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Scholar lectures on African crisis

Marcela Berrios | Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Several celebrities have recently captured media attention through African relief activism – but the continent was not taken lightly in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies Tuesday during a lecture from renowned professor Naomi Chazan.

Chazan – the Notre Dame Provost’s Distinguished Woman Lecturer – spoke about the African continent’s AIDS plight, political instability and economic hindrances, and stressed the importance of international intervention to provide relief in her talk “Can the World Afford to Abandon Africa?”

“If you don’t think that things can get worse, you are wrong,” said Chazan, the head of the School of Government and Society in the Academic College of Tel Aviv and a former member of the Israeli Parliament. “They can and they will [get worse] unless these problems are corrected.”

She referred to the political breakdown of states due to ethnic fragmentation and conflict, famine and the AIDS epidemic.

“Imagine what it must be like to wake up in the morning and not know if you will eat anything at all during the day,” she said. “Most people in Africa live their lives this way – barely scratching subsistence.”

However, Chazan reminded her audience that hunger and poverty are not the end of Africa’s troubles, as she suspected that roughly 60 percent of the population in several parts of the continent was infected with the HIV virus.

“That’s enough to send shivers down your back isn’t it?” she said, noting gasps when she mentioned the statistics.

Chazan compared the AIDS epidemic to a form of genocide. The world’s sluggishness in reacting despite millions of deaths is reminiscent of other genocides, such as the Holocaust, and in more recent years, the Rwandan massacres of 1994 and the ongoing crisis in Darfur, she said.

One of the possible explanations for the international community’s hesitation to engage in Africa could be the failed involvement of the United Nations and the United States in Somalia in 1993, which resulted in casualties for both sides, Chazan said.

She warned against nations using this and other similar unsuccessful precedents as excuses to wash their hands of responsibility.

“Sometimes engaging is painful but the alternative is worse,” she said.

As Africa is neglected by the more developed nations, she said, it is exposed to exploitation and abuse – such as arms trafficking and resource poaching, in reference to foreign diamond smugglers in the Ivory Coast.

In outlining a recommended relief strategy for the international community, Chazan said the establishment of “a global partnership” is essential.

“Africa cannot do without international involvement, but the work needs to be done by the Africans, as they know the problems they are facing better than anybody else,” she said.

She also spoke about providing aid that will first restore stability to the region – not just humanitarian comfort.

“Humanitarian work makes you feel better but focusing on the macro levels of this problem is far more effective,” she said.

Though teaching villagers to read and write is an admirable accomplishment, Chazan argued there are more pressing needs that have to be fulfilled, such as the stabilization of regimes and state capabilities.

She urged her audience to lobby in Washington D.C., London, or elsewhere to persuade governments to invest in rebuilding African institutions and infrastructure – which has seriously deteriorated in most states as a result of the perpetual political turmoil and conflicts between ethnic factions.

A member of the audience asked Chazan if she believed Notre Dame was making a mistake by investing in the Millennium Development Initiative in Uganda, discussed in the Global Health Forum earlier this semester, which proposed teaching individuals how to overcome poverty.

She replied that certainly these noble efforts alleviate the miseries of a few people, but that they do not offer long-term solutions to the continent’s troubles.

“If you ignore these basic needs, the [states] will continue to break down and as chaos grows, it will destroy all the good your humanitarian efforts may have done,” she said.

The lecture hit a sour note when an older man in the audience vehemently grilled Chazan and demanded why she placed the burden of responsibility of the African crisis on the entire world, instead of telling affluent African-Americans to return to their ancestral land and help.

While the episode stirred tension in the auditorium, Chazan remained collected.

“African-Americans are citizens of the United States – like any other white citizen – and this is their home,” she said. “The African continent is their responsibility as much as it is that of the entire world.”

At the beginning of the lecture she mentioned that her Jewish background, presence at a Catholic university, and African subject matter might have seemed a humorous combination. At the same time, she said the continent’s troubles were so overwhelmingly catastrophic to human beings that any person in any corner of the world would inevitably be touched if he was well informed of the situation.

“Those who have been to Africa know that once you’ve seen what’s going on, once you’ve caught the bug – it stays with you,” Chazan said.

Notre Dame sophomore Alexandra Kotcheff agreed on the relevance of the topic to all students and future leaders.

“This school embodies the sense of giving back to the community – both locally and globally – and so it’s really important to stay informed about the situation at hand,” she said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Notre Dame Holocaust Project, the Kroc Institute, the Office of the Provost, and the Abrams Fund for Excellence in Jewish-Christian Studies.