US: Conference Addresses Africa's Policy Problem

It was the first time that the UNC chapter of the Roosevelt Institution's biannual policy conference left the borders of the United States.

At the Africa Policy Conference on Friday and Saturday, each policy center at the institution had the task of answering the prompt: "What are the most pressing issues we will face in relation to Africa in the next decade?"

"We chose Africa because it is often an overlooked policy area," said junior Meaghan Jennison, the institution's policy coordinator.

"But we were very careful in how we framed the conference because we didn't want it to be a paternalistic approach to policy with us dictating what we thought the issues would be."

The separate policy groups gave one-hour presentations on issues and their solutions Saturday, with topics ranging from female circumcision to brain drain to South Africa's regressive tax policies.

Jennison said that in order to make sure the groups presented viable solutions, their research explored what grassroots organizations in Africa have found to be workable, home-grown solutions.

The Center on Women's Affairs and Advocacy chose to focus on the issue of female circumcision, finding through its research that activism has to strike a delicate balance between the practice as abuse and as a cultural tradition.

"For them, a big issue is cultural sensitivity, and so they didn't want their policy suggestions to be artificially imposing western values on traditional African cultures," Jennison said.

Their proposed solution was to develop a process where women could become educated about the risks of the practice and ultimately choose whether or not they want to undergo the procedure.

Joe Levin-Manning, a freshman member of the institution who attended the event, said he was impressed by the range of often unacknowledged issues that were brought to light.

"Female circumcision was the one that really got to me the most," he said. "It's not something you see that often, and I don't think that a lot of people put any emphasis on it, and that really reached out to me - grasped me."

Although Levin-Manning said he has always been one to go out and engage in community service, he said the conference inspired him to do more and to look into different areas of concern.

"I could go and help by teaching, maybe for a summer or a semester," he said, referencing a policy topic that discussed a lack of teachers and schools in postelection Kenya.

"It wouldn't make a huge, huge difference, but it would make a small, small difference in some of the lives of the people in Africa, and it helps me to get the point across that there's still hope."

Friday's keynote speaker, Will Okun, said in an interview that it made him feel hopeful to see that there were so many internationally informed and active students at UNC.

Okun traveled to Africa with New York Times human rights columnist Nicholas D. Kristof last June after entering an essay contest where he wrote about how it bothers him that the media only covers the negative aspects of certain places: an issue he sees in coverage of Africa and also of the west side of Chicago, where he teaches high school.

"On one hand, Kristof has to cover the worst of the worst, 'cause otherwise people don't want to react - he has to take it to the next level cause he's trying to force people to take some kind of action," he said.

"But on the other hand, you have the president of Rwanda saying, 'This is the only news coming out of Africa.' They're gonna view the whole continent this way. We can't be self-reliant; we have to be reliant on others."

Okun said he was impressed with the solutions that students with the Roosevelt Institution are coming up with.

"This is the first time I really was able to see what student groups are doing internationally," he said. "Just the fact that these kids are doing something - it doesn't matter if it's domestically or internationally."

SOURCE: The Daily Tar Heel

AUTHOR: Rebecca Putterman

URL: Click here

DATE: 08/04/2008

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