Opinion: Donated books a key to building African democracy

The late Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General and a son of Africa, once said: “Literacy is quite simply the bridge from misery to hope.”

That sentiment is nowhere more important than among the youth of Africa, which has the youngest population in the world. Some 225 million Africans are between the ages of 15 and 24, a number that is expected to more than double in the next 40 years, according to the United Nations.

In 40 African countries, over half the population is under 20, compared to 30 richer countries in which less than 20 percent of the population is under 20, according to the World Bank.

A youthful population presents a great challenge to developing economies providing enough jobs. But it also presents a great opportunity for economic development and growth. The key to meeting that opportunity is the education of our young people. Educating our youthful labor force will ensure that our youth will become a force for good across the continent.

The African Union’s long-term plan, called “Agenda 2063,” envisions “a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development.” It adds that “development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.”

We are making strides and debating the best ways to educate our youth and prepare them for the jobs of the future. But we need partners both for economic development and for support of our efforts to educate our youth.

Despite all the talk about Chinese investment in Africa, America remains a strategic partner. We were able to address a number of challenges including Ebola because of the generous support of America. There is much goodwill in Africa for America. But we want America as equal partners. To date there have been significant misunderstandings on both sides.

The key to developing this partnership is to actively involve the African diaspora as key actors in this process. Right here in Georgia, we have more than 105,000 residents of African origin, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and many more who are family members born here. They came from Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, the Central African Republic and more.

Many are business owners, do business in Africa, work for Georgia companies that do business in Africa, send funds to relatives and are connected to the continent even if they have never been there. To our diaspora brothers and sisters, we say: You are not African because you were born in Africa. Rather you are African because Africa was born in you. Mobilizing the diaspora holds one of the keys to our success.

Last year alone, Georgia businesses exported $942.7 million worth of products to African countries, according to the International Trade Administration. That is the 5th highest of any state. Georgia imported $670.5 million worth of goods from African countries.

People and businesses in the African diaspora help support nonprofits such as Books For Africa (BFA), which has its warehouse in Atlanta and administrative offices in St. Paul, Minn. BFA has sent 44 million books to every country in Africa over the past 30 years. World Bank data show that books are among the lowest cost/highest impact tools for education. BFA’s own data show that nearly 80 percent of book recipients agree that books received will have a positive impact on their communities.

These schoolbooks, medical books, law books and agricultural books help educate our youth, our future work force and, ultimately, our future leaders. This goal can be achieved only if we all support this initiative.

The African Union (AU), which represents all the countries of the African continent, has partnered with BFA to improve literacy development in all member countries. The first step in that partnership was taken this week when BFA supplied 22,000 books on math, science, law, health and other subjects to the AU library in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Delivery of the books will coincide with the AU’s Summit in February in Addis Ababa.

Those books were shipped Dec. 12 through BFA’s Atlanta warehouse with local volunteers from the Atlanta area helping to pack the books. In fact, approximately 15,000 Atlanta residents volunteer very year in the BFA warehouse to pack books for shipment to students in Africa.

Education through reading is pivotal to the key goals of AU’s transformational vision for the next 50 years, Agenda 2063. People in Africa, mostly its youth, will continue to benefit tremendously from the thousands of hard copy and audio books donated by Books for Africa.

Kofi Annan and his friend, former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale, who were honorary co-chairs of Books For Africa’s Law and Democracy Initiative, pointed out a few years ago that there are two ingredients essential to development of democracy: “A determination to educate a country’s citizens and a commitment to the rule of law.”

Those ingredients foster economic development and trade with America and help provide a brighter future for Africa’s youthful population. We need to move forward as partners and the 55 countries of the African Union are ready to embrace the challenge. It is only then the words of the African Union Anthem will be realized:

“O Sons and Daughters of Africa

Flesh of the Sun and Flesh of the Sky

Let us make Africa the Tree of Life.”

Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao is the African Union Ambassador to the United States. Vuvu Manseka, Ph.D., of Atlanta, is a member of the Board of Directors of Books For Africa.