By Michael Everett ’19
During the fall term, Donald (Don) Gips, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, and his wife, Elizabeth Gips, came to campus to speak with the Great Issues Scholars over lunch. Ambassador Gips is an experienced government figure, having worked as Chief of the International Bureau at the FCC and the Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration. Before his selection for ambassadorship, Gips headed the Obama administration’s Office of Presidential Personnel. In addition to his government experience, ambassador Gips has also been a major player in the private sector. He is currently a Senior Counselor with the Albright Stonebridge Group, a strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm. Ambassador Gips focuses on issues of African diplomacy and development. During the lunchtime discussion, the ambassador focused on three topics in particular: Africa’s place in the world, the obstacles to African development, and western perceptions of African conflict.
The ambassador began the discussion by illuminating how much Africa has changed and how much it will continue to do so in the coming years. While the standard Mercator projection map may present Greenland as being larger than the entire continent of Africa, in actuality it could fit the entire landmass of the U.S., China, India and most of Europe within its borders. This huge amount of land is being filled up quickly as population growth skyrockets across the continent. Economically, Africa is also beginning to gain prominence through Foreign Direct Investments. Africa is fast becoming a major player on the international community, but exactly what position it will take is unclear.
Most would think of South Africa as the most advanced African country (now even considered a member of BRICS). However, Nigeria just recently surpassed South Africa as Africa’s largest economy. So who should be considered the major country to represent Africa on the international stage, Nigeria or South Africa? This may seem insignificant, but for issues like the possibility of a permanent member slot in the UN Security Council for an African country, deciding who will represent the continent becomes immensely important.
The ambassador also acknowledged the many obstacles of economic integration across the African continent. While African states are dramatically increasing their trade with the international community, their trade levels with each other are stagnant. A lack of infrastructure makes transporting goods and services very difficult across borders. Even worse, border crossings are often immensely strict and corrupt. African countries will have to join together and concentrate their efforts on solving these issues of economic integration if the entire continent is to become prosperous.
Finally, Ambassador Gips touched on the issue of western perceptions of African conflict. A Rwandan student and Great Issues Scholar asked the ambassador whether the world is always going to look at Rwanda and immediately associate it with genocide. The ambassador responded by agreeing with the student that western perceptions of African conflict are often stigmatizing and degrading. Africa is seen as a land of chaos where tribal war controls the continent. That is not to say that the world should ever forget the Rwandan Genocide and its obligation to prevent it from happening again. Rather it is an acknowledgement that countries like Rwanda are greater than the sum of their conflicts. These countries have beautiful cultures, diverse people, and a national spirit separate and greater than the horrors of their past. The west has to recognize these unique cultural and regional traits of African countries that do not derive from conflict if it is ever to truly understand Africa.