Saturday, July 11, 2009

Obama to Africans in Ghana: do it yourself...

In Ghana as in Cairo, Obama used his biography to create standing to point out inconvenient truths to the people of the region he was visiting. He alluded to his grandfather's humiliation as a servant of British masters as prelude to saying 'don't blame colonialism for current woes.' He used his father's thwarted career as a public servant as a springboard for a focus on corruption:
Countries like Kenya had a per capita economy larger than South Korea's when I was born. They have badly been outpaced....

In my father's life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.
With regard to governmental corruption, Obama is picking up on a focal point of Bush policy in Africa - rewarding good governance. But --emboldened by biography perhaps -- he spoke more directly about how that corruption plays out than did Bush or Clinton:

First, we must support strong and sustainable democratic governments....

This is about more than just holding elections. It's also about what happens between elections. Repression can take many forms, and too many nations, even those that have elections, are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves ... or if police -- if police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top ... or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, even if occasionally you sprinkle an election in there. And now is the time for that style of governance to end.
He ended as he often does with a vision of a future world in which fundamental problems of today have been effectively confronted, and at the close delivered his signature "yes we can." A few moments early, however, speaking directly to the young people who, he pointed out, make up half the population in much of Africa, his message was more clearly "yes you can" - your future is in your own hands:

And here is what you must know: The world will be what you make of it. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. You can serve in your communities and harness your energy and education to create new wealth and build new connections to the world. You can conquer disease and end conflicts and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can ... because in this moment, history is on the move.

But these things can only be done if all of you take responsibility for your future. And it won't be easy. It will take time and effort. There will be suffering and setbacks. But I can promise you this: America will be with you every step of the way -- as a partner, as a friend. Opportunity won't come from any other place, though. It must come from the decisions that all of you make, the things that you do, the hope that you hold in your heart.

It's amazing in a way, that audacity to speak as the world's parent. The arrogance is softened by aiming the exhortation at the young. By making the young his vanguard, and by mixing in allusion to American flaws and errors, Obama carves out for himself a huge writ of moral authority.

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