U.S. - Africa Business Bridge

Connect the American and African Peoples by Bringing Together Women Political Leaders

The global rise of women in politics offers new avenues to broaden understanding and strengthen ties between the United States and Africa.  New communications technologies can foster peer-to-peer alliances among female political leaders from both sides though ongoing virtual meetings.  Women from the local to the highest political levels could meet virtually with counterparts to problem solve and form relationships.  A biannual Women Political Leaders Forum designed to bring together all participants – both virtually and in-person – would review best practices and challenges overcome as well as expand long term people  to people ties among peers across the two continents.

The United States and Africa have much to learn from each other.  So giving a primary role to women is an effective – and cost effective – way to do so.

Goals

  • To forge closer ties between the United States and the 54 countries of Africa by fostering counterpart relationships between the two continents’ female political leaders at all levels and in all branches of government.
  • To take full advantage of videoconferencing technologies – not as a substitute for in-person meetings – but as an end in themselves — to promote professional relationships.

Background

Relations between the United States and the many countries of Africa — despite historical and other ties — need considerable improvement.  The dynamics of the world, changing at warp speed, offer both challenges and unique opportunities to recalibrate our interactions.  A vital element of this will be forging long term links among women political leaders from the two continents.  Because there has been a significant increase in the numbers of women in governments, parliaments, courts and various local bodies all over the world, this is an increasingly attractive and cost-effective avenue.

In Africa, there has been an impressive number of women in senior leadership for some time, including female presidents, prime ministers, ministers of every kind and judges.  And African nations have long been among the countries that lead the world in percentages of women in parliaments.

The picture in the United States is not quite so rosy.  However, there are many women in politics at the grassroots level in particular, and women have begun to permeate the highest levels of state and federal governments. 

Women around the world share similar life experiences and face the same obstacles in running for, and occupying, political office.  They have more difficulty in raising money for their campaigns than their male counterparts.  And they are subjected to a much greater degree to insults, threats, harrassment and violence than male politicians.

Linking women political leaders to share their common experiences and discuss overcoming the challenges of their work, would be an important way to develop and deepen ties between communities in Africa and the United States.

The United States government (through the Department of State) has for decades conducted exchange programs – bringing foreigners to the United States for education and training, to meet with peers and to introduce them to Americans and American society and values.  The State Department, USAID and the Peace Corps have also long sent Americans overseas for educational and other purposes.  All of these programs have advanced cross-cultural knowledge and created friendships.

One of the dividends of the pandemic related quarantine has been the normalization of remote interaction.  Platforms now exist to enhance interaction among peers – in this case women political leaders.  The new technologies that have brought us internet meetings should catalyze exchange programs in a virtual format. 

Program Outline

This program would bring together female political leaders from Africa and the United States for peer-to-peer discussions to broaden understanding of each other’s countries, societies and cultures.

It would create lasting and productive relationships, giving female leaders the opportunity to exchange ideas, share best practices and highlight successful solutions to common problems.

While creating relationships would be the goal, substantive outcomes would be equally important.

Discussion groups would focus on exchanges of ideas, including overcoming challenges facing female political leaders.  Topics might also include improving trade and investment relations, two-way tourism, public health, dealing with the effects of climate change and much more. 

Participants would include elected and appointed officials from governments, the judiciary and legislative bodies.

Officials would be chosen from local bodies to the heads of national governments.

Building on the normalized internet communications of the pandemic era, the program would take full advantage of developing new technologies, tools and methods.  Even post-pandemic, the majority of meetings and activities would be virtual.

Over time, discussion groups would be expected to continue on a self-sustaining basis, without outside organization from the State Department or elsewhere.

A bi-annual Women Leaders Forum (in person and virtual) would bring together all of the participants to meet, exchange ideas and report on progress.  

Who Would Participate?

The program is designed to foster peer-to-peer relationships at all levels and in all branches of government.

Meetings at the highest levels would help highlight the program. 

For example:

  • a meeting between Vice President Harris and a female African President or Prime Minister;
  • a meeting between the US Deputy Secretary of Defense and the various female Defense Ministers in Africa; and
  • a meeting between a female US Supreme Court Justice and several female justices in Africa.

Meetings at other levels would also be sought, including:

  • Members of the US Congress and national parliaments across Africa;
  • US governors and their African counterparts;
  • US state senators and delegates and their African counterparts; and
  • Local US officials such as mayors and county managers and their African counterparts.

How Would the Program Work?

The State Department has run exchange programs for many years.  State – working with contract agencies who specialize in organizing in-person exchange programs – could be tasked with this. 

However, in this new world of meeting by video conference, new ways of constructing exchange programs will likely emerge.  While it is nicer to see people (and places) face-to-face, using the new technologies is cheaper and can reach a broader audience.

Online meetings offer several advantages:

  • Budgetary – it is far cheaper to arrange an online program than to fly participants around the world; there are no travel, lodging or maintenance expenses;
  • Staff numbers – State Department exchange programs normally require intensive staff work to escort foreign participants around the United States. This function would change.  Instead, they would require experts to organize the meetings, manage the technology, propose topics and much more; and
  • Participant numbers – online programing allows organizers to reach a much broader audience or set up meetings as small as one on one.

U.S. participants would be identified through the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) which has decades long experience in managing exchange programs.

In Africa, in the pilot phase, identification of participants would be done by US Embassies.  Over time, existing programs through the United Nations, the African Union and others might dovetail with this program.  At a later date, African participants might nominate peers.

Meetings/discussion groups would normally be kept small.  They would consist of several Americans from around the United States and several African women from across the continent.

Because the main goal of this program is to ensure that enduring relationships are formed, participants would need to make long- term commitments to the program before admission.

Initially, the State Department through its contract agencies would schedule the meetings and provide technology assistance, a moderator, an agenda and discussion topics.  However, because this is a permanent commitment, over time the groups themselves would be expected to handle these functions. 

To begin, US political leaders with experience in Africa might be candidates – including former Africa Peace Corps volunteers, Fulbright and other scholars plus others who have worked or lived on the continent.

On the African side, women with some experience in the United States and strong English language skills could be the first candidates for the pilot phase.  

The Bi-Annual Forum

Every other year a Women Political Leaders Forum would be held – alternating between the United States and Africa.  It would be both virtual and in-person.

When in Africa, it would rotate among countries.

Organizations that promote women’s political involvement would be key participants and constituents.

Agenda topics would be decided by the various discussion groups themselves.  They would highlight findings and best practices arrived at over the previous two years.

Conclusion

Women’s voices and viewpoints add substantial value to political stability and economic advancement both at home and abroad.  Building communities of American and African women with friendly and productive relationships would create a framework for mutual collaboration not only across national boundaries but also worldwide.

Article first published on Whirled View on Wednesday, 03 March 2021.

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