Reflections of an Africa specialist trapped in the Beltway

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is actually a non-analytical rant/musing on my current case of writer’s block and my exile to the Beltway, which is clearly not on the African continent:

Dear Readers,

Lesley on Africa has been afflicted by a rather common ailment – writer’s block. Is my own lack of creativity to blame? No, but I’ll tell you who IS to blame. The Republic of South Sudan.

See, I set out to write an article about South Sudan’s first year of existence last week, but I was trying to avoid writing a litany of the fledgling nation’s failures – to add to many similar articles that came out this week. I think I’ve finally found my angle, but I wanted to emphasize that South Sudan has utterly failed… to stimulate my creativity this week. Inshallah whatever I eventually write will add value to the dialogue on South Sudan’s first year.

So instead of writing about a country, I’ve decided to post a few reflections from the point of view of an Africa specialist trapped in the Beltway for the summer. If you haven’t already, you may gather that I have a love/aggressive hate relationship with the Beltway. On one hand, DC is a highly intellectual, international city brimming with opportunity and access. On the other hand, it can be very insular and one can easily fall into the trap of assuming all knowledge can be found in DC or its immediate vicinity. It’s the latter that irks me.

On top of having writer’s block, I’ve also had a very introspective week – which is why I was reminded of this Beltway dichotomy at an Africa event I recently attended. The speaker was addressing a pretty controversial topic, but was very politic in their remarks and when it came to Q&A. Their remarks did not spark a heated debate, which should have been the case given the subject matter. Instead, it sounded like a pitch for maintaining the status quo of U.S. engagement in Africa – regardless of the inherent idiosyncrasies of our approach (security at the expense of democracy, for example), or any potential areas for improvement.

The whole affair reminded me of an Africa event I was tied to in another life. I didn’t actually have to brief anything (minions rarely do), but more senior people were discussing my project, which was proposing some new, innovative concepts. In my relatively more youthful idealism, I was pretty psyched because I truly believed that if a bunch of really smart people got together to discuss a controversial topic, they would be self-critical and seek to improve upon current concepts. However, instead of seeking to improve upon the weaknesses of current concepts, the event was a venue to reaffirm that these concepts were the right course of action and needed no improvement. Well, what was the point of all that?

This all makes me wonder if we in the Beltway are doomed to reaffirm the status quo time and time again – that our Africa strategy is forward-leaning and balanced, and that Africans – all 1 billion of them – are warming to our approach. From what I gather when I do manage to escape the Beltway, such sentiments lack introspection – and more importantly, nuance. And I think there’s a danger that such sentiments could enshrine superficial engagement with the continent that obstructs the development of new engagement strategies.

On that very optimistic note, I’m off to bed. Also, if you don’t like this post, blame South Sudan.

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One response

  1. […] Lesley Anne Warner on Washington and Africa policy: On one hand, DC is a highly intellectual, international city brimming with opportunity and access. On the other hand, it can be very insular and one can easily fall into the trap of assuming all knowledge can be found in DC or its immediate vicinity. It’s the latter that irks me. […]

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