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Public Affairs : 2nd annual African Symposium

Experts share insight at 2nd African Symposium

Story and photos by Mike Strasser
Assistant Editor
WEST POINT, N.Y. (May 15, 2014) — Democracy is on the rise in African countries, growing and gaining strength. But for it to develop, it’s the people who must want it so, not the governments, organizations and agencies lending support.

This notion of “for the people, by the people” as it applies to the African continent was among the topics discussed at the 2nd annual African Symposium April 30 in the Haig Room.

Ambassador William Garvelink, senior advisor for global strategy at International Medical Corps, served as keynote speaker. He contended that Africa is no longer a playground for colonial powers but a serious contender in the global economic market. As democracies thrive there, international conflicts are on the decline.

“That’s the good news. There are a lot of very serious problems facing Africa as well,” Garvelink said. “The economic advances are not reaching everyone and there is an accelerating discrepancy between the rich and poor in Africa. Urbanization is happening faster than in any other part of the world, and it’s unplanned.”

Without jobs or infrastructure in those smaller cities, Garvelink said it appears more like slum creations. Africa is also the only continent where food production is on the decline. Having served as ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Garvelink managed a mission of 90 Americans and over 300 foreign service nationals.

“The U.S. does not do development in Africa. We can be supportive of it, but we can’t make it happen,” he said. “The Africans have to do that themselves.”

That applies to governance as well, he said.

“Given the problems they have to work with, development in governance is a very slow process and Americans are very impatient,” Garvelink said.

Democracy takes time and even the founding fathers spent 12 years developing the U.S. constitution.

“We must be patient and we should work together with them to attain their maximum potential,” he said.

The theme “Scales of Development” was appropriate for the panel discussion, given the expert panel’s diverse levels of perspective on the development in Africa.

“It’s an extraordinary panel if you look at it from the ambassador level all the way down to the grassroots level where Dr. (Frederick) Tumwine is advocating bee farming at the individual household level,” Maj. Dylan Malcomb, Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering instructor, said.

Joining Tumwine in the discussion were Col. Emmanual Wekem Kotia, an officer in the Ghana Armed Forces and clinical professor at Kennesaw State University, and Dr. Laura Seay, assistant professor of government at Colby College in Maine.

Students and faculty from Bard College were in attendance, and also a large group of plebes from the Africa in Regional Studies in World History (HI108) course.  

Class of 2015 Cadet Eric Warren speaks with Col. Emmanual Wekem Kotia, who teaches at Kennesaw State University as a clinical professor of peace and conflict studies. Kotia joined a distinguished panel of subject matter experts April 30 to discuss multi-level development in Africa.
Ambassador William Garvelink, senior advisor for global strategy at International Medical Corps, served as keynote speaker and joined the panel discussion during the 2nd annual African Symposium inside the Haig Room April 30. 

“For them this is exposure and validation to what they’re learning in the classroom,” Malcomb said. “They can see how the issues today, as discussed at the symposium, are connected to the past.”

The symposium originated in a neighborly way. The departments of Geography and Environmental Engineering and Foreign Languages share the same building and both are involved in research projects on Africa.

“It started small, we had eight poster demonstrations and a guest speaker. Since then we’ve been building a lot of connections and there’s a lot of departments interested in participating,” Malcomb said.

This year, a USMA African Symposium Committee was formed, comprised of members from centers and departments at West Point including Minerva Initiative, Network Science Center, the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations, the History Department, DFL and GEnE.

Departmental projects are more collaborative now, Malcomb said. If a team of cadets and faculty are researching in Uganda for one department they can share their contacts with another working in the same region on a different project.

The forum was ideal for cadets to both showcase their own research—with roughly a dozen static displays and twice as many cadets offering presentations—and glean insight from the experts.

“For a lot of them, they’ve been to Africa and seen these things and can share their stories,” Malcomb said. “It’s a positive thing when we can host a symposium and instead of having me up there telling stories, we can let our cadets tell theirs.”

Cadets from the Geography of Africa (EV375) course presented research projects and economic students from the Department of Social Sciences spoke on their capstone projects. From the Department of Foreign Languages, Class of 2014 Cadet Savannah Haden presented “Railways in Africa: An Essential but Under-Utilized Structure.” The Network Science Center sponsored Class of 2015 Cadets Blair Stewart and Jacob Virtue on “The Slums of Kampala: Sustainable Urban Living.”

Class of 2015 Cadet Eric Warren’s thesis is a work in progress and he attended this forum to take notes and meet with the individuals afterward to answer questions specific to his work.

“He’s thinking ahead, which is smart,” Malcomb said. “I told a lot of my students to look at the projects, listen to the discussions and start developing ideas for next year.”

Warren is working on a U.S. policy proposal on the issue of piracy in Somalia, with a database of more than 100 pirates, their clans and the piracy acts they committed.

“With the help of Dr. Charles Thomas from the History Department, we have turned this database into a network analysis of Somali piracy activity,” Warren said. “By better understanding the structure of piracy networks, I will be able to provide insight into how to address the problem.”

The discussions Warren had with Kotia and Tumwine provided more than a couple of footnotes in his work.

“Getting to hear the perspective of an African military officer will help me add a lot of insight to my thesis,” Warren said. “I was also very interested in his point that while piracy is decreasing on the eastern coast of Africa, it is increasing in the west. I have been concentrating my studies on the east coast, and did not realize there had been an increase in the west.”