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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

USA/Africa: Organizing on Africa in the USA

USA/Africa: Organizing on Africa in the USA
Date distributed (ymd): 020113
Africa Action Document

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Continent-Wide
Issue Areas: +US policy focus+


This posting contains material from the report of an Assessment Project by Imani Countess, former director of the Africa Policy Information Center (1992-1997). The project focused on conversations with local Africa activists in five areas of the United States, and on the potential for greater efforts to change national policy. The full report is now available on the Africa Action web site, in html and pdf format, at This posting contains the foreword (by Salih Booker), the executive summary and a brief excerpt.

Imani's major conclusion is that: "In terms of the number of individuals and groups engaged with Africa throughout the country, the potential for policy impact is probably greater than at any time in the past, even at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. But that potential is likely to remain largely unrealized, unless national groups take strong action to foster greater policy engagement from those diverse constituencies."

Also newly available on the Africa Action web site:

(1) "AIDS: Another World War," commentary by Salih Booker, in The Nation, January 7, 2002 - and


(2) "AIDS in Africa," by Salih Booker and William Minter in the Foreign Policy Association's Great Decisions 2002 Briefing Book (html at; pdf with photographs and other graphics also available through that link). The Foreign Policy Association estimates that its Great Decisions program reachs some 400,000 people in hundreds of schools and communities and through public television and video as well as the briefing book. This is a resource that local activists and educators can both use and refer to in their contacts with other community groups. Salih Booker is a featured guest on the hour-long Public Television Great Decisions segment on "AIDS in Africa," airing at different times on public television stations throughout the USA.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Weaving the Ties That Bind:
Report from an Assessment Project

Imani Countess

Africa Action December 2001

by Salih Booker

In September 1977, when South African liberation leader Steve Biko was beaten to death in prison, South Africa's Minister of "Justice" aroused world-wide indignation when he told reporters Biko's death "leaves me cold." For millions around the world, this callous indifference to human life which epitomized the essence of the apartheid system, sparked the opposite response. A student activist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut at the time, I was one of many throughout the U.S. who were moved to intensify their commitment to help eliminate that racist system. We included African Americans, African exiles, other Americans with personal experience of Africa, and others whose values and experience also impelled them to join in the struggle.

As Imani notes in this report, the story of the work of hundreds of groups and thousands of people, which eventually forced U. S. policymakers to end their unholy alliance with the apartheid regime, has not yet been told. National groups, such as the American Committee on Africa which had already been fighting against apartheid for 25 years when I first worked there as an intern in the summer of 1978, are part of the panorama of those who joined the good fight. But it was synergy with local groups that provided the essential missing links and enabled the message of struggle against apartheid to reach so deeply in U. S. society that policymakers could no longer remain indifferent. Even in the nation's capital, as Imani and I can testify from personal experience, it was often the behind-the-scenes work of local groups such as the Southern Africa Support Project that made the critical connections.

Today's "global" issues, from HIV/ AIDS to global warming, and from trade policies to the failure of international peacekeeping, have their most immediate and devastating consequences in Africa. Whether judged by the number killed each day or by the potential collapse of entire nations, the AIDS pandemic is a greater threat to global human security than are organized terrorist groups. More than 8,000 people worldwide die of AIDS each day-the equivalent of more than two World Trade Center tragedies each and every day. It is the most glaring indicator of a system of global apartheid with an entrenched double standard which values some lives and devalues others.

Both the AIDS pandemic and the World Trade Center terrorist attacks highlight the shared vulnerability of human life. Yet for the most part, our policymakers are still left cold by threats to the human security of Africans.

But compared with 25 years ago, there are now tens of thousands more within this country who are deeply concerned about what happens to those who live and die on the African continent. Many more-recent African immigrants-have direct family ties. Many more have lived and worked on the continent. And, yes, many more-young and old-have a wider consciousness of the world combined with a burning commitment to social justice. The potential for change is enormous.

Yet, as Imani clearly points out, that potential will not be translated into policy changes unless we bring it together into a force that policymakers cannot ignore. We do not have the luxury of choosing to act locally, act nationally, or act globally. We can and must do all three.


Project Background and Description

During the summer of 1998, Africa's visibility in the U. S. political arena seemed to reach its highest levels since the anti-apartheid focus of the mid 1980s. President Bill Clinton had recently completed travel to six African nations, the first such trip for a sitting U. S. president. The U. S. National Summit on Africa launched its first regional meeting in Atlanta with three thousand people attending, many of whom vigorously debated a range of issues in four thematic workshops.

What was the response of the U.S. Congress to this surge of interest in Africa? It slashed every Africa account in the preliminary appropriations budgets. Working at that time for the African Development Foundation, a small US-government-funded agency providing development support to grassroots groups in Africa countries, I was particularly struck by this contradictory picture. How could these dramatic examples of multi-level interest in Africa and grassroots support for a more dynamic US/Africa relationship coexist with congressional disinterest and, in many cases, open hostility toward Africa?

With financial support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, I carried out a project consisting of a series of informal conversations with activists and groups concerned with Africa in five areas across the United States: Research Triangle, North Carolina; Bay Area, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; Houston, Texas, and the Baltimore/Washington Corridor. I also organized two focus groups at the National Summit on Africa gathering in Washington, DC in February 2000.

The conversations focused on what the activists and groups were actually doing, to what extent they sought to intervene in policy toward Africa, and on the reasons for engagement, or lack of engagement, with policymakers.

The interviews uncovered significant, diverse, and frequently inspiring activity. However, when measured against the need and potential for transforming this interest into engaged constituency action, the picture I found was sobering, if not grim. Very little of the work carried out by the groups interviewed focuses on influencing policy. Few groups were confident of their ability to influence local and national policy. Few groups were taking advantage of local advocacy resources. Few maintained substantive linkages with national groups, who traditionally have served the important role of providing information on campaigns and opportunities to influence policy. Many, moreover, were unaware of each other, even within the same geographical area.

Nevertheless, almost all interviewees were passionate about the need to change the overall policy environment on African issues, and expressed willingness to be engaged in campaigns to change policy. This provides a profound challenge for national Africa advocacy organizations, to find ways to assist in providing the missing links between local activity and policy engagement.

Recommendations for National Organizations

In terms of the number of individuals and groups engaged with Africa throughout the country, the potential for policy impact is probably greater than at any time in the past, even at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. But that potential is likely to remain largely unrealized, unless national groups take strong action to foster greater policy engagement from those diverse constituencies.

National groups must take the initiative. They must reach out in new ways. Despite limited resources, they must make greater investments in dialogue and mobilization of local constituencies. In short, if they want a dynamic, mobilized constituency, they have to organize it.

In particular, national Africa-focused groups should:

  • Invest in building local networks, local activity, and local leadership.

National groups and funders should invest in building local networks, local activity, and local leadership, both with their own resources and by bringing their local Africa-focused contacts together with advocacy resources already available in local communities. This may involve regional meetings, such as the regional summits held during the National Summit on Africa process. But it can also be done with smaller-scale meetings and workshops to encourage dialogue, cross-fertilization, and spotlighting local leaders. Local Africa-focused activists and groups could also benefit from training in advocacy methods as well as more accessible information from national organizations on policy issues.
  • Increase coordination at local as well as national levels.

Increasing communication and coordination among groups working on Africa can pay off in greater impact. Despite the range of political viewpoints among national Africa-focused groups, there are many issues on which there is consensus across a very wide ideological spectrum. Networks such as the Advocacy Network for Africa (ADNA) should be supplemented by greater efforts to define common messages to use in outreach. Without seeking to obscure differences, it should be possible to convene an annual meeting of key groups to discuss one or two themes, issues, or campaigns on which their priorities might converge.

Also critical is communication and coordination among groups working at local levels. The precise form this can take will vary significantly with local conditions. However, national groups can and should play a key role by encouraging the further growth of such links where they exist, and by bringing individuals and groups into contact where such coordination is absent.

  • Increase Targeted Outreach Activity.

National groups reach thousands of supporters around the country through their existing efforts. These efforts can be expanded. However, they will be most successful if they are also targeted in a sustained way in particular local settings, and combined with sustained building of relationships with local networks.

The scale of the U.S. is so large, and the resources of most Africa-focused groups so small in comparison, that the activists reached rarely cluster in large numbers in particular areas. Even less frequently are such clusters organized to serve as key links between national campaigns and their local communities.

Given limited resources, it will take time to strengthen such outreach activities. Initially, a national group may have to choose only a few high priority local areas for intensive work. But making sustained outreach a higher priority now is the only way to turn policy engagement potential into policy impact.

  • Give Particular Emphasis to Youth Development.

One of the most striking findings revealed in our community visits was that the age profile indicated that few, if any, opportunities exist for young people entering this field. When I compared this picture with my own experience, it was clear that few groups have any natural entry point for a 21-year-old Imani Countess. Youth are being mobilized for many causes which have profound implications for Africa, such as the global justice movement and activism on AIDS. Yet few vehicles exist for young people to become involved on a sustained basis in Africa-focused organizations. It is urgent for Africa-focused groups to address this challenge, by developing mechanisms that provide more welcoming entry points for young people.

Opportunity and Challenges for Progressives

National groups that share a progressive political perspective focused on social justice have an extraordinary opportunity and face particular challenges. On the one hand, the structural position of Africa in the world means that protest against marginalization and injustice resonates widely with almost all those concerned with Africa, whatever their ideological stance. On the other hand, the willingness to "speak truth to power" by criticizing establishment positions often means less access to financial and other resources.

In addition to implementing the recommendations in the previous sections, progressive groups must take additional steps, including better articulating their political perspectives within the larger Africa-focused community and developing organizing approaches that build solid local networks with links to grassroots activists involved in a range of community issues.

Within the broad range of local groups working on Africa or on global issues that impact Africa, some have particularly high potential for becoming the key links between national progressive groups and local communities. While continuing to reach out to activists in many different sectors, my interviews indicated that progressives will find particularly fruitful opportunities among individual progressive activists, religious communities, the global justice movement, specialized global issues groups, and the African Neo-Diaspora (recent African immigrants).

Excerpt from section on
"Engagement with Africa and Policy Engagement"

In sum, my interviews showed groups from a wide range of sectors heavily involved with Africa issues. While this includes that portion of the "hardcore" who hold Africa-related jobs, it also includes many other individuals who are very actively engaged on a volunteer basis. Most significantly, many groups not now focusing on policy matters have the potential to become significantly engaged with policy.

Of particular note is the degree of involvement of U. S. students (including neo-Diasporan Africans), business people (those engaged in trade as well as those interested in developing trade relationships), and volunteer activists in formal and informal groups who work on diverse issues, from health policy to refugee services.

It is clear that there is an indirect impact even without implicit engagement. The importance of key individuals "quiet leaders" should not be understated. For example, one activist is a Presbyterian pastor who ministers to a small congregation, is part of a regional Neo-Diaspora group, brings Africa's issues to the regional presbytery, and facilitates a linkage between his congregation and a South Africa ecumenical organization. The work of this single individual facilitates people-to-people networks and increases public understanding of Africa's issues.

When asked about the extent to which they engaged in direct efforts to influence policy, however, the lack of engagement was striking. I asked interviewees the following specific questions:

  • Do your legislators call you about policy matters?
  • Have you ever testified before or lobbied Congress, or written a letter to a member of Congress? If not, why not?
  • Do you participate in campaigns or activist networks?
  • What would encourage your group to do more in this area?

The answers fell roughly into several categories:

  • Some interviewees said their organizations' mandates prohibited them from policy-related activity. These include not only government contractors, but also groups that have very specific mission statements, such as sister-city community organizations that focus on promoting people-to-people relationships.

  • Some said their organization did not work on policy matters because of a perceived prohibition. Some erroneously think that their 501(c)(3) tax status prohibits advocacy.

  • Others said they were so overwhelmed by the number of requests for advocacy that they are unable to prioritize the opportunities.

  • Others said they worked on policy issues, but had no direct engagement with national policymakers, for a variety of reasons. These include those whose work excludes national policies; those who work to influence local policy actors such as mayors and county boards; and those who see a national organization, such as the National Summit on Africa, Church World Service, or Bread for the World, as taking action on their behalf.

For the vast majority, their lack of engagement in policy advocacy did not come from the view that it was not important, but rather the assumption that it was up to someone else to do it.

Yet leaving it to national groups to communicate advocacy messages to policymakers leaves those trying to communicate alternative messages highly vulnerable to being ignored, particularly by busy members of Congress who are most attuned to their own local constituencies. The result is a missing link, clearly summed up in a paper by Susan Bales of the Frameworks Institute, written for the Aspen Institute's Global Interdependence Initiative.

In Bales's words,N

... policymakers complain that they never hear any citizen voices, except activist ones, whom they discount. Policymakers need to hear from 'trusted intermediaries, ' often defined as ordinary constituents, or at least those most likely to matter to their re-election, business and civic leaders, the heads of major endorsing organizations like teachers' unions, leaders of important swing constituencies like soccer moms and Hispanics, and the core voting groups like seniors.
[Susan Nall Bales, "Communicating Global Interdependence, " Frameworks Institute (, p. 35.]

Bales continues by adding that "sustained forums for powerful citizen voices to find expression to policymakers" are required over time to "create a policy environment that allows officials to break with the status quo, to find new language and policy options to overcome their timidity on global issues."

If Africa-focused national groups want to change the perception and the reality that African issues are unimportant to policy makers, there is no alternative but to work with local partners to enable such sustained engagement at the local level.

This material is distributed by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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