Johnnie Carson

Students on the Washington D.C. program recently had the opportunity to meet with Johnnie Carson, who served as ambassador to several African nations and was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Obama. He was also a visiting professor at Hamilton College where he taught courses on African politics.

Carson started by dispelling several common myths Americans tend to believe about Africa. He talked about how several African nations have steadily been moving toward a more democratic style of governance. While this movement is not always perfect, and there are nations that are decidedly not democratic, it’s still a sign of positive change.

Afrobarometer, an organization similar to the Pew Research Center, has polled African perspectives on democracy and found that there is a consistent belief that multiparty, constitutional democracies are the best form of governance.

Africa also has a veritable plethora of natural resources and there is growing economic liberalization. And while U.S. media tends to emphasize conflicts in Africa, if it covers events in the continent at all, overall rates of conflict have actually been going down.

The African continent is home to the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. Given this and the positive changes mentioned above, Carson emphasized the important role Africa should play in U.S. foreign policy considerations. And in the past there was bi-partisan work in this area. However, he worries about the current administration’s consideration of the continent.

It seems that Africa is not just a low-priority but a “no-priority”. And many of their policies run contrary to African interests, especially the decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, given that Africa will be the region most impacted by climate change.

Carson also answered several questions from the students. The questions ranged from the importance of viable opposition parties for democracies to the role climate change and subsequent diminishing resources will play in the direction Africa will take in the future. He ended on a question about how to fix the image of Africa we have in the U.S.

In his view, on our end the press needs to tell better and different stories and Congress needs to consider the continent’s nations more. But on their end, better ambassadors make for better relations and a better image.

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