Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!
Print this page
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 Please note that many outdated links in this archived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 http://www.africaaction.org
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
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 - http://www.thenation.com and
(2) "AIDS in Africa," by Salih Booker and William Minter in the
Foreign Policy Association's Great Decisions 2002 Briefing Book
http://www.africaaction.org/action/aids2002.htm; 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
Weaving the Ties That Bind:
Report from an Assessment Project
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/products/messagememo.pdf), 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.