Africa: New Directions for Historic U.S. Africa-Focused Organization

Kofi Appenteng, President of the Africa-America Institute
22 January 2020

The New York-based Africa-America Institute (AAI) is one of the oldest, most-respected institutions connecting Africans and Americans. Founded in 1952, under the name African-American Institute, it has provided scholarships, educational opportunities and skills training. More than 16 thousand Africans have earned undergraduate and advanced degrees and leadership skills through AAI programmes, continuing their connections through an active alumni group. AAI's emphasis for 2020 and beyond is two-fold – demonstrating that African public universities can reform in ways that prepare students for productive livelihoods and a focused effort, called Africa Illuminated, to improve the quality of information about Africans and the Diaspora and to challenge stereotypes.

Last year, AAI inaugurated an African Diplomatic Orientation and Engagement event, hosting over 60 government, private sector and non-profit organization thought leaders, with representatives from 20 African countries. The African diplomats said it was among the most useful support they had received since being posted to Washington, DC and expressed hope that it would become a regular event.

AllAfrica's Tami Hultman spoke with AAI President and CEO Kofi Appenteng about that gathering and about AAI's plans to continue the long tradition of partnering for education and "enlightened engagement".

You speak about thinking bigger and thinking differently. Can you give some examples of what you mean?

Part of the inspiration for us at the Africa-America Institute is to help orient and engage with the African diplomatic corps to work more collaboratively for a better Africa. We think the rising interest in Africa has created an opportunity to really change things in multiple ways.

We think there are opportunities for all of the stakeholders to benefit from various initiatives. An example would be: in the United States, when they decided to have a national railroad system, every corner of the country benefited. Today, I don't think anyone would dispute that the size of the U.S. economy would not be what it is without amazing infrastructure.

On the African continent, all the stakeholders – that's the governments, the corporations, the citizens - are being held back by lack of infrastructure. Why can't we come up with a common agenda for the kinds of investments that need to be made to transform and grow the African economy and grow markets for everybody.

How can AAI be part of that process? And do you have other examples?

We think it is important to address the cost of travel to and within Africa. It constrains all of us – and includes the cost of trade, both within and among African countries – which, but the way, has benefits for everybody, not just the countries that are involved in this trade.

I was at a 'Reinventing Higher Education' conference at Brown University - a conference that Spain's I.E. University and Brown University had been doing for the last decade. I was very much interested in how much interest there is in Africa. There may be very powerful alliances that can be made in the higher education sector on the African continent and in the United States for investments that allow the higher education sector to integrate and to grow.

Everybody understands that the future of Africa is going to depend on how successful we are in developing human capital. We are going to have the richest human talent pools in the history of the planet. Why don't we all band together to figure out how to address this in a way that is going to improve the world for all of us?

The Africa-America Institute itself has a long history in higher education. Is there a way that you as an institution would like to be and can be involved in the new possibilities to work with and support African universities?

Yes! At AAI, we want to use the history we have, the tremendous alumni we have hailing from 52 different African countries and who reside on the continent and in many places around the world and who are very strong in the United States. We want to be a place to ask questions and to be part of how one can effectively coordinate a response to address these things that need to change. So we are launching an African higher education collaborative. It is starting in West Africa, where we are in conversations with three major west African countries about how they can set an agenda for their graduate education to become globally competitive in 10 years, and where all the stakeholders - that includes governments, educational institutions and young people -  the whole structure is built to benefit. The private sector understands that if they want to grow, Africa's got to be part of that growth plan, because that's where young people, future employees and job creators, are being created in unprecedented numbers.

You can be considered a well-educated person and know virtually nothing about Africa.

We're also trying on a global basis to integrate knowledge about the role of Africa and the achievements of Africa into the core curriculum of higher education institutions. I think all of us appreciate all the amazing things that have happened in Europe and in North America. We also are learning more about what's happening in other parts of the world. But you can be a very well-educated person – and considered so – and know virtually nothing about Africa.

We believe that such a lack of knowledge shapes attitudes. If you don't learn about Africa and its role in the world and Africa's history and achievements when you're learning about the achievements in the rest of the world, that predisposes you to discount the importance of Africa and to not appreciate the value of Africa's history. We also think that, for African descendants, it's important that they see themselves as part of these stories. There's an absence of African descendants – especially women, who have made incredible contributions – in the history of the world and in contemporary society.

This kind of approach, which integrates history from early age through higher education, is going to be critical. And the way to do that, we think, is through collaboration with higher education institutions who produce our teachers, who produce the institutions that set curriculum.

Describe the event for African diplomats accredited to the United States and what it was meant to accomplish.

The inaugural orientation and engagement program for the African diplomatic corps is something that we created in response to requests we've received – for a couple of years now – about how AAI can play a more active and constructive role in helping the representatives, both in Washington and New York, be more effective and have a chance to collaborate more.

Our hope is that the participants are re-energized, because one of the things we affirm is how important their roles are. We want to build relationships with them to start to develop more programming that they find really helpful. So all the panels were constructed based on feedback we've had about topics of interest.

And then we brought leading Americans who are invested in the future of Africa to come and engage with representatives of individual countries, who also have a collective interest in the prosperity of the continent.

How do events for the diplomatic corps and other AAI work relate to developing leadership for peacebuilding across Africa?

A lot of the conversation at these events and informal discussions among participants are about global conflict – all over the world now it seems – and about how there needs to be leadership to solve them. There can't be higher education without peace. There can't be healthcare delivered without peace. So we must ask what is the role of leadership and focus on the importance of peacebuilding in Africa.

All conflict comes from a failure of leadership.

I believe strongly that virtually all conflict comes from a failure of leadership, although it's very rare for there to be a conflict where there isn't tremendous blame to be laid on all sides. Political leaders decide that they love themselves and their agendas more than the people that they're sworn to represent. But now many African leaders are choosing love of their people above conflict. That's a very, very encouraging trend.

We obviously have far to go. And so at AAI we are really proud of our relationship with institutions that are working on that kind of leadership. For example, Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana is working hard to instill ethical leadership in its graduates, who are doing work at a globally competitive level. There are many other examples, and they are all important and deserve our support.

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