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A Right Presidential Flop

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Yesterday kicked off the African Presidential Roundtable organized and run by the African Presidential Center at Boston University.  The aims of the event are noble –the roundtable brings together former African leaders, experts, university academics, student, and some private corporations to discuss pressing issues facing Africa.  For the past two years, that theme has been Energy.  The former President’s of South Africa, Benin, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Mauritius, and Cape Verde have come to discuss how Africa can ensure a sustainable energy supply that will promote investment and development.  This is no simple task and the debate needs to happen.  But it is too bad that this event consistently falls short of achieving anything of substance.

The event is generously funded by USAID as part of their education outreach.  This suggests that it is really meant to have an education focus and indeed, many of the participants are from institutions of higher education in Africa and in the US. Typically, this two day talk shop takes place in an African city and is affiliated with an African university.  This year, it happens to be my institution Wits that is hosting.

I can’t really claim much credit for any of the organization as this was something that was taken on by the Vice-Chancellor’s Office due to the high profile nature of the event.  Indeed, much logistical consideration needs to be put into hosting this number of former African leaders.  However, I think that more effort is required to put this event together than what is achieved or returned.

This is largely because where the APARC event excels in creating the opportunity to really dig deep into important questions facing the continent, it falls flat on substance and impact.  Where the APARC event provides opportunities for American and African youth to interact with former African Heads of State and learn from these impressive characters, the event often results in little interaction between these figures and the leaders of tomorrow.  Where the event creates the chance for building cross cultural understanding between a diverse grouping of African and American citizens, it often takes on a paternalistic tone where our American friends laud their return to the “motherland” and seem to think they can save Africa from itself.

All of this comes screaming across in almost every aspect of the proceedings.  For example, a colleague from Boston University came all the way to Johannesburg to tell us that higher education is important to invest in to build engineering capacity which brings energy capacity.  Correct..an established fact that I think Africans well understand.  When asked to perhaps discuss what was happening on the continent and how continental initiatives such as the African Union’s Second Decade for Education help or are working – the speaker was stumped and resorted to standard lines about improving gender balances and promoting intra-African institutional cooperation.   These are not unique issues to Africa and don’t really get to the core of the problem – which ultimately is infrastructure and availability of financial capital.

When we all sat down this morning to begin the “substantive” part of the discussions… a majority of the academics and students were shunted off into a separate room to watch the proceedings via closed circuit television. Including those of us from the host institution.  This act in and of itself is really shocking given that academics and students are meant to play a central role. How are we, the ones who are supposed to be important contributors to the debate, meant to participate?  Where is the space for critical discussion?

I don’t mean to be all negative about this exercise – the chance for students to meet and partake in such an event is incredibly valuable.  Often, it results in traveling to an African country (I have taken students to Tanzania and Mauritius for APARC events) which then brings in the whole notion of internationalization. As well, it is a clear chance for business to connect with influential African leaders that works to promote debate. Indeed, this seems to have become a central focus for APRAC meetings  For this, USAID and APARC need to be congratulated given the issues of accessing financial capital that I just metnioend.  But more thought could be placed into how to maximize this chance to interact in a substantive, respectful, and inclusive way.  Otherwise, the event is simply nothing more than a right presidential flop.

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