Africa is No Longer an Academic Exercise for Americans: It’s Essential for Our Economic and Security Interests, says Bernadette Paolo, President and CEO of The Africa Society

Ms Bernadette Paolo, President & CEO, The Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa/Photo: The Africa Society

Remember those images of Africa in the western media–which often irk you to turn off the TV…?  Those doom and gloom images of “The Dark Continent” marooned in the backwaters of war, poverty, and under-development?  Those grim depictions of “African savages” running naked in the jungle with bone in their noses, burning “the white man” in a huge black pot..? Well, a group of African and Africanist intellectuals have for years been running a calibrated set of projects and programmes to educate Americans about Africa to help de-link Africa from those “doctored” or overblown negative images known in journalese as “Template” – A pre-determined set of rules being applied by majority of western journalists (when reporting Africa)—to elicit sympathy or disaffection. The Africa Society is the entity that is carrying out this huge task.

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As the outgrowth of the National Summit on Africa, which was launched 1997 with the largest mobilization of Africa-focused groups and individuals in U.S history, the summit’s Dialogue and Celebration of Africa altered the nature of U.S policy on Africa in the year 2000. Over the years, The Africa Society has carried out educational programs (on Africa) targeted to the youth, policy makers, and the general public—Among which are: Teach Africa, the Presidential Tours of Africa Series, Conversation and Dinner with African Ambassadors Series, the Issue Forum Series, and the  Ambassador Andrew Young Lecture Series. It has also collaborated with the Travel Channel to run Africa-focused documentaries reaching over 700 million audiences worldwide. In this exclusive interview, Bernadette Paolo, President and CEO of Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa, shared with Alhassan Yushau Babalwaiz, AfricaNewsAnalysis (ANA) North America Editor and UN Correspondent, some of the key achievements of the society since its Establishment; her views about U.S foreign policy on Africa; her hopes for Africa and expectations of its leaders, as well as expectations of the up-coming US-Africa Leaders Summit.

AfricaNewsAnalysis: In a nut shell, what are the key achievements of the Africa Society over the years?

Bernadette Paolo: Africa Society has made inroads in changing the negative stereo-typical images of Africa that abounds not only in the US, but in the West, in a strategic way that targets specific audiences—beginning with the youth. Through Teach Africa, we’ve oriented super intendents and principals. We’ve also, in partnership with leading universities in the US—such as University of California, Los Angeles—UCLA, and Georgetown University; trained 1000 teachers, and had Africa emerging programmes for over 10,000 high school students. Perhaps to me, one of the most significant achievements after that was partnering with the Travel Channel and African governments for the Presidential tour of Africa series led by heads of states who were interviewed by reputable journalists such as Forrest Sawyer and Ticki Baba. The Africa Society has also been part of the coalition that has effectuated great change in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoir. We worked with the State Department to bring about stability in those countries at a time of great crises. For us, being a part of the Africanist community means coming together to address key issues in tandem with African Ambassadors. We’ve also had a 15-year partnership with Howard University’s Ralf Bunch Center on farming, drought, and tourism among others. We also worked with the Library of Congress during the third year of implementing the Conversation with African Poets and Writers Series.

As part of your Teach Africa advocacy, does the society run a media-specific programme to push for a balanced approach to reporting Africa?

Bernadette Paolo: We had at one point run a media curriculum that would enable the beneficiaries to separate facts from fiction as they saw it. We’ve done DVC conferences where they can see one another, and talk to one another. We brought people from all walks of life who through their experience, saw the contributions, the complexities, the cultural diversities and languages, as well as the promise and potentials of the 55 countries on the continent. I did an article for a newsletter we had internally—which was picked up by the Voice of America—about the negativity of African reportage. When have you ever gone to see a film in the US about Africa that depicts it favourably…? Apart from Mandela, King of Scotland, Idi Amin. Yet you do see documentaries that talk about HIV aids, child soldiers, and rape and inequality of women.  You don’t see films that showcase positive things about Africa, that talk about the fact that six of fastest growing economies are on the continent. Even in the US, you would not know that Africans are among the top wage earners among the immigrant population. They also have the highest level of achievements but their contributions aren’t being showcased. I wonder why we don’t do films about Africans who throughout the ages have accomplished incredible feats.

Can you tell our readers the wisdom behind the choice of the speaker for this year’s Andrew Young Lecture Series?

Bernadette Paolo: The position of the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs is important to the Africanist community (i.e. non-profits, think tanks, civil society groups that advocate for Africa). That person is the one who imparts what the policy is of the administration in power. If you don’t know what the policies are or have no contact with that person, then you are basically out of the loop.  But my purpose for selecting her was more than that: people from all sectors have to be engaged through the provision of knowledge about the continent of Africa. It’s no longer an academic exercise for Americans. That continent is essential to our economic interest in addition to our political and security interest.  And we take that mission very seriously. Through the lecture series—during the past 12- years, beginning with Andrew Young Lecture Series, we’ve brought leaders to the public who but for that platform at various embassies, they would not have the chance to meet.

African leaders will gather in Washington this Summer for the first-ever US-Africa Leader’s Summit. How significant in your opinion, is this meeting and what are the key elements in the U.S foreign policy towards Africa that need improvement or change?

Bernadette Paolo: Firstly, I think it’s historic, very important. It’s never been done before. Secondly, I think it shows that there is ever-increasing awareness of the continent of Africa’s prowess, and the necessity for increased and sustained engagement and partnership. Even though, we don’t have all the details about the dominant themes of the conference, I think they will be around democracy, good governance, trade and investment, and collaboration on global security. There has been a change in US Policy from the paternalism of the past to more of a partnership paradigm, but I do hope that more egalitarian relationships would emerge in the future.. What I hope is that there will be dialoging — where Heads of States can exchange views, where all parties at different points can participate fully — rather than being dominated.

In spite of a few hot spots on the continent, growth prospects remain relatively robust in Africa — which, according to the UN, will go up 4.7 per cent by the end of this year. What are your hopes for Africa, and expectations of its leaders towards an Africa free of poverty and under-development?

Bernadette Paolo: I’m an Afro-optimist. But I’m also aware of the elements that can halt these economic growths. These statistics are very encouraging. Africa has both the natural and human resources to be a major player in the international markets. Its ascendancy is contingent on its governments, on its ability to end the cycle of violence that in some countries is on-going, and to ensure that the resources are equally distributed. Africa will rise if it educates its youth, if it affords women equal opportunity. There is a co-relation between the employment potential of women and the wealth of nations. But politically, we presently have two Heads of States on the continent who are females. The U.S has not reached that point yet. Perhaps the U.S can learn a lesson (from Africa) on how women are rising on the continent in the political sphere.

About Bernadette Paolo

Bernadette Paolo was named President and CEO of The Africa Society in 2006, succeeding the deceased President and Founder of the organization, Leonard H. Robinson, Jr. Prior to assuming this position, she served as Vice President of The Africa Society and Vice President of The National Summit on Africa. She was also the Summit’s Director of Field Operations, responsible for organizing six regional summits throughout the United States, outreach and mobilization efforts, and serving as an in-house Legal Counsel. Ms. Paolo was also instrumental in the founding and development of The Africa Society, and in creating and executing its educational programs. Ms. Paolo has more than 25 years of experience in international affairs that includes an extensive career of 12 years in the U.S. Congress. For more than a decade, she was a professional staff member on the Committee on Foreign Affairs, now the House International Relations Committee. During that time, her positions included Staff Director and Counsel for the House Subcommittee on Africa, Deputy Staff Director for the Subcommittee on International Operations, and Staff Consultant and Deputy Staff Director of the House Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations.

While on Capitol Hill, Ms. Paolo represented Congress in 43 countries in the roles of negotiator, investigator, election observer, and arbitrator. In addition to managing Subcommittee staffs, she was responsible for formulating strategies and policy determinations for Members of Congress, as well as writing key pieces of legislation, speeches, and articles pertaining to foreign policy issues. Ms. Paolo also worked as an international consultant with a private law practice in Washington, D.C. for four years. During this period, she advised foreign and domestic clients on economic and policy issues, and provided analysis and research on a wide range of subjects, including human rights, international trade, and electoral procedures. She also served as a criminal defense attorney.

Her other work experience includes teaching English at the secondary and university levels, as well as writing professionally. A native of West Virginia, Ms. Paolo received her B.A. from West Liberty University, her M.A. from West Virginia University, and her J.D. from Antioch School of Law. She is a member of the District of Columbia Bar and the West Virginia Bar. She was appointed to the Presidential Trade Advisory Committee for Africa under Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama from 2008 through 2012.

Leadership of Africa Society

As the epitome of the Africa-focused intelligencia, The Africa Society has been inspired by over two dozen honourary co-chairs such as Dr. Edward S. Ayensu, Jacques Diouf, The late Hon. Lawrence Eagleburger, Dr.  Kathryn Fuller, the late Dr. Dorothy I. Height, James A. Johnson, The Hon. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, The late Hon. Jack Kemp, C. Payne Lucas, The Hon. Richard G. Lugar, the late Dr. Wangari Maathai, The Hon. Alhaji Ahmed Makarfi, the late President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, The Hon. Donald M. Payne, Ambassador Thomas A. Pickering, Bishop John Ricard, David Rockefeller, The Hon. Ed Royce, Rabbi David Sapperstein, The late Hon. Paul Simon, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the late Rev. Leon Sullivan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and The Hon. Wellington Webb. The Society has equally been spearheaded by a seven-member board of directors which include: Ambassador Andrew Young (Chair Emeritus), Noah Samara, Timothy J. Bork, Ambassador Ayelew Mandefro, Dr. Leroy P. Gross, Luddy Hayden and Dr. Ali Mazrui.