JTA / May 17, 2006
By Larry Luxners
WASHINGTON — Fifty years ago, even before most of today's African nations had achieved independence, Israel began a program of technical assistance that would endure for decades.
On May 5, the American Jewish Committee — continuing that tradition — inaugurated the Africa Institute, an effort aimed at promoting economic development in the world's poorest continent.
"We need to understand Africa and engage it," said AJC's executive director, David Harris, in announcing the initiative. "We live in an interconnected world, but this can't simply become a mantra we repeat, rather an objective we fulfill. We have created an institute for Europe, an institute for Asia and the Pacific, an institute for Latin America, and two other institutes which are thematic rather than regional. Now, with the Africa Institute, we are truly poised to engage the world and to make clear the priority we attach to this continent by dint of its size, geography and resources."
Harris spoke at AJC's 100th annual convention in Washington, before an audience of 500 people that included the ambassadors of half a dozen African countries.
One of them was George A. Obiozor, Nigeria's ambassador to the United States.
Obiozor, who served in Tel Aviv prior to his current posting in Washington, said Nigeria — with 150 million people Africa's most populous country — has had strong ties with Israel dating back to the days of 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 [with the Yom Kippur War]. But it picked up again in the early 1980s, ironically beginning with Egypt.
"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 idea of launching an Africa Initiative began in 2001, following a meeting between top Jewish leaders and South African President Thebo Mbeki.
Last September, Bergman and Eliseo Neuman, the institute's new full-time director, traveled to Lagos to meet with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and other leaders. One result of that meeting was a visit by Nigerian Foreign 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 air service between the United States and Nigeria. It has also initiated a dialogue with the Nigerian diaspora in the United States, said to number more than a million.
"We have a lot to learn from Africa, but there are many stereotypes to be worked through," he said. "The AJC 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 pointed out 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."
For the last five years, an unrelated organization, the American Jewish Congress, has had 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 the organization's assistant executive director, Marc Stern. "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 unprecedented protests over the continued genocide in Sudan's Darfur region. But 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 AJC should work closely with the Israeli government, which has been helping Africa since 1955, when it formed a partnership with Ghana.
"Tikun olam, repair of the world, is not only a central element of Judaism but also a matter of significance for Israel and its evolution," he said. "By creating the Africa Institute, you give tikun olam concrete, practical reality. 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 AJC 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."
Likewise, Phillip Carter, director for West African affairs at the U.S. State Department, praised the AJC'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 Cameroun," 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. Go visit, see it, touch it."
Yet investment doesn't come without a price, and Rasool urged Jewish executives to take the moral high ground when considering investments in Africa's 53 independent nations.
"In addition to sending out a general invitation to do business in Africa, there's also a moral set of limits. This is the AJC's unique contribution to Africa's call for development," said Rasool, who among other things has served as National Secretary of the Call of Islam, which had strong ties to South Africa's United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid group.
"If you cannot enforce an ethical standard, then you could be anybody advocating on behalf of Africa. If your'e not allowed to bribe in America, you're not allowed to bribe in Africa. If you're not allowed to deal in stolen diamonds in America, you're not allowed to deal in stolen diamonds in Africa."
He added that 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 practitoners in law and health-care," he complained. "They are keeping economies running all over the world, except in Africa. So 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."