L’AQUILA, ITALY — In a meeting this morning with the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria, Libya and Ethiopia, President Obama spoke about his personal connections to both Africa and poverty, and according to a top White House aide, “you could have heard a pin drop.”
After describing a food security initiative that the president and other G-8 leaders have been working on, the president talked about development and the importance of governance.
“He shared a personal story,” said deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman. “Everyone knows that his father was from Kenya, that he still has relatives living in poverty, and that while he’s President of the United States he feels poverty in a very personal way because of this of his family situation.”
Froman recounted that the president shared that when his father, Barack Obama Sr., came to the United States from Kenya, Kenya’s GDP was higher than Korea’s.
“Obviously much has happened since then and he wanted to make it clear that the problems that Africans face weren’t just a product of colonialism or past history,” Froman said, “that this partnership — whether it’s over food security or other development ideas — require local governments to take responsibility seriously. This wasn’t a time to make excuses. And that it was important to join together in a clear-eyed way.”
As the president put it, Froman went on, “his cousin in Kenya cant find a job without paying a bribe, and that’s not the fault of the G-8. And when companies can’t operate without paying, in some parts of Africa, without paying the 25 percent fee off the top in bribes, that’s not colonialism.”
The president said, Froman said, recounting from his contemporaneous notes, “that it is important to think about people on the ground who are focused not about who’s at fault on how to survive in Africa’s situation but are focused on how to survive and succeed and provide for their families and in that context he emphasized the importance of transparency, openness, and efficiency.”
It’s important, the president told the African leaders, that development programs are implemented so they “reach people who really need them, that the assistance actually gets to the farmers and the farmers benefit from this. That was the point he made. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Several following speakers noting that they thought it was a very moving remark and thanked him for sharing his personal story with them. And I think it helped define the seriousness of the discussion and the importance of the subject.”
In a press conference following the meeting, President Obama acknowledged the remarks. “The point I was making was that my father traveled to the United States a mere 50 years ago yet now I have family members who live in villages, they themselves are not going hungry but they live in villages where hunger is real. And so this is something that I understand in very personal terms. And if you talk to people on the ground in Africa, certainly in Kenya, they will say that part of the issue here is the institutions aren’t working for ordinary people and so governance is a vital concern that has to be addressed.”
By bringing up the example of South Korea, the president said, he was trying to make the point that “the South Korean government working with the private sector and civil society was able to create a set of institutions that provided transparency and accountability and efficiency that allowed for extraordinary economic progress. And that there was no reason why many African countries could not do the same.”
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller