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Virtual conference via Skype with Young African Leaders – Thursday November 18th 2010 – US Summit For Global Citizen Diplomacy. By Lambert Mbom

Yet another highlight of the US summit & Initiative For Global Citizen Diplomacy was a virtual session on Skype under the distinguished aegis of technology guru David Nassar of Hot Spot Digital between 11 of the 21 scheduled members of the President Obama’s Forum on Young African Leaders representing 11 countries and some American Companies with representatives from IBM, Google, Whitaker group, and CDC Development Solutions.

One of the first interventions from the African side painted in broad strokes the challenges young African entrepreneurs face daily namely, inaccessibility to financial resources, lack of basic skills training in such areas as writing business plans, lack of mentorship. This caller appealed for the creation of internship opportunities to meet this yawning gap.

In response, Tim Docking from IBM, acknowledged the challenges and pointed to an incredible tool, which could help meet some of the challenges. This is the small business tool kit accessible on http://www.smetoolkit.org. This is an incredible resource tool put together by IBM in partnership with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. This resource kit is properly tailored to meet the needs of different regions of the world.

Then, from Ethiopia, the cry was for help with women entrepreneurs and the complaints here ranged from lack of access to markets especially US markets, mentoring and coaching, product accessibility to the famed problem of lack of access to financial credit due to the banking policies generally unfavorable to young people who lack the needed collateral securities for loan guarantees

This contributor then shared the example of a Dutch company in Ethiopia that sends experts from Holland to help mentor women and access international markets. She called on the US companies to emulate this example, send business experts to Africa, and help facilitate access to US markets.

Aubrey Hruby, Managing Director of the Whitaker group poked the minds of many with her very incisive and though provoking comments. How is this network of Young African leaders going to change the way business is done in Africa, she quizzed? How is it going to be useful? The network needs to be provocative. Unfortunately, Aubrey opined, the network hasn’t many entrepreneurs and so is hampered ab initio. It needs to expand to bring in more entrepreneurs.

One of the African participants chimed in to say that the problem is not the dearth of entrepreneurs. The network has a vast talent pool laced with incredible potential but like many other things in Africa, many of these entrepreneurs are killed before they are born.

From Gambia, there was an appeal for contacts and potential sources of funding. For this group to become effective, it must coalesce around a common agenda and get the State department to help. This conference is a call to action for the group to come together and set forth a gripping agenda.

Yet another participant pointed to the problem of lack of access to information; Niall with Google Kenya, intimated that two major ways of accessing information in Africa are either through mobile phones or through the web. There is the need to build a tech environment with links to different events for example. Google provides trainings for such projects and he then circulated a link on training opportunities provided by Google to those on the web.

David interjected at this point to sum up that this far the most acute need is for a convening power for the group around a focused agenda and asked who the right conveners for this forum are.

Aubrey once again harped on the flaws of the African Leadership summit saying she was not sure what came out of it. She asked if the group had become an effective partnership.

Discussions now turned on why the enthusiasm that greeted the African Young Leaders forum in DC had waned. One participant pointed to the great problem of distances as many are far apart but quickly added that one should not lose sight of the fact that this is work in progress.

Another said they came back from DC to a different reality back home and back to a different environment. She revealed that at a country level, they are engaged but not at the macro level.

Aubrey chimed in once more to say we know what the issues are lack of mentorship, training etc. She noted rather blandly and bluntly that from its genesis, this group was never founded on strategic grounds; given that the State Department had fixed deadline to get a group together, there wasn’t enough time to scrutinize and get the group organically formed and so the current problems are not surprising.

However, there is an enormous opportunity now to transform the group with a real agenda and measurable outcome(s). The group must seek its value proposition and advance its agenda concluded Aubrey.

Other proposals included a call for members to start meeting at a national level before convening successfully at a continental level. The Gambian experience was set forth as an example to emulate. There is already in place a network of Gambian professionals, which serves as a platform for progressive ideas. As the African proverb has it, we must first dance at home before we can dance abroad.

In conclusion, the question that had dominated the discussions was: is the network really a network and how can the strengths be harnessed to strengthen the network?

Deirdre of CDC Development solutions promised to help relay the concerns brought forth and the fruitful conversations to the State Department.

David rounded up the conference by reminding all that change will not happen organically except participants start figuring out things strategically.

Interview with Ann Olsen Schodde and Dr David Roe by Lambert Mbom.

In an interview with Anne Olsen Schodde, President and CEO of USCCD she defined Citizen Diplomacy as “the engagement of individual American citizens in primarily voluntary, private sector programs and activities that increase cross-cultural understanding and knowledge between Americans and people from other countries, leading to greater mutual understanding and respect”.

She distinguished it from Public Diplomacy which is conducted through specific activities and programs under the auspices of the federal government that promote positive and credible perceptions of the U.S. generally, and of U.S. foreign policy specifically.

In today’s global society, the two are interconnected. The U.S. Department of State supports some citizen-to-citizen exchanges that involve artists, scholars, professionals, government officials, and youth. Those programs are largely dependent on private sectors partners to carry them out. Non-governmental actors – business, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individual citizens – play major roles in shaping the attitudes of foreign publics toward the United States.

The major success of this event according to Ann and David is in the fact that:
a) It had energized and excited many people already engaged in citizen diplomacy especially in k-12 and higher education

b) There was the renewal of the importance of the concept of citizen diplomacy and the crucial kick of the campaign to “double the number of Americans engaged in international activities that address global challenges of the 21st century to 120 million Americans by 2020”.

When asked if he thought the conference was racially inclusive enough, Dr David Roe pointed to the plenary session on International Corporate Social Responsibility led by the indefatigable Ingrid Saunders Jones who had moved from Detroit to Atlanta for a student exchange program and had remained there. She brought along with her a group of black youngsters to this conference.

He did not hesitate to remind me also that the current President of the Peace Corps is a priceless jewel brought in from Board of USCCD.

He also pointed to the fact that there were many black faces in attendance from all over the world.

Dr David then addressed the question of the perennial issue of fragmentation within International Aid and development agencies. He noted that some agencies had revealed that they never knew USCCD was involved with partnerships. Part of the primary focus of USCCD, Dr Roe went on, is to facilitate interconnections with and between businesses, NGOs etc. Currently, he went on, the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy boasts of 1100 US organizations connected on a central web portal focused on getting these organizations to work together and function properly.

On the question of difficulties and challenges besetting the organization, Dr. Roe pointed to the hydra headed monster of lack of financial resources. He lamented the fact that the organization had four underpaid staffers.

When challenged on how they were going to measure the success of their campaign, Dr Roe indicated that achieving those numbers is crucial but beyond and above this, getting dedicated organizations to address these global issues is cardinal and critical to their mission.

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