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Videoconference discusses Africa

Megan Loney | Thursday, April 2, 2009

The election of President Barack Obama has enormous symbolic importance both in the United States and in the African continent, Gregory Garland, public affairs chief for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said during a videoconference with Saint Mary’s College Wednesday.

Saint Mary’s College joined Albany State University and Florida A&M University for a videoconference focused on U.S. foreign policy in Africa with the State Department Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. in Spes Unica.

Garland set a basis for discussion among the three participating schools by giving a 20 minute talk on the relationship between the United States and Africa, specifically “the societal and formal government to government relations.”

He first addressed the impact of the election of a black president on these relations.

“He [President Obama] is clearly the son of a Kenyan, and Africa considers him their own son,” Garland said.

Because of this perceived bond, Garland believes a central challenge will managing Africa’s high expectations for the Obama administration.

“I think that the [expectations] are high and that people whether we are in the U.S.A. or in Africa are going to be let down, but that does not lessen the great symbol that he is for people around the world,” Garland said.

According to Garland, if Obama disappoints the continent, it will be due to these exceedingly high expectations, and not because of a lack of initiative on the part of the administration.

Obama’s challenge is more difficult than the one faced by former President George W. Bush who came into the Oval Office with low expectations and finished in Africa’s high esteem, Garland said.

“The Bush administration left a strong legacy in African continent. There is a general appreciation for the Bush administration with respect to Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

Garland acknowledged two successes of the Bush administration in Africa: implementing the Emergency Plan for Aids Release and forging a new American attitude toward the African continent.

Garland described this attitude.

“This is the first time in American History that we as Americans are treating Africa as a place with real people, with real governments and with real interests,” he said. “We have done it for a long time with Europe, not Africa.”

Professor Alice Siqin Yang, lecturer of Chinese and assistant director of the Global Education Center for Women’s InterCultural Leadership (CWIL), was a key person in helping to organize the videoconference.

The Saint Mary’s community became interested in setting up a videoconference after speaking with a contact in the State Department’s Office of Public Liaison in November of 2007, according to Yang.

“We thought it would be beneficial for our leadership certificate students and all Saint Mary’s students if we can be part of the conversations about foreign policies with other institutions,” she said. “With the help of the Lilly Grant, CWIL helped purchase the facilities in 136 Spes Unica.”

“It is nice that our students can interact with diplomats and peer students of other institutions, and thus engaging the world,” Yang said.