Cindy Bither
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People Key to Sustainable Development in Africa

FullTextImage/img/@altPanelists on sustainable development in Africa (from left), Dr. Paul Hebert, Lt. Col. Nancy Jean-Louis, Dr. Christopher LaMonica, and Dr. Aaron Tesfaye, listen to a question from the audience. -- Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 4, 2011 – The third panel session in VMI’s “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa” conference presented an in-depth presentation on efforts of the United States Agency for International Development and a more discursive discussion of the need to engage with the African peoples, both focused on U.S. approaches to sustainable development in Africa. All four panelists touched on the theme that involvement of the African people is essential.

Panel chair Dr. Paul Hebert opened the discussion with a comment on where to start in the international efforts toward sustainable development.

“There is one platform that could provide a forum for cooperation between China and the United States,” he said, “and that is the international forum related to the Millennium Development Goals that have been established through the United Nations and endorsed by all of the U.N. member states, including China and the United States.”

These goals are “to end poverty and hunger; to have universal education; to achieve gender equality, child health, maternal health; to combat HIV and AIDS; and to achieve in those goals environmental sustainability and then to have a platform for global partnerships,” said Hebert, who was the recipient last spring VMI’s Jonathan Daniels Humanitarian Award for his humanitarian work, much of which took placed under the auspices of the United Nations.

Hebert established the need for sustainable development, noting that 26 of the 54 countries in Africa rank in the lowest group on the Human Development Index, in which the bottom 10 are all African countries.

Hebert defined sustainable development as a pattern of resource use that aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment, a definition further developed by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Nancy Jean-Louis, who noted that this kind of development requires that the world be seen as a system, a responsibility of civil society as a whole, shared by governments, citizens, institutions, academia, and public and private organizations.

During her detailed description of the USAID efforts and successes, Jean-Louis said the agency was a prime beneficiary of the work of the U.S. Africa Command, founded in 2008, for which she is the representative to USAID.

“Without security, development is just not going to be sustainable because you will lose your gains,” she said.

Echoing Jean-Louis’ remark that development is the responsibility of civil society as a whole, Christopher LaMonica, associate professor of comparative politics at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy opened his talk by echoing the elephant metaphor first explored in an earlier panel session.

“The issue is engaging the elephant,” he said. “We’re going to have to speak to the Africans to determine their needs and the best use of our limited resources.”

The African peoples, he noted, remember U.S. Cold War-era policies in Africa: proxy wars, support of dictatorships, and conditionality.

“We supported monsters,” he said, “and civil society in Africa suffered as a result.”

Citing several case-study countries, LaMonica noted that the “other elephant in the room” is oil, explaining that where oil is discovered, the economy of the country is completed transformed, with sectors other than oil, such as agriculture, “virtually wiped out.”

Discussant Aaron Tesfaye, professor of political science at William Paterson University, agreed in the session’s concluding remarks that the African peoples are the key to sustainable development.

Early post-colonial governments behaved as the colonial governments had, putting power in the hands of a few African leaders who ignored political structures and indigenous social institutions and cultures.

“In terms of sustainable development, Africa will not be saved by benevolent individuals, … donor nations, or government experts,” said Tesfaye. “Africa can move forward only if it focuses internally and utilizes the energy of its people. At one time, that energy won people of Africa their independence. It can achieve a second liberation.”

“Development,” he added, “is a process people do for themselves. … Democracy, by making the will of the people the supreme law of development has the potential to unleash their energies but only if they have some genuine decision-making powers over their lives.”

–Sherri Tombarge