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Diplomacy in Action

Diplomacy Briefing Series: Conference on sub-Saharan Africa

Judith A. McHale
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Washington, DC
June 14, 2010


MR. CROWLEY: You’ve heard a great deal of discussion today and most recently with Jim about engagement--how the United States relates to and communicates to the rest of the world. Some of this comes formally through government-to-government contact, but increasingly through technology. It comes through communication between and among people. And we, the United States, are significantly focused on not only the attitudes that people have around the world to the United States, but how we can better provide people with perspective and information technology so that they can succeed in the dynamic environment of the 21st century. And the person who is spearheading our communication with the rest of the world including our communication with Africa is the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale. (Applause.)

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Thank you, P.J. It’s a great pleasure to be with all of you today. Africa, as many of you may know, has been an important part of my life from my experiences there as a teenager to all the years I spent at Discovery doing great programs on Africa and now at the State Department.

In my current position, I’m constantly looking for opportunities for public diplomacy to contribute to our valuable and valued relationship with the nations and people of Africa. You may know that Gallup Polling and Meridian House recently reported that the approval rating of the United States in Africa in 2009 was at 83 percent, well above the rating for all other regions of the world. But of course, with this high approval matched by equally high expectations, the promise of this Administration to work in partnership with African countries is going to be closely scrutinized and evaluated by the citizens of those nations.

Our relationship with Africa must involve comprehensive engagement with the people of Africa as well as with their governments. We need to tell the story of what our government and the American people are doing to address some of the continent’s greatest challenges: empowerment of women, adequate nutrition, representative and accountable governments, tolerance of religious and ethnic differences, job creation and economic development that encompasses all parts of society.

But we can’t just speak. We must also listen and learn. We must ask people throughout Africa about their priorities, their perceptions, their interests, and their concerns. We need to listen to their responses and then engage them in ways that are relevant to them. This is a new way of understanding what global leadership means and requires in a world changed by the spread of connective technologies, the increase in the number of electoral democracies, the rise of new national powers and non-state actors, and in a world where the serious challenges we face cross our national borders--from climate change to nuclear nonproliferation. Today, our embassies across Africa are using a broad array of public diplomacy strategies and programs to reach wider and more diverse audiences. Let me tell you about a few of the ways that we’ve gone beyond traditional dialogues with government officials or elites to engage with all sectors of society.

When President Obama traveled to Ghana in July, 2009 our embassies throughout the continent reached out to Africans and asked them to send in questions by SMS and mobile platforms. The response was incredible. Our public affairs section in Pretoria, South Africa used a popular, free instant-messaging application called MXit to greatly expand the opportunity for Africans to reach out to President Obama. In its 48 hours online, the MXit platform drew over 250,000 questions. And no, the President unfortunately was not able to answer all of them. (Laughter.) The Embassy and the NSC worked together, however, to select representative questions which the President then answered by a podcast that would broadcast on radio stations across Africa. What we were trying to do was have a blend and a mix of new connective technologies and old media, traditional media, radio, television, things like that.

When Secretary Clinton made her seven nation trip to Africa last August, social media and the internet played a major role in spreading information about where she visited and what she said. This included embassies relaying photos and tweeting about her visit in real time in Kenya, South Africa, and the DRC. A vibrant discussion developed among Africans, the African Diaspora, and global Africa-watchers on her visit and the themes she raised.

As many of you are aware, the State Department has a program to bring nearly 500 African leaders to the U.S. every year on three-week exchange visits. Groups have recently focused on grassroot democracy, transparency, conflict resolution, political participation, religious tolerance, public health, and women in the law. Some of you or members of your organizations have met with our international visitors leadership program participants. And I’d like to personally thank you all for sharing your views with them.

Delivering on a promise made in Cairo last year, President Obama held a summit on entrepreneurship in April. With the assistance of public affairs officers in the field, 23 Africans from 10 countries attended representing private countries, organizations mentoring young girls, media concerns, and social organizations devoted to improving employment and access to capital. I’m happy to say, Africa had the highest percentage of women participating from every region in the world. One delegate, Rehmah Kasule from Uganda, established her own marketing firm with an eye to creating jobs and opportunities in Uganda. She designed a national export strategy focusing on enabling Ugandan women to join the export sector. Attending the summit allowed her to tap into existing programs created by other entrepreneurs, and, as she herself said, “Bring transformational change to enable me to create a new generation of women leaders.”

This summer we are bringing a group of 38 women business leaders from Africa for a two-week professional exchange. While they are in the U.S., they will also be able to participate in the 9th Annual Africa Growth and Opportunity Act forum to be held in Washington and Kansas City in August. A fund for public diplomacy innovation, which we initiated just this year, will assist a unique joint publishing venture in Gambia that will strengthen the independent media in that country and help give people there access to more information in the run-up to that country’s election in 2011.

For the upcoming elections in Guinea, our Embassy plans to organize digital video conferences to brief journalists and offer SMS technology to help citizens and election officials develop and manage a transparent electoral process early next year.

In Mauritania, Secretary Clinton’s special representative from Muslim communities, Farah Pandith met with university students to talk about Islam in America, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and how young people can play a role in their country’s progress. The discussion aired as a podcast on the Embassy’s website. A group of these students then created a Facebook group called Association of Mauritanian Moderate Youth to voice their concerns about intolerance.

In Somalia, we are supporting the peace process by assisting Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to build capacity to communicate effectively with the public while disseminating accurate information about U.S. involvement to the Somalia Diaspora community.

We have also provided funding to the Ministry of Information focused on radio and internet outreach. Cultural programs also contribute to our relationship. Our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs launched a new partnership with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) called Dance Motion USA that brings the very best of American dance to other countries. Africa was one of three regions selected to receive a group, “Evidence,” led by noted choreographer and dance pioneer, Ronald K. Brown. The group traveled this year to Senegal, South Africa and Nigeria, where thousands of people saw their public performances and students and youth participated in their workshop.

These are only a few of the exciting public diplomacy programs we have carried out in Africa recently and we have more in the pipeline. We look forward to working with all of you as we continue to seek out ways to expand and shape the relationships between the people of Africa and the people of the United States. Since I’ve been in the State Department, I have the great benefit – I think it’s a benefit – of traveling all over the world. And I keep saying to my folks, “When do I get to go to Africa?” And they kept telling me they were holding that off because they knew that’s really where I wanted to go. (Laughter.) So I’m happy to say that next week I’m actually heading out and I will be going to Nairobi, to Kampala, and to Kinshasa. So I’ll finally be going home.

So thank you very much for giving me this chance to talk to you this afternoon and I’d love to take any questions, comments, ideas or suggestions you might have for us. Thank you. (Applause.)

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll start over here and then work our way back. Start here. Wait for the microphones coming your way.

QUESTION: First of all, Gabino Guerengomba. I’m actually a technology entrepreneur, but I’m also the president of the Central African Association. First and foremost, it’s great to see you again, boss lady (laughter) because I used to work for her at Discovery Channel for about seven years. And basically my question comes to one of the greatest tools that I think you created while at Discovery--the Global Education Partnership. And I think – one of the thing I’ve kind of pointed out with all the presentations that went on today, it’s that there’s no clear and concise plan to work with Africa in a different way than was done 15 years – 50 years so far, which obviously hasn’t worked, meaning working through governments that are corrupt and working locally does not give much leverage to the local to actually have an impact. So my question to you is are there any initiatives to clearly engage the African Diaspora which are the best Africa has to offer? And you don’t have to go far to find them. They are right here in business incubation, programs that actually leverage the African Diaspora resources to actually create a private sector and stabilize the society systems in Africa.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: That’s a great question, and I think one of the things that we are trying to do. If you note from my comments, it’s all about how engaging with people in different sectors of society rather than approaches that we might have taken in the past. In terms of working with Diaspora, we very much want to do that and we want to figure out ways of doing that. Because I think one of the roles that we can have at the State Department is, if you will, as a catalyst and convener. We’re looking at how can we bring like-minded individuals and groups together and, frankly, get government out of the way and let them sort of go ahead and initiate some of these projects. So we’re looking at a number of activities and ways of doing that. And the Entrepreneurship Summit was actually one of those ways where we brought entrepreneurs from Africa and other parts of the world to the United States to meet with their American counterparts. So we’re looking at a number of ways to do that. And frankly, I think the African Diaspora is a critical component of that as we go forward.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for your presentation. My name is Frank Forka from the African Leadership Empowerment Council. My question is maybe a little bit out of place because I’ve listened to the presentations. But I was thinking that in terms of preventive measures, we need to set up, maybe, a working group. As the previous speaker just said, we have a lot of resources--Africans in the Diaspora. If we don’t have any plan that we can use to evaluate the discussions we have here, then it is just useless. But what I want to find out is from the perspective of really engaging the President’s message to Africans and what all of you guys are doing from that perspective – especially in the Bureau of African Affairs and with specific attention to Cameroon; the 2011 is an election coming up.

But what I want to find out is what the State Department is doing specifically in Central Africa in Cameroon. Ambassador Janet Garvey is doing a lot in Cameroon. She has been a person that has been put in this issue of constitutional distortions in Cameroon and talking a lot about what is going on. In 1992, the election didn’t go well. There is this issue of secession between Southern Cameroon and the Republic of Cameroon. So that’s another time bomb that is coming up. So what is the State Department doing concretely so that we can put all of these things in the framework of moving ahead and engaging the Diaspora? Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: I probably can’t answer the specific question on Cameroon right now, but I can get back to you with that. But one of the things that we are very much looking to do is to look at how we can bring interested groups and parties together to help us address some of these issues. You mentioned some of the electoral issues that you’re going to be facing. And I think what we’re trying to do is develop new ways of engaging with civil society in countries as they approach critical elections to be sure they have the information and the resources they need to participate in the electoral processes within their countries. But unfortunately, I don’t have the specific information on Cameroon.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. Shirley Rivens Smith with U.S.-Africa Sister Cities. For 25 years we have been a grassroots volunteer organization that works with Diasporas. And I think it’s very important for us to focus on how to get grassroots people involved. In America, if you don’t educate people about Africa, we will continue to hear about individual countries, but we won’t hear about the continent itself and how we can just bring people from the continent together to work with people in America and across the world. So I’m just hoping that through diplomacy that we will work on this and that will be one of the ways we can do it.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Well, one of the things that I did before I came into the State Department was to work with the Africa Society to expand information and knowledge about Africa. And I absolutely agree. And we’re trying to do that. There’s a lot of conversation about we need to build bridges. People talk about that a lot. And I think one of our ambassadors pointed out to me that bridges have two-way traffic. It’s not just us talking about America going out, but we also have to find ways of having that dialogue and information sharing so that we are actually learning more about the countries of Africa as well. So we’re looking at that through our exchange programs and some of the virtual exchanges that we’re doing-- to expand that base of knowledge about each other and make it a two-way street.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madam Ambassador. I’m Bonie Chungong. It looks it like Cameroon has a majority of the people in here today. (Laughter.)

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Where’s my Cameroon expert?

QUESTION: I am part of a group of leaders of a big umbrella Cameroon Diaspora organization and my question has already been asked by my compatriot here. We’ve been here for a few hours and I keep hearing we are doing this with Africa without any mention of the Diaspora community, when working with the Diaspora is a win-win situation for the U.S. policy towards Africa because here you have people who will pay allegiance to the red, white and blue flag of the United States but have what you call intrinsic knowledge of what goes on in Africa.

I can tell you that it will be a cheaper policy because there are things I can tell you about Cameroon that you would need a mission to just to go find out. So I hope you will keep to your promise to my brother here. And I can tell you that the African Diaspora community organized itself a long time ago and it is very, very vibrant. You just have to put a little bit of effort and work with these people. And for those of you who didn’t know, Cameroon lost today, but right now I pay an allegiance to my red, green, and blue. (Laughter.) Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Let me just be really clear. We do value relationships with Diaspora communities in the strategies we’re developing. There are no better ambassadors for us, frankly, to help bridge communications between our two countries. So we’re very much interested in doing that and I think you’ll hear a number of programs.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for being here, Secretary McHale. I wanted to know – I’m Ajanet Clemens from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. And I wanted to know, one of the most exciting things about the digital revolution has been the movement of innovation and creativity and intelligence from the center in institutions to the periphery where everyday folks and even kids can make contributions. AndI’m so glad that you talked about new media and new technologies. My question is, what do you see as the role of social media and new media in terms of democratic participation and the development there as well as economically. How are the regular everyday folks going to be using these and gaining leverage?

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Well, I’m sure you all know that the take-up of mobile phones across Africa has been one of the fastest growing probably in the world and the impact that it has had on people’s lives. And what we’re trying to do at the State Department is leverage that to actually provide information and services that people can actually use. Before I came here, one of the things I was doing was beginning to launch a venture fund to help small and medium enterprises across Africa. I then came here and we put that on the shelf for the time being. But when I traveled around Uganda, I saw these informal commodity exchanges beginning to take place everywhere.

Kenya, I think many of you know, has a very vibrant mobile banking, M-Pesa, which we looked at and modeled a similar one on. We took what we saw happening in Kenya and we were able to take that to Afghanistan and launch a similar service there. One of the interesting things about new technology is because so many countries in Africa have come late to the development, they’ve actually leap-frogged and the applications that they’ve developed for mobile telephony, for one, are far more advanced than many of the things you’ll see in this country, which is why I always say we not only have to talk to people, but we have to listen and we have to learn. There’s a lot that we can learn. I would expect to see that.

We are interested in how we can, as the U.S. Government, tap into those mobile networks to provide information that people can use very directly on their phones, in their communities, whether it’s tele-medicine, tele-banking, all of that. But, frankly, I find a lot of the innovations that are taking place in Africa are actually teaching us how to do a lot of things. You mentioned democracy. I think this is a hugely powerful tool. Again, it’s all about providing people with the information they can use right in their locations. But we’re trying to have a balance and a blend. It can’t all just be about new media and connective technologies because there are many parts of the world and many parts of Africa where that’s not necessarily available to people. So we’re trying to maintain that balance. I talked about the President doing podcasts. Well, not everyone has access to the internet. So we recorded the podcasts and then bicycled them – literally, in some cases – to radio stations across the continent so that people could have access. So we’re trying to be very open to provide people with as much information as we can to help them.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Alexa Carkenny and I’m a biomedical engineering and medical student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. And recently this year we established a partnership between our university and two hospitals in Gambia and in Mozambique. And I personally worked in Mozambique training and working with local technicians on equipment repair and developing maintenance strategies together so that the lifetime of biomedical equipment and devices can be prolonged. And I was wondering if you could please share some of the efforts at the State Department in the area of capacity building, empowerment, and diplomacy specifically in healthcare and in the medical profession, such as the transfer of technology or educational exchanges so that aid is not only delivered, but also sustained.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: A lot of the work that you’re talking about is undertaken by other government agencies: USAID and others. What we are trying to do, though, is to facilitate exactly those kinds of connections and, through our conventional exchanges, where we bring people to the United States or we send people overseas. So that would continue. We’re also looking at how we can expand virtual exchanges and connect universities in one country to another. And so we’re very much looking at how can we use technology to do that. A lot of the on-the-ground capacity building that you’re talking about might come under USAID. But one of the roles that we think the State Department and our teams who are on the ground there can do is have an understanding of what it is a particular country needs In what sector. And really be the ones who bring those resources together, sort of be the catalyst that links someone in an African country who has the need for a particular technology with someone who could provide it here.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Samuel Tesfaye from Ethiopia. It’s very difficult sometimes to engage the embassies in Africa. Usually, it’s bilateral. How can they better engage civil society or journalists?

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: How can we better engage broader in society?

QUESTION: Yeah, I mean the embassies are caged compounds and it’s very difficult to access them.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Yes, we are very aware of that as an issue, frankly, not only in Africa, but around the world. At the very moment when we understand the importance of actually going out and engaging very broadly in societies, many of our embassies have become sealed off – not sealed off, but very difficult for people to access. And so we are looking at new ways, everything from mobile centers where we can actually go out into the marketplace and interact with people. We are working with all of our officers to find new ways to get them out into communities. And frankly, we are actually working with groups of businessmen, academics and others in the United States so that when they go, that they go to schools, they go to universities, they meet with business people and really get out of our embassies. I think we feel we’ve paid a price for that and we’ve become disengaged and we’re doing everything we can to change that. In some cases, in Ouagadougou for instance, we had a free-standing library which was scheduled to go into our Embassy and we are keeping it as a free-standing library. So we’re revisiting everything we can to try to get ourselves out there more.

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll make this the last question.

QUESTION: Thank you. Eric Chinje from the World Bank. I’m head of global media development in the bank. My question is on media in Africa, which is pretty much in a crisis right now, especially independent media. And obviously I don’t see how we could have viable democracies without a credible and a valuable independent media. Now, there are some efforts in Africa right now, the African Media Initiative and the African Media Leaders Forum, two very important, independent initiatives by African media professionals. But unfortunately, I think the United States is not very active or not present in these initiatives and I’m just wondering why.

UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: I agree with you. I think that an independent media is actually the strength of any democracy. I think it has certainly been the strength of our democracy and I’m not saying that just because I came from the media either. I really believe that that it is important. And I think one of the roles that we can have is to constantly engage with governments to continue to make them aware of the importance of a free and independent media that that will just strengthen their country, but you are met with resistance. So we’re also looking for ways to work with civil society organizations like the ones you mentioned. They’ve come in and met with me and we’re in conversations with them. We’re also looking at opportunities to convene meetings of journalists and media executives who may be facing similar challenges so that they can develop solutions. So this is a top agenda item. It’s certainly for me. When I go out, one of the things that I do is meet with media organizations all over the world so that we can continue to have that conversation.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you. (Applause.)

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