of coalitions to support the freedom movements on the continent, which they saw as intrinsically linked to opposing domestic racism. They were joined and inspired by African exiles and immigrants with lived experience of the situation in their countries.
In the decades since the 1994 victory of the South African anti-apartheid movement, U.S.-Africa connections have multiplied, not only in economic terms and in terms of expanded global communications, but also in person-to-person contact. Increased African immigration to the United States has changed the shape of immigrant communities. And opportunities for American students to study in Africa, to travel, and to work with both international and African non-governmental organizations have grown enormously.
Despite the scale of these new developments, citizen action related to Africa remains weak. Unlike in the anti-apartheid era, there is no well-defined set of inter-linked national organizations to which local activists can relate. African immigrant communities are often dispersed and focused on issues of immediate survival, on their families back home, or on their particular country. Young people concerned with Africa who are also engaged in issues such as climate change, for example, find that the existing movements too infrequently address the international and particularly the African dimension of the issue.
International collaboration among citizen groups is particularly urgent on the issue of climate change. Both organizations in U.S. communities directly affected by fossil fuel production and civil society organizations from the global South that are most severely affected by global warming are demanding changes in the policies of multinational corporations, governments, and international organizations. But even as climate change becomes more perilous, effective action falls short of what is needed. Stronger and more effective collaboration is needed between organizations in Africa where the most devastating impacts of global warming are expected to occur and organizations in the U.S. where many of the largest corporate and political opponents of action to reduce use of fossil fuels are based.
The current system of capital flows and massive agricultural conglomerates threatens people in both the United States and Africa in other ways, from their appropriation of agricultural land to the use of elaborate mechanisms to hide profits and avoid local taxation. From 1970-2008, an estimated $854 billion flowed out of Africa illicitly; one-third of this amount would have covered the content’s external debt as of 2008. According to the Tax Justice Network, the global super-rich hold at least $21 trillion in off-shore accounts beyond the reach of governments where they operate – an amount equivalent to the combined economies of the United States and Japan. Blocking such cross-border tax dodges will require creative strategies on the part of civic organizations and governments in both rich and poor nations.
Building a US-Africa Network
In recent years, Americans focusing on African issues, as well as their colleagues on the African continent, have felt an urgent need to revitalize and refocus advocacy work concerning Africa among a broad range of constituencies in the United States.
During the anti-apartheid period, the priority common issue focus was very clear, and several national organizations provided leadership, including the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), TransAfrica, and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Then in the 1990s, the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), The Africa Fund, and networks such as the Nigeria Roundtable helped link Nigeria pro-democracy groups, environmental, and human rights activists against the Abacha dictatorship. During the last decade, Africa Action (which brought together ACOA, The Africa Fund, and APIC), AFSC, and other organizations worked on the signature issues of AIDS and African debt with groups focused on these specific issues.
During the past several years, however, advocates who focus on U.S.-Africa issues have keenly felt the absence of an effective and visible national voice on issues pertaining to the African continent. National leadership, clarity of focus, institutional capacity, and structures for engaging African partners in determining priorities have been in short supply.
Since the initial consultation meeting in June 2013, participants in the USAN have maintained contacts with each other and collaboration with other groups through e-mail and social media and through organizing several in-person events. The network has given particular emphasis to issues such as climate justice, global health, tax justice, and combating stereotypes about Africa.