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Book Discussion – Defining Aid differently: Lessons from the Field. By Lambert Mbom

A Sideview of the Discussants


At the behest of the Brookings Institution, the public had the opportunity on Monday November 15 2010 to savor one of the latest publications on the Aid conundrum. The overarching point of departure of this work is that the current system of aid delivery is broken. In computer jargon, one could say the aid’s hard drive is corrupted and so needs a new operating system. It is important to note that according to the authors, the basic presupposition is that aid is indispensable to development. The moderator of this forum Dennis Whittle expressed it better saying, “Now is not the time to do different things but to do things differently.”

In setting the pace for the discussions, Homi Kharas (Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution) lays out the main problem thus that for over the last fifty years aid has been in existence with over $3.2 trillion pumped in and yet experimentation is still rife. One cannot do the same things and expect different results. In appraising the current aid terrain, one thing that became obvious was the tons of literature spewed out stem mainly from the donors and little to nothing from the recipients. Hence, it was incumbent to scour the fields and piece together what is working whence the subtitle of the book – Lessons from the field. The book then is the story of aid efficiency in six randomly chosen countries namely Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Kharas identified four crucial issues bedeviling the current aid delivery model causing the clog namely: the acute fragmentation between the donors, volatility, lack of coordination and lack of information. It is fair to claim that the whole purpose of this new book was to address these epochal challenges with antidotal paradigms drawn from the field.

Kharas strongly affirmed that the impact of aid depends on organization and on information. He used the example of Aceh in Indonesia to make the point. In the aftermath of the Tsunami, the creation of a database whereby planners were able to overlay maps of needs on top of a map showing where resources were being provided led to the discovery of gaps in the delivery mechanism. With this, programmers were able to reprogram some of the aid in order to meet the discovered gaps.

Tajikistan provided another chapter in the book that examined the complex issue of joint country assistance strategies.

Beyond these country success stories, the book also drew lessons from the humanitarian relief industry, which according to this first speaker has been relatively successful. The one endearing lesson of this brand is in the fact that it had successfully set minimum standards and basically developed a laudable system of division of labor, specifying who is doing what, when, where and how.

Development assistance has not as much begun this journey, which is complicated further by the emergence of new actors like China and other International NGOs to add to the traditional aid donors.

In the wake of the foregoing, there is absolute need for a new model for aid for the 21st century, a little like having new wine in old wine skins. In Kharas’ words, it is a model grounded on a fairly old idea…that aid should be a catalyst for a country’s development and not a driver for the development. Therefore, what is necessary is not just the organizational structure at the country level, but also the will power to make sure countries actually own the aid that they receive. Such a model is defined by three D’s namely Differentiated country by country to align with development priorities of each country; it has to be Diverse and Dynamic to accommodate changes in aid and development conditions over time; they cannot but be inclusive to bring some of the new players into the discussion. The 1948 example of KFW channel for the Marshall Plan funds in Germany and 1950s US assistance to South Korea models are historical antecedents worth replicating.

In the second quarter of the presentation, Wolfgang Fengler (Lead Economist Nairobi Office of the World Bank) drew lessons from his experience in three different scenarios namely middle-income countries, very poor countries and aid volatile countries. He delineated three overarching lessons from the book for more traditional institutions namely:
a) Leverage – so rather than the World Bank building roads and schools, it should rather provide the funding to the government to do so.
– Big players should do big projects and leave the small projects to the small players.
– To get leverage, one would need good working relations with clients both within and without the government. China in the Kenyan experience for example though a new partner has more leverage because she delivers on her promises and avoids worthless prattle.
b) Aid donors must learn to stay on top of things and connect the dots instead of adding more dots. The example of Aceh is instructive here. To be efficient, donors should eschew the omnipresent temptation of focusing on building monuments; rather they should help in the backroom, in the control tower. In the Aceh reconstruction project, the indigenous controllers of aid posed the right questions such as: How much money will come from the NGOs? How many houses can you build in one year? The World Bank rather helped with connecting the dots such as “counting the money, counting the houses and helping to set benchmarks.”
c) Information is crucial especially in this age and time. Central to this project is information gathering and information sharing. Donor agencies must not lose sight of the fact that people and not machines are still running things. People provide information. To this end, the creation of Development Assistance Databases is indispensable. Three fundamental mistakes from previously poorly designed databases to be avoided in future are a) these databases must incorporate a comprehensive approach together with a b) clear cut methodology and above all c) donors must remember to share the information with those who provided the numbers.

In conclusion, Wolfgang applauded the Kenyan experience that has set up an Aid Effectiveness Group where government and partners meet regularly to exchange views. Secondly, Kenya has made giant strides in Information and Communication Technology with its crowd-sourcing tool whereby in the post election crisis with cell phones used to send text messages or other information onto a web server that then put them on maps. In his recommendation then Wolfgang noted that “aid needs to leverage knowledge because knowledge and information are the hardest currencies of this century.”

Dr Suruma a former Ugandan minister of Finance now Senior Presidential Advisor on Finance and Planning Uganda and Distinguished visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution) had the last quota where he validated the findings of the authors from his experience in public service in Uganda. He summed up his remarks with four Cs: Compassion and concern, complexity of aid, competition among donors and communication and coordination. One of the great assets of this work for Dr Suruma is the fact that beyond the rhetoric, cynicism and skepticism on aid, there is still abundant evidence that altruism is the driving force in aid. Aid is not only interested in politics and ideology but is born out of genuine compassion and concern for the poor.

Translation of this concern for the poor into effective aid, Suruma surmises could be the main point of this book. Suruma noted that it is one thing to provide aid, but it is quite another to provide the right aid and to provide it in the right way.

Competition among donors better known as the politics of aid is quite common. Here Suruma noted that there is the need to accommodate the competing interests and ideologies of donors and recipients. There is the need for flexibility in dealing with the vast array of actors especially with the novel donors like China.

To this end, communication among donors themselves and between the donors and the recipients must be vigorously pursued. Donors and recipients must avoid talking to each other or worse still over each other but rather with each other. The flexibility of the Ugandan President, Suruma intimated has greatly enabled the country to procure a great deal of aid, which is flowing in as budgetary support. To facilitate this process, Uganda has a strong liaison unit within the ministry of finance that tracks foreign assistance.

With respect to specific issues, Dr Suruma pointed out problems with implementation frames designed by donors. He demurred the paternalism of some donors who think they know better than recipients; then deliver very poorly designed and complicated programs, which take years to implement. He also identified the public procurement process as one of the complicated problems in the aid business and there is a good deal of corruption in the process on both sides. There is need for accountability for both donors and recipients.

In conclusion, Dr Suruma opined that it is not just aid that brings about growth but also investment, foreign direct investment, good policies and political stability.
A transcript of this discussion is accessible via the following link:
http://www.brookings.edu/events/2010/1115_delivering_aid.as
This book is also available from Brookings Institution.

A Soiree at the National Press Club, Washington DC. By Lambert Mbom.

Tuesday November 9th was the day; 5.30 pm – 8.30pm was the time; National Press club was the venue. The Book fair was the event and fair in deed it was. Part of the charm of this event was in its noble mission “to help fill the school library shelves at The SEED School – a high-performing public boarding for undeserved students.”

It was a star-studded event. Even though too many cooks spoil the broth, many hands do light work. May not have been a Pulitzer award ceremony or an authors’ version of the Grammys, the Oscars, etc yet, in its own right it was an evening spent careening with the stars.

To be honest, it was a boring night and lonesome too even though the National Press Club’s ballroom was brimming and teeming. Not even the open cash bar enticed me that much. I just could not muster the courage to start a conversation with anyone. Not being a member of the club and having ridden solo to the event made it daunting, hitching a conversation hike with anyone. Who says I am not shy even though not of a saturnine demeanor.

Yet I relished every moment of the evening. I moved from reading the riveting articles of Gene Robinson in the Washington Post and watching him on primetime TV programs to the surreal moment of shaking hands with him.

Before this evening, NPR’s soft spoken and charming voice of Diane Rehm was all I had savored. She was honorary Chairwoman of this night’s Book fair & authors’ night. This fair afforded me the excellent opportunity to put a face to the voice and share her elegant demeanor and the warmth she so generously exudes.

George Allen somewhat conjured at least in my mind George Michael the deceased sports commentator whose sports machine shot him to popularity. Remember the bruising political season in Virginia, which saw the “political demise” of George Allen? It was the title of his book: “What Washington can learn from the World of Sports” that enamored him. If I could, I would provide a copy of this text to all those licking their wounds from the bruises of the last elections on how to cope with failures and for the frolicking members of Congress – on how to compete? Politics is also a game where the spirit of fair play and not the dog-eat-dog debacle should prevail.

Table 5 brought me up very close to Mark Halperin – Time magazine’s political jockey. I have read many of his reflections in Time magazine and watched him on TV. This “faciem-ad-faciem” meeting has its “weight in gold.”

My appetite for the event grew larger when I bumped into Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. By sheer coincidence or by design he was strategically positioned as he occupied the first table in the row opposite the exit – some sort of a table captain- reminiscing his brilliant exit strategy that saved 155 lives last year when he safely landed the US Airways plane on the Hudson River. I quickly examined my environment to be sure I was not in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum.

Finally yet importantly on my A-list was Gayle Haggard, wife of disgraced pastor Ted Haggard. Her contrarian stance during the contretemps of the husband’s repulsive scandal and how she stuck to her guns “for better, for worse” so atypical of this age is worth commending.

You would be wrong to imagine then that I must have left the event with at least six books from my stars of the night. In this age when the dollar is so hard to come by, I managed from a very tight budget to stroll back home with three books. I had to cut my coat according to my cloth and not my size.

The initial allure to this event got its ignition from Roy Peter’s text in grammar advertized on NPC’s website. Having embarked on a career path in writing, the need for me to master English grammar is cardinal. My sixth sense nudged me then to grab a copy of “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.

First, this book is a contemporary text published in August 2010; second, it was within a reasonable price range; lastly, its author is a member of the distinguished Poynter Institute, a place I am looking forward to explore and exploit.

Roy’s text was in competition at least in my mind with S Barry and K Goldmark’s, “Write that Book Already!: The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now.” Even though cheaper than Roy Clark’s which deals with the process of fine-tuning, Goldmark’s it would appear deals with the product, at least the manuscript. Getting it would have been akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Jack fuller was sitting next to Roy Clark and the title of his book was quite captivating. I am a news junky with an avid thirst and large appetite for news. In this case among the competing texts in this category, the enthralling title “What is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism” made me want it. Not wanting to judge the text by its cover, I thumbed through and three chapters namely The science of Journalism, The search of Story and lastly A New Rhetoric for News played the trick.

This “classic” I hope would help settle a personal conundrum: whether journalism especially `a la news is a dead career option. This is something some luminous voyeurs daily remind me of. What is more, it appealed to my immediate needs of validating or rather invalidating my insistent or rather stubborn inclination towards a formal career in journalism, or so I thought.

The competition was stiff here as George Allen’s: “What Washington Can Learn from the World of Sports”, Alison Dagnes’ “Politics on Demand: The Effects of 24 hour News on American Politics”, Kovach & Rosenstiel’s “Blur: How to Know What’s True in an Age of Information Overload?” all beckoned on me. I thought of casting lots given that they were within the same price range. It was his contiguous position to Roy Clark that led me finally to get a copy of Jack Fuller’s book.

Of the twelve categories of books at the Fairgrounds namely, Adult fiction, business, children’s food, history, lifestyle, memoir and biography, Poetry, Politics and Current Affairs, Religion, Sports and Writing, I had to go through a painful process of elimination. First, I really do not care about this fiction stuff fascinating and exhilarating as it may be, for it is too abstract. The excitement of imagination that leaves you empty in the end.

There is a tested theory among many immigrants that doing business is the epicenter of their success story. One must agree that not all of us can become business moguls especially for those of us for whom management especially of money is a herculean task. I personally lack the wherewithal and as the Delphic Oracle rightly admonished, “Man, know thyself,” I shy away very easily from engaging business of any sort. May be I need some pupilage in business and through some of these books I could learn the rudiments of the trade. Yet I must confess that truly, when a snake bites you, even a loose thread would frighten you.

The Children’s section was tempting enough but my two weeks’ old daughter still has some growing up to do before having to suffer through the vagaries of modern civilization. I still have some time before fatherhood’s distinguished chores kick in.

As for lifestyle, nothing could be far removed from my very short list than this. If as I imagined, this was about tastes and fashion, am surely of the old school stuck to some outmoded forms. I know that dressing is not my thing and has never been safe for occasional flamboyant donning thanks to the distinct flair of my wife. Believe it or not, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Fashion magazines are just not my thing and I trust the richness of my poor sense of fashion.

The least on my list was poetry. Poets are mystics at least in my world with ethereal etchings. This genre of writing comes with facility only to a select few. One needs a special inspiration to be able to figure out the argot of poetry. I love it if it is read out and staged out. I would not want to torture my already tortured feeble brains and so prefer to stay with the plain stuff. In fact, even as a gift, I swear it would wind up on my shelf left to gather the proverbial dust.

There was a whole section on food and drink. Even though I have a huge appetite for food, cooking is just one of those crafts that I lack not only the will power but also basic formation. The downside of attending a boarding school and also growing up in a house populated with sisters and aunts each trying to perfect their skills and outsmart each other. I know a good dish when I taste one even though I lack the mechanics of the process.

Guess what? If there were a cookbook with recipes for corn fufu, achu, eru, ndole, kati-kati, to name but these popular Cameroonian dishes, I would have rushed for it. Charity begins at home though while in Rome do as the Romans. Even my appetite for beer did not bring me close to getting Charles Bamforth’s “Beer is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing.

Only at personal peril will one not to turn to history for as they say we must look to the past in order to better live the present and plan for the future. It was a very interesting section on history broaching an assortment of issues from events to persons and then places. Unfortunately, these did not meet with my immediate needs and ranked very low on my scale of preference.

I love memoirs and biographies. Former President George Bush’s memoir published on this Tuesday November 9th paradoxically did not make it to the fair. This is so for obvious reasons. Sequel to this frustration and in protest, I could not care the least about the memoirs and biographies that were in display. By the way, buying books just for fun is not a level I have attained yet especially with a bleeding economy. Yet I would have given up everything to get a copy of Bush’s memoir autographed by him.

The Religious category especially within the background of this secular age should have been the first most compelling section for me not out of any pious overzealousness, pomposity or show off but rather for the very want of this piety. After all, it is the sick that need the doctor and the Spiritual doctor himself declared: I came for sinners.

You would bet that Mpho Tutu’s: “Made for Goodness: And why this makes all the difference” would make it to my desk. This is obviously so because even though resident in DC, this work is authored by one from the great continent of Africa – one of the few African authors in this mix. Has it not been proclaimed from rooftops that, “If you want to hide something from a Black person, put it in a book.”

Secondly, Mpho is the daughter of the revered Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu (co-author). After all, isn’t greatness somewhat genetical too? In addition, if not genetical, may be by association. This does not take away the strength of her own greatness. However, I imagined with her “priestessly” benediction, I too could become great by association even though as a Catholic this benediction would be anathema. I saved this for some other time.

Yet I had to defer to the “painful choice” of procuring Eugene Robinson’s “Disintegration – The Splintering of Black America.” I had passed around Gene’s table a couple of times while whiling away time but was not tickled enough; I finally decided to have an avant-gout not of his style (which I already relish in his column in the Washington Post) but of his content. He sure is the first African American author I am going to savor. The reason this text wound up in my hands is due to the major thesis of his assessment that there has been a seismic sociological paradigmatic shift in Black America. To talk of contemporary Black America in homogenous terms is not only disingenuous but also myopic. This resonated very much with me as I had toyed with this idea in an earlier article. What better validation could one get than this?

As I left the National Press Club, I wondered whether I had had a run for my money. Was this a worthwhile investment or expenditure? I am used to buying books mostly online where I normally get a good deal. In fact, I usually order a cheaper version of the same text especially when I get a used copy in excellent condition. I just checked on Amazon and Jack Fuller’s text which I bought for $25 now sells at $16.50 if I was buying it new and was I to get a used copy it would be $11.47. The entry on Amazon for Roy’s book is something like this: Buy new: $19.99 $12.98 37 new from $10.83 11 used from $10.02. I could get a used copy. So what was the deal with this book fair?

I am sure it had everything to do with getting the author’s autograph on purchased copies. With the autographs, these books take an added form: memorabilia. Roy and Fuller both asked me what I do. In response, I said I am testing the waters. In my autographed copy, Jack Fuller signed off with the words: “May you find the waters fine” while Roy penned off thus: “Our next great writer. Cheers.” It is in honor of these comments that I decided to bore you with these ramblings. In all, it was an evening well spent.

Rallying the African Diaspora Caucus in the US:The Challenge of our Time. By Lambert Mbom.

Pre-election forecasts and post-election exit polls often focus on the Hispanic vote. By sheer dint of their numbers, Hispanics in the US constitute a force to reckon with. They have understood the mechanics of this system and slowly but surely made their way from the fringes to mainstream.

In my early years in the US, it was often fascinating seeing job adverts that listed bilingual qualification of prospective candidates as a conditio sine qua none. I quickly revised my French lessons and knew I would be better placed than most candidates. Sooner than later, I got the rude awakening that bilingualism did not mean only English and French but rather any two languages and in this case English and Spanish. It dawned on me that one is better off with Spanish as a second language and there is no denying it that one greatly improves his chances of landing a job by this qualification. This says something of the Hispanic caucus.

In the last election cycle, the huge Hispanic turnout in key battleground states paid off; Harry Reid, for example, the most endangered senator in the last election who had his seat on life support owes his victory in part to the Hispanic vote angered by Angle’s anti-immigration ads.

In the light of the foregoing, one may rightly ask – where are the Africans?

Africans are surely lost in the madding crowd of “African American” and are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues. Most of us are on the wild goose chase for the dollar. Only at the risk of being myopic can anyone minimize the myriad of issues assailing African immigrants from both families and friends on the one hand and the daily challenges of the capitalist world on the other. Talk then of an African caucus seems more like a pie in the sky.

Unlike the Hispanics, we lack the numbers. The exact number of African born immigrants to the US eligible to vote remains a mystery of our time. A wild guess would cap the total number of African immigrants in the US at roughly four million. One would be exaggeratedly generous to assume that about one-quarter of these is eligible to vote. It would seem then that the African Diaspora pales in significance and any talk about it rings hollow. Yet, there is no gainsaying it that we are the architects of our own destiny.

First, it is important to highlight an important distinction. Africans in the US Diaspora need to draw the line with their “siblings” known as “African Americans” even though many think otherwise. In the US conference of Catholic Bishops for example, the department that handles African affairs is that of Cultural diversity where Africans for some strange reasons are lumped under the general class of migrants, refugees and travelers. (I must hasten to add here though that there is a special solidarity fund for the Church in Africa).  This is even very common with application forms where the different race categorizations leave the African immigrant with hobson’s choice of filling in African-American as his race. 

The average African-American considers the African immigrant at best third class. One may be exaggerating the reality but it is sadly true that there is a discernible novel form of racism (for want of a better term) namely that of African-Americans against the African immigrants. The checkered past of the African-American marred by the heinous racism seems to be catching up with the average African-American who in an unconscious attempt to pay back for this crime scapegoats the African immigrant. Those of us certified bus riders in the DC metro area, or those in the caring professions for example will attest to this reality. Our strong accent or so they claim betrays us.

It is akin to the kind of xenophobia reported in South Africa. Reports of blacks’ hostility to other Africans are rife; the former claim that these African immigrants to South Africa have come to take away their jobs.

Even though the African Diaspora shares common concerns with the African-American caucus, it will be an oversimplification and a stretch to paint all with one broad stroke. The African American has no immigration problem for example and even with a seemingly common problem like unemployment, it hits the African immigrant at a different angle. The need for an African Diaspora Caucus cannot be belabored. Yet as usual this caucus is its own best enemy.

The one lesson the midterm elections of 2010 has proffered us is the indisputable role of special interest groups. Politics is truly a game of interests so aptly described as “scratch my back, I scratch your own” (excuse the pidgin, which simply expresses the truism that politics is a benign form of trade by barter). The African Diaspora has special interests realizable within this framework.  

The hackneyed expression: “little drops of water make an ocean” should propel all to action. Vestiges of this caucus are visible in the laudable World Bank initiative dubbed the African Diaspora Program (ADP) launched in 2007. Even though the ADP is geared specifically towards harnessing the avalanche of resources and pooling together the variegated talents for the region’s development, this is a milestone step towards setting up the caucus. This is a framework that could be positively exploited for enormous political gains.

In seeking to navigate US political landscape, the African Diaspora must borrow a leaf from the Hispanic caucus. Three lessons worth drawing on are first Hispanics have made their voices heard and articulated their plight; next they have put their money where their mouth is and lastly they are an organized bunch.

 Hispanics have made no secret of the fact that immigration is their foremost headache. Even though Africans in the Diaspora share this malaise, they have hardly raised their voices loud. Events meant to highlight this issue receive scan attention from the African Diaspora. Immigration is not just the problem of the undocumented or generally those ineligible to stay and work in the US legally. While Hispanics take care of their own and support a protective cocoon around their illegal immigrants, African immigrants are largely at best nonplussed and at worst vicious.

 In fact, it is common among some African communities for peers’ immigration status to be the topic of local gossip and chatter; some of these less fortunate brothers and sisters are even held up to ridicule. Stories abound in the African community, of people calling immigration agents on their folks even when unprovoked. Others use it to settle scores in retaliation for failed romantic exploits or other grievances.

I must acknowledge this is hasty generalization and an unwarranted romanticization of the Hispanic community. Hispanics are not a homogenous bunch and harbor deep seating differences. Given their geographical proximity to the US with a long history of interaction with the US and so this comparison is as farcical as it is ridiculous. Nevertheless, they are a minority too and proffer the African immigrant some lessons.

One must with the same breath also say that there are disparate attempts made by different African communities to address the immigration saga, for example. The Ethiopian community in DC for instance has a laudable support system that grooms its ilk in braving the immigration “wahala”. Yet the larger point here is given that “unity is strength”, it is incumbent on the African community like the Hispanics to forge these initiatives into a veritable and formidable bloc.

Shouting on rooftops hardly amounts to anything without the corresponding power of the purse. Here again, we find the Hispanics excelling. They put their money where their mouth is. Money plays a crucial role in any political campaign. The just ended midterm elections eloquently affirm this. The playing turf was populated with special interest groups with competing interests each trying to outdo the other and have their favorite candidate carry the day.

Once again, there is no denying it that at the personal level, many African immigrants contribute to different campaign platforms. There are business magnates who dole out dollars in support of their preferred candidate. The bigger point here though is that if these campaign donations are pooled together into a common fund such as an African Diaspora fund, what a big haul this would be; then from this fund, donations to the designated candidate’s political treasury, under this umbrella, will make a great difference and impact.

This is an opportune moment to rally momentum for this cause as we look forward to 2012. The African Diaspora must insert itself in some very meaningful way into the complicated architecture of US politics both at the macro level in terms of Presidential elections and at the micro level in terms of congressional elections.

 Even though Hispanics are disappointed that their vote to Obama in 2008 has not yielded the desired dividend, one thing, which is clear, is, they are no pushovers. If the top-bottom model is failing, the Hispanics in quick revision are trying the bottom-top pattern. It is fascinating to see how many of their own are being put in place to parade the corridors of power. If you doubt it, ask Republican uprising star, Marco Rubio of Florida. Hispanics are inching their way to the ninth yard and one guaranteed fact is that soon, there shall be a touchdown.

Seek ye first the political kingdom and all your needs will be fulfilled is a philosophy Hispanics understand so well. The question for the African immigrants is who is “our own man” along these corridors of power? If African immigrants cannot get their own sons and daughters in such high places, then let them court some influential political heavy weight lifters.

The last lesson to be drawn from the Hispanic caucus is the fact that these folks are able to succeed largely because they have an incredible network and are well-organized. The Obama success story centered on grassroots mobilization. If anything, this is the biggest challenge for the African diaspora to surmount. This is so because organizational leadership is the Achilles heel of many African organizations. An initiative like this meets with bumps ab initio as one finds people who say it is either they are in charge or they are out. This is the time to put aside petty differences, sink selfish egos and unify the base.

The starting point for this initiative will be the creation of African synergies in the different metropolis such as New York, Washington DC Metro area, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Minnesota where there is an impressive presence of African immigrants. Then from these hubs, there could be a central body: African Diaspora Caucus.

Many may not be able to vote but let none hear any idly saying there is nothing they can do. Making the African voice heard in the very crowded supermarket like US politics needs the vuvuzela of grassroots mobilization. The moment is opportune and the time is ripe. Let us piggyback on the World Bank initiative and explore this for the establishment of the political kingdom of African Diaspora in the US.

The Rise of the African Caucus in US Politics and the need for a stiff spine. By Lambert Mbom

Of the immigrant population redefining US demographics, Africans constitute the least threatening. They lag behind the Hispanics and Asians. It is important to make the distinction between African born immigrants to the US and the broad category of African Americans considered “sons and daughters of the soil”. I work with an individual a native-born African American who stunned us all last week when he charged at an African immigrant nurse saying it is time for the person to return to Africa for the simple reason that the African failed to identify a bottle of apple juice he had asked to have from the refrigerator. Let us leave this for another reflection.

In the general class of blacks in the US, one would find the native African American descendants of slaves from the colonies; then we have those born in the US of African parentage; when we throw into this mix those from the islands – the Caribbean etc an interesting potpourri emerges. For the sake of this analysis, we are not concerned with any of the foregoing but rather streamline our subject to those born and bred in Africa who by some circumstances beyond their control have the blessing of being in the United States of America. It is those generally referred to as the African Diaspora. This group, small as it is, is sure becoming an important caucus and voting patterns or party leanings are worth paying attention to.

The rising stardom of the African caucus comes out in the fact that DC government has an office on African Affairs that advises the mayor on the needs of African immigrants resident in the district. In May 2009, Governor O Malley of Maryland signed an executive order creating the commission on African affairs. In October 2008, Prince George’s county Maryland, had taken the bold step and created an African Trade Office. It is instructive as it is telling to note that these counties, the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia are all democratic nerve-ganglions.

Of interest too is the fact that for the last two election cycles there has been a Cameroonian gunning for the mayoral seat in DC. Two weeks ago, I got a text inviting me to a meeting between the Governor of Maryland and a council of traditional rulers from Cameroon.  Earlier on in the summer, a friend’s brother who works with the federal government organized an event in his Fort Washington home in honor of Michael Jackson campaigning to be Prince George’s county Chief executive. These and more set me thinking and curiosity got the better side of me as I asked myself if we have the political influence to pull the shots?

Some weeks ago, I randomly worked up to a gentleman working in Rite Aid whom I suspected must be Ethiopian. I asked if he was an American citizen. No was his response. Then I further quizzed that if he were a citizen for which party would he vote? He flatly told me he is apolitical. He has no interest in politics, he confessed adding that he would rather not be involved.

This is definitely not atypical of African immigrants. Ask the average African Joe about the forthcoming elections and you will be shocked at the yawning ignorance. This antipathy is  unexplainable just by the fact that many are not eligible voters but also to a great extent, it is not unconnected with their history of political engagement in the continent. Elections in Africa have generally not made a difference and worse still some have a checkered past. Politics simply tastes sour in the mouths of many.

When I got to work that same day, I managed to continue my unofficial survey. This time I met two colleagues one native African American and the other naturalized American from Sierra Leone. To my question which party would you vote for, both immediately answered – democratic party, of course. This may be the rationale of this anecdote: A Republican and a Democrat were walking down the street when they came to a homeless person. The Republican gave the homeless person his business card and told him to come to his business for a job. He then took twenty dollars out of his pocket and gave it to the homeless person. The Democrat was very impressed, and when they came to another homeless person, he decided to help. He walked over to the homeless person and gave him directions to the welfare office. He then reached into the Republican’s pocket and gave the homeless person fifty dollars.

My African American coworker intimated that any blacks I see in the Republican Party are those whose pay grade is above the average middle class. They belong to the elite class. My friend was shocked to learn that if I could, I would vote Republican anytime.  When he sought to know why an average person like me would commit such political suicide, my answer to him was simple: The Republican party even in its elitist contraptions paradoxically scores superlative grade in my political litmus test namely a healthy pro-life agenda.

Aha! There you go – this one issue guy.  Just as you should fear the man of one book, so too should you fear the man of one issue. It is not just an issue among issues but the issue. After all the true greatness of any civilization is measured by how it treats its weakest members. Bill Federer applies it better when he says, the greatness of America is in how it treats its weakest members: the elderly, the infirm, the handicapped, the underprivileged, and the unborn.
Then the famous pattern comes in again. Republicans! Pro Life? Gimme a break. How about their overt support for the death penalty? Have you forgotten that they are warmongers? Think of Iraq and Afghanistan. The seamless garment argument crops up again. Let us leave this aside for a different paper. While it is myopic to say Republicans are essentially pro life and democrats are pro choice, there is no denying it that many more Republicans are pro life than democrats are.

Pope John Paul II affirmed that of the chest of values the African is blessed with, that which stands out is the fact that “the sons and daughters of Africa love life.” In other words, Africans are essentially pro life. Is a Republican leaning then not logical?

To change the model, even if we were to avail of the liberal vs. conservative model, given the average African’s sworn attachment to the status quo, his umbilical attachment to the traditions and customs of his ancestors, one would not be wrong to find the closest parallel in the Republican Party.  One cannot but wonder why the sentimental attachment to the Democratic Party?

The point here is that African immigrants to the United States generally vote democrats or have sympathies for the Democratic Party. To understand why this is the case, let us focus on the question: what is the number one issue in this election for African immigrants? It sure is the economy.

Cameroonians will for example loudly remind you that when Bill Clinton was in office the exchange rate of a dollar to the cfa was 700fcfa. Fewer dollars translated to more fcfa. The main thrust of the argument democrats are putting forth runs something like this: Clinton handed a surplus to Bush who after a similar eight years handed over a deficit to Obama with an economy in the recession. How do we expect a turnaround in just two years? Any ways this is not another Presidential election year but the democrats set themselves up for this mess. They promised a messianic triumphalism with the coming of Obama. He seemed to possess the magical wand or so they made us believe. Many of us have a short attention span and so attention deficit is not the exclusive preserve of a few psychos. If the Obama administration cannot deliver in the short term, what guarantee is there, that it will in the long term?

If the economy is truly issue number one, consistent with the logic of change, it is time to try the Republicans again. Africans are definitely taking the brunt of the housing crises both in terms of the fact that some unscrupulously had the pride of having homes even though they could not pay for and also the fact that some went into the real estate business as a source of their livelihood. In addition to this housing crisis, I contend that the average African immigrant would complain not of unemployment but rather of underemployment.

Yet one issue that tea party movement has been drumming this season is the fact of the absolute need for small government. The balance seems to be tilting in favor the Republican Party would do a better job with cutting spending and reducing the size and influence of the government. This is no doubt a turnoff to many African immigrants who grew up in a spoon- feeding system as it were. Government had the answers to all problems.

This hullabaloo about Obamacare and its socialist trappings actually makes a lot of sense to the average African immigrant. Even in the best mixed economies, the government is often the greatest shareholder. In addition, if Mbiti is right about the African conception of personhood encapsulated in the saying: “I am because we are and since we are therefore I am” then the more the bla bla bla of socialism is sung, the more attuned to the Democratic Party is the African immigrant. Lest we forget, this is America and not Africa. Let me hasten to say here that it will be wrong to accuse me of painting the Republican Party as an embodiment of the true ideals of capitalism and the Democratic Party socialism.

A related issue of crucial importance to the African immigrant is immigration. On this again, the Democratic Party for some strange reason seems to score very high marks. To the Republicans, immigration is more a national security issue and so lean towards a hard line strict enforcement policy while the Democrats view it as the opportunity to “renew the American community. There is consensus among African immigrants that Democrats have a more open door policy towards foreigners than Republicans do. Without any substantive facts, some claim that more Africans get entry visas to the US  when you have a democratic President in office than when you have a Republican. Did President Bush not fight so hard to ensure that he passes an immigration bill while in office? Paradoxically, the Houston Chronicle reports that Obama administration touts record-setting deportation figures (ICE figures). While there are many qualifications necessary to understand adequately this trend, it is nevertheless significantly revelatory. One must admit that the immigration issue is very dicey especially in the wake of US national security and its borders. Is this not a symptomatic issue from the immigrant’s perspective? What is it pushing us out to the US?

 In my opinion then, aside from these two issues, I will personally think that US foreign policy with respect to Africa is of prime importance. The real problem is with those dictators and gerontocrats frolicking our lands unperturbed. These dictators are part of the reason some of us packed bag and baggage and moved to the US for a kind of voluntary slavery.  

With a simple evaluation tool as carrot and stick, one could simply say that Republicans have a reputation for the stick while Democrats use more carrots. Paul Seingels puts it better when he says for the Republicans the principle is national strength through self – reliance and so rely primarily on superior military. They see no need for treaties and agreements and so work only with those nations that follow US leadership to transform dictatorships into democracies while Democrats subscribe to the ideology of national strength through cooperation and so encourage discussions, treaties and agreements relying primarily on diplomacy. In this domain, Republicans are more robust and proactive and when they mean to they would smoke out these dictators within a twinkle of an eye. Democrats are more “softies” while Republicans are more hardliners. If anything, African immigrants need to vote more Republicans to weed out the club of monsters running the control tower in Africa.`

Be it as it may, many African immigrants would prefer to be back home if conditions were just minimally optimal. The luxury of the American dream comes at such great peril and so huge a price.

 It is significant to know that in 2000, democratic President Clinton passed the AGOA act bilateral trade relations between the US and Africa. The benefits of this notwithstanding one of the central concerns for African growth namely Agriculture is yet to make its mark in AGOA. While in 2003, Republican President Bush passed the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) holds a place in history as the largest effort by any nation to combat a single disease. One may also point to the fact that two former democratic Presidents namely Carter and Clinton have foundations with enormous commitments among others to Africa; yet there are two past Republican Presidents Bush 41 and Bush 43 do not seem to enjoy a similar popularity. Yet we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. The records speak for themselves.

Yet even if we could, most African immigrants are not eligible to vote. The question then is what if anything could be the role of non-voting African immigrants in US elections? How can they rise to be a political caucus worth its weight?

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