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Helping Africa

Cindy Courville

"Good governance and peace and security is a universal priority -- it's a global responsibility," says Cindy Courville (MA '80, PhD '88), former U.S. ambassador to the African Union. Photo: Stephen Voss

Ask most Americans what Africa’s most serious issues are and they’re likely to mention AIDS, malaria, famine and armed conflict. Ask about solutions to these problems and the answers get murkier. Go even further and ask what the United States is doing to address African issues, and you’ll probably get a blank stare.

But if you ask Cindy Courville (MA ’80 and PhD ’88 international studies), she’ll tell you that Africa’s needs go well beyond charitable donations, medical supplies and food shipments. The best long-term solution, she says, is for the 54 independent countries that make up the continent to work together to address social, political, health and security issues.

“If they have ownership, they will be successful,” says Courville, who retired in June after a 17-month stint as U.S. ambassador to the African Union. “We must give Africa the resources to make it possible for people to take care of themselves so we avoid creating a dependency.”


Global responsibility

A proverb says: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

By the same token, helping Africa to develop a political structure and efficient governing body via the African Union is one way the United States is helping Africa solve its own problems, Courville says.

As a former special assistant to President Bush and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, Courville is considered an expert on Africa. She was not only the first U.S. ambassador to the African Union (AU), but the first dedicated AU ambassador from any non-African nation.

“The United States was the first country to recognize the AU as a body, lifting and legitimizing the organization in the eyes of other major countries,” says Courville, whom President Bush appointed to the African envoy post in November 2006.

“[Sending a U.S. ambassador] was important to show that the AU can and will play a major role in the future,” says Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, who taught international studies at DU in the early 1990s.

Why is Africa and the African Union a priority for the United States? “Good governance and peace and security is a universal priority — it’s a global responsibility,” Courville says.

All of Africa’s major issues are interconnected, she reminds. “When you move forward on a political forefront, there is a greater chance of economic development, and then security and vice versa. For real success you have to have a multi-prong approach.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (BA political science ’74, PhD international studies ’81) confirmed the importance of the United States’ relationship with Africa when she spoke in July at the African Growth and Opportunity Affairs Forum. “There is a new enthusiasm in Africa today — a renewed spirit of independence,” she said. “To be sure, Africa faces profound challenges: from violence in places like Darfur and Somalia, to rising commodity prices, but Africa and its people are not reduced to the sum of their challenges. They deserve not the world’s pity, but our partnership.”

To that end, the United States has pledged $30 billion for AIDS relief, $1.2 billion to combat malaria, $1.125 billion for African education initiatives and $770 million for food aid and agricultural development, according to a White House fact sheet.

The United States also directly finances the African Union “because a functional, strong AU gives the U.S. a strong partner in moving forward to establishing a stronger and greater peace-keeping capability,” Courville says.

And, helping the AU become a more effective institution will enable it to better respond to its continental issues, she explains.

“We established a relationship with the African Union to help build its capacity,” Frazer adds.

With all this in mind, Courville says one of her primary goals as ambassador to the AU was to open up lines of communication between the United States and the African Union.

She discovered that many involved in the AU were not fully aware of the United States’ commitment to Africa. “We weren’t telling our story very well,” she explains. “They knew we were giving billions in aid, but they did not understand the depth and breadth of what our level of engagement was across the continent.”

This is partly due to the lack of communication among the individual countries of Africa, says Courville, adding that there needs to be more information-sharing among countries about successful initiatives and programs that are working within their individual nations.

While living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AU is headquartered, Courville interacted with the African Union country representatives — who approve or disapprove policy — and with the eight commissioners who oversee issue commissions.

“My first priority was to better understand the AU structure,” Courville explains. “We have to begin by learning what are the Africans’ priorities? We cannot come in and impose our priorities.”


Moving policy into reality

So, how does an organization made up of 53 nations — each with different religions, political systems, ethnicities, languages and philosophies — agree upon and take action on issues like genocide in neighboring countries and a generation of children orphaned by AIDS?

After building relationships and listening to and learning from AU representatives, Courville helped the African Union take practical steps to move forward on these fronts. She facilitated conversations and worked with the organization to implement policies they had voted on years before.

“Everything that the AU has done so far has been mostly policy making because they don’t have the money and resources to put the policy into effect,” she says.

The Democratic Electoral Assistance Unit (DEAU) is one example of how the United States helped the AU move policy into reality. The DEAU is a department that assists AU member countries with election training and implementation, and its creation, Courville says, was done singularly through a United States-AU partnership.

The African Union voted in 2004 to establish the DEAU to promote free and fair elections and adherence to democratic standards in member states. But it wasn’t until June 2006 that the member states approved the decision to staff the unit.

“There had been no movement on how or what the unit would be,” Courville explains. “During my time, the U.S. worked in tandem with the commissioners and representatives to approve the actual creation of the unit and to get the AU to fund the unit staff positions.”

That’s not to say all of the kinks have been worked out within the DEAU. For example, the AU approved only three staff positions for the unit (to serve all 53 member countries), and the unit’s guidelines on how and when to participate in a country’s election are still being refined.

“They are still working out the issues and have learned from mistakes with the election in Kenya,” Courville says, adding that for success, the DEAU needs more staff, more funding and more time in countries before elections take place. “They are also in the process of figuring out whether or not they will wait for an invitation to go into a country.”

The issues of authority and intervention aren’t just a stumbling block for the DEAU. These challenges are even more relevant in the African Union’s peacekeeping efforts.

The AU does not have a judicial authority because each African country is a sovereign nation, Frazer explains. The AU has a policy of “non-indifference,” meaning that it will not tolerate infractions of human rights, but it is cautious when it comes to intervening in the internal affairs of countries.

“The African Union does not have the authority to move into an independent country without that country’s permission and the agreement of all the member countries,” Courville says. “The AU doesn’t want to always overstep the authority of the individual states.”

“They all experienced colonization, so they are very wary of external influences,” observes Timothy Sisk, associate professor at DU’s Korbel School of International Studies, noting that even if some countries want to take stronger action, if there is a lack of consensus, intervention can’t happen.

“The African Union is in a real crisis of legitimacy,” he adds. “The kind of authority the organization has in tough cases such as Sudan is primarily a moral authority, and even that is often questionable. The AU is, in my view, much too reluctant to use tangible measures like sanctions to deal with governments that don’t provide basic protection to their people.”

To aid in peacekeeping efforts, the African Union voted to establish the African Standby Force — a military body that could intervene in conflicts. The U.S. helped get peacekeeping missions off the ground by contributing training, equipment and financial backing, but as with the DEAU, the idea is still in the early phases of implementation and funding is in short supply.

Using volunteer — and often minimally trained — soldiers, AU peacekeeping missions have since been launched in Sudan, Somalia and Burundi. However, African relief and advocacy groups have strongly criticized the effectiveness of the missions — particularly in Darfur.

“The mission in Darfur is crumbling, and the African Union peacekeeping missions have proven to be insufficient for the job,” says Sisk, adding that what is needed in Darfur is strong international action. “If genocide is occurring, you need a stronger military intervention. The AU has given it a try, but the resources are not there.”

Still, the African Union adoption of a non-indifference policy is a major paradigm shift from the non-intervention stance of the AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, Courville notes. “This shift in approach and the decision to create the African Standby Force was designed to prevent a repeat of the tragic Rwandan genocide and Idi Amin’s murderous reign in Uganda.”

Frazer adds that AU peacekeepers have been the first responders to several conflicts, including that in Darfur. ”While they lack capacity, they don’t lack the will to bring further security and peace, and they are doing it when others don’t show up,” says Frazer, who believes the AU has proved its usefulness already. “When Darfur was burning, the only nations who came forward were member countries under the AU unit.”

Frazer also points to success of the AU force earlier this year in the Comoros Islands, where renegade leader Mohamed Bacar had declared himself president following a 2001 military coup. The AU forces “kicked him out, returning the island to peace and democracy,” Frazer says.

“Lessons are having to be learned along the way,” Courville says, “because the African Union is having to act in urgent situations before it has the resources, funding, personnel and even structure for success.

“There is a political will and hope for improvement, even if the finances and the political infrastructure in the AU are not there.”

Both Courville and Frazer say the AU — established just six years ago — is still a young organization, and it will take time to work through exactly how it will accomplish its goals.

“One of the best things we can do is facilitate the conversation,” Courville says. “We cannot determine it for them, but we can help facilitate the conversation so that they can have uniformity and one voice on these issues.”

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