Ajcommittee’s Africa Institute to Promote Economic Development

Fifty years ago, Israel began a program of assistance to Africa that would endure for decades. The American Jewish Committee continued that tradition earlier this month, inaugurating its Africa Institute, which will promote economic development in the world’s poorest continent.

“We need to understand Africa and engage it,” said the committee’s executive director, David Harris, speaking at the AJCommittee’s 100th annual convention in Washington to 500 people, including the ambassadors of a half-dozen African countries.

One of them was George Obiozor, Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States. A former envoy to Israel, Obiozor, said Nigeria — Africa’s most populous country — has had strong ties with Israel dating back to the days of David Ben-Gurion.

“In Nigeria, there’s a deep-rooted admiration for Israel, a little state that turned itself into a veritable breadbasket and an island of prosperity and freedom,” he said. “Israel recognized its need for Africa’s friendship and kept giving aid until the relationship collapsed in 1973.

“Today, we have a visible presence of Israelis in many areas, particularly construction, tourism and telecommunications. I would like to invite the Jewish community to come to Nigeria and help us. It’s good for Africa, and it’s good for Israel.”

Stanley Bergman, chairman of the Africa Institute, told JTA the initiative was hatched in 2001, following a meeting between Jewish leaders and South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.

Last September, Bergman and Eliseo Neuman, the institute’s director, traveled to Lagos to meet with Nigerian leaders, including President Olusegun Obasanjo. One result of that meeting was a visit by Nigerian Cabinet Minister Obiageli Ezekwesili to Israel in March.

Since then, said Bergman, the institute has written to the U.S. Department of Transportation, supporting Virgin Atlantic’s bid for direct flights between the United States and Nigeria. It also has initiated a dialogue with Nigerians in the United States, who are said to number more than 1 million.

“We have a lot to learn from Africa, but there are many stereotypes to be worked through,” he said. The AJCommittee “has a history of promoting pluralism, human rights and interreligious dialogue. We believe that what’s good for all minorities in any country is good for the Jewish people as well.”

Bergman said that by 2040, “perhaps half of the American population will trace its roots to the developing world. The demographics are changing, and the Jewish people need to reach out to the developing world, which will be so important to the future of the United States.”

The American Jewish Congress also has an Africa program, under the auspices of its Council on World Jewry.

“We’ve been devoting extensive efforts on building relationships with African countries and their diplomats in the United States,” said Marc Stern, the AJCongress’ assistant executive director. “On our side, we raise questions about Israel, and they raise questions of their own. There are pressing human needs in Africa. Whenever we can, we’re helpful to their causes as well.”

The Africa Institute’s formation coincides with prominent protests over the continued genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. Ebrahim Rasool, premier of South Africa’s Western Cape province, added that “while Darfur is a human tragedy of the worst kind, we must ensure that this does not become the defining image of Africa.”

This, he said, requires a renewed effort to bring peace to trouble spots such as Angola, Congo and Somalia, all of which have been impoverished by years of civil war.

Yehuda Paz, chairman of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, said the AJCommittee should work closely with the Israeli government, which has been helping African countries since 1955, when it formed a partnership with Ghana.

Calling such efforts “tikkun olam” — a Jewish concept that means, roughly, repairing the world — he added, “The issue of development is the cardinal issue facing the world in the 21st century, a world in which one out of every six people live on less than $1 a day, a world in which 46,000 children die every day of diseases related to bad water and bad food. And the front line of development is Africa.”

Princeton Lyman, director of Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, urged the AJCommittee to translate its efforts into constructive relationships.

“People tend to think about Africa more as a charity case than as a partner, and that’s a mistake. There is so much going on over there,” he said. “What this institute can do is establish relationships over the long term that will make a difference and promote the development of Africa.”

Phillip Carter, director for West African affairs at the U.S. State Department, praised the AJCommittee’s decision to focus on Africa, and he called on its members to consider investments in everything from cut flowers to wine exports.

“The Africa Institute will be able to foster a greater understanding of opportunities for the United States. Right now, there’s an Africa brand. That’s what the world sees. They don’t see Mali or Cameroon,” said Carter, who has served at U.S. embassies in Madagascar and Gabon. “I encourage the institute to use its resources to encourage American Jews to travel to Africa.”

Rasool said something must be done to stop Africa’s brain drain.

“This is one of our greatest problems. It’s not that Africa is a lost cause but that Africa is losing its best intellectuals, technicians and practitioners in law and health care,” he said. “We’ve got to create the conditions of peace for them to return. That’s why investment in education and technology transfer is absolutely critical, and in this regard, the Africa Institute can play an important role.”

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