Why is a region of over one billion young, industrious people so widely ignored by media circles? Why is a continent three times the size of the United States absent from that same country’s foreign policy priorities? What is really going on in Africa? Those were just some of the questions that George Washington Adjunct Professor and former Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn tackled last Thursday at AIESEC’s “The Next Chapter: Africa in the 21st Century” event. The wide-ranging, informal discussion and Q&A session covered various topics and served as an important primer on African issues as well as a point-by-point description of the region’s importance. Ambassador Shinn was born in a small community in Washington State and became interested in international affairs through collecting postal stamps and reading sparsely about the Korean War in his local newspaper. Wanting to get a better perspective on world politics, he moved to the District of Columbia to attend George Washington University (where he would go on to earn his Bachelors, Masters, and PhD). There, his passion for the African continent solidified, and he decided to join the State Department’s Foreign Service. After a brief assignment in Lebanon, he spent the rest of his 37 years working as a diplomat in Africa.
One topic of discussion was the way in which the average American views Africa and how the continent is covered by the media. Ambassador Shinn sees many inaccuracies in people’s perception of Africa, and attributes that largely to cable news and social media, as well as many print sources. He sees the media as being selectively attentive to the negative developments in the region, and ignorant of the progress that has come about in the past ten years. Ambassador Shinn posits that disease, ethnic conflict, civil strife, and famine sell better than economic development or other success stories from the region. However, as an expert on the continent with decades of experience traveling to “every nook and cranny” of the countries in which he served, the Ambassador can easily dismantle superficial assessments of the region. Here, he pointed to a ten-year period from around 2005-2015 of five to ten percent average GDP growth on the continent that far exceeded that of the United States, which remained steady even during the economic crisis of 2008. He emphasized the diversity of the continent, as well as how that diversity could translate into economic opportunity on certain parts of the continent where markets have emerged for oil, rich agricultural production, and mineral resources. To Ambassador Shinn, there is far more to Africa than what appears in news headlines.
Wielding a nuanced, expert view of the continent, the Ambassador did not cast illusions on the difficulties facing the region as well, and did not minimize the issues facing many countries in the region. While initially reluctant to use the word “tribalism,” he pointed out that “no country is immune to bigotry,” and those of Africa are far from an exceptional. More troubling, he explained, was the massive potential of these young African states being suppressed by bad governance. From a policy standpoint, he discussed the role of the United States, the United Nations, and other governmental as well as non-governmental organizations in improving quality of life on the continent, but ultimately concluded that continued improvement is predicated on the fifty-four African governments becoming more inclusive and responsible.
In conclusion, Ambassador Shinn urged students of international relations to remain open-minded and curious, understand the diversity of Africa, and “seek out reliable sources of information that deal with both positive and negative events.” Of course, if an opportunity arises, “visit the continent,” he added, and most importantly, “never stop learning.”