John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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The Myth of Isolationism, in Africa, at Least

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
February 3, 2014

Kenyan workers pluck tea leaves using a new machine at the Uniliver tea farm in Kericho, 300km west of the capital, Nairobi. October 10, 2004. (Thomas Mukoya/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

There is currently a view that America’s role in the world is shrinking, as the country and its leaders reportedly become more “isolationist.” That term is code for Washington’s unwillingness to use military force in situations where experts, in and out of the press, believe it ought to be applied. And while potential political candidates refer to the U.S. as “the indispensable nation,” they too tend to see engagement through a military lens.

Thank goodness political pundits are often wrong.

In sub-Saharan Africa, U.S. engagement remains robust, vitiating the isolationist charge, and that engagement is not necessarily military. A broad range of non-governmental organizations and individuals are active in African countries. Their presence supports William Easterly’s view that progress in reducing African poverty, and other socio-economic ills, is in part, a result of “the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists—not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life.”

“Ordinary people of commitment” are accomplishing much at the grassroots level, far from elite pundits’ field of vision. The Ayisatu Owen International School in Techiman, northern Ghana, is a sterling example. Founded in 1997 by American aid worker Wilfred Owen, his wife Ayisatu, and the student group For One World, the school opened with one teacher and four students. By 2010, the school had grown to over four hundred students and thirty-eight teachers.

It continues to expand as additional resources and personnel arrive. Writing in his annual Christmas Letter, Owen commented that operations are supported by forty-one For One World volunteers and that the teaching aids and material brought in by students (mostly girls) from Vermont’s St. Johnsbury Academy have “actually overwhelmed us.” Outside the realm of government policy, there is little isolationism in America. Volunteer participation in the school is flourishing, Owen says, and it often comes from high school and college students from the U.S., who are deepening their commitment to international engagement by volunteering in Africa.

Their initiative is working. The Ayisatu Owen School has been judged the best private school in Techiman, Ghana, and girls’ scores on national exams are ranked among the highest in the district.

Engagement with Africa at the grassroots by ordinary Americans may well prove more effective than the efforts of “Davos man” and his elite counterparts.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by David Owusu-Ansah


    Thanks for sharing the link to you posting with me. I will let our summer abroad students from JMU know there are examples to their work in Accra and that they are part of a large corp of Americans who are committed to making a difference.

  • Posted by Fr. Giles Conacher

    I was interested to read Jim Sanders’s post on Bill Owen’s initiatives for development. When I lived nearby, Bill was a regular visitor, it was he who encouraged me to get a compass for the dash of our car (later upgraded to GPS, but more on that another time).

    One advantage for Africa of someone like Bill, is that he’s both visionary, thinking outside the box (especially the constraints of locally-based boxes), and simultaneously earthed in the local culture and situation, with his feet on the ground. That’s why, paradoxically, he’s an advocate of microlights [ultra light aviation].

    In Ghana there’s a genuine international airport in the capital, Accra. There’s a regional airport at Kumasi, with regular flights and decent facilities. Sekondi-Takoradi has an airport, shared with the military, but it lacks investment and suffers from encroachment by sheep, developers, everything. At Tamale, more to the north, there’s a Soviet-built airport, intended to project power by accommodating the biggest strategic aircraft, but apart from the runways it’s not quite there – so I’m told. Then there is at least one smaller airfield, at Sunyani, servicing goldfields.

    The Ghana Air Force does not operate intensively, so, one way and another, the skies aren’t too crowded, private aviation has freedom to move, there’s not too much formality. There’s not too much infrastructure, either.

    This is where Bill comes in: he’s a passionate advocate of microlights as the answer to development. You don’t need a big or formal landing-strip, you don’t need a lot of capital, maintenance on a microlight isn’t too challenging, nor is flying one. Travelling as the crow flies, you can save an awful lot of time in a country where on the roads the (formal!) national speed-limit is 80 kph (50 mph). You can let people see the benefits of flight, so that growth can be organic, from below, rather than the construction of airports-in-the-air that are the fantasies of central planners. There’s not much scope for corruption, either, in a place for a microlight to land and take off.

    He gets all fired-up when he’s talking about the idea. All you need is your trusty hand-held GPS, no fancy nav-aids and systems of beacons that need capital and maintenance. It’s not the sort of idea which enthuses local entrepreneurs – there’s no money in it – but it has lots of potential. Compared with conventional light aircraft, let alone helicopters, microlights have many advantages. True, they are weather dependent, but in Africa that’s true of scheduled flights, too, even big wide-bodied jets.

    It takes someone like Bill, who lives in the country, to be able to think outside it. Educating people’s not just about class-rooms.

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