Energizing Diaspora Linkages

By Gregory Simpkins
Senior Advisor
U.S. Agency for International Development

Efforts to join Africans and their Diaspora are not new. Building on the Pan-African movement of the late 19th century, Marcus Garvey, founder of what was called the Universal Negro Improvement Association – African Communities League, in May 1920 sent a delegation to Liberia and explained to then-President C.D.B. King the benefits of collaboration. Garvey wanted to relocate his organization’s headquarters in Liberia, provide funding for the Liberian government to provide schools and hospitals, help pay Liberia’s debts and settle Diasporans from American in Liberia to help develop the country’s agriculture and natural resource management.

While these were noble goals, Great Britain and France, as well as some in America, were concerned about Garvey’s pledge to help free Africa from colonial rule. No doubt these great powers convinced some in the Liberian government that having the Garvey organization in Liberia would antagonize powerful international interests. However, that was not the only issue mitigating against the UNIA in Liberia.

At that time, the Americo-Liberians, descendants of returnees to the country from America, dominated Liberia culturally, politically and economically. That hold was only broken a few decades ago. Surely there was concern that a professed liberating force represented by Garvey would upset the existing order. So in the end, this relationship didn’t work out, and the Garvey people were no longer welcome in Liberia.
Nearly 100 years later, Michael Duncan, brother of First Lady Clar Duncan-Weah is leading a movement to revisit the arrangement in hopes of rekindling a promise which President King later reneged on to Garvey.
The First Lady’s brother, Michael, is currently the President General of the UNIA-ACL.
Even after the failure to connect in Liberia, Diaspora advocacy for Africa continued, through the efforts of W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and others. In the mid-1930s, U.S. government reluctance to intervene in Ethiopia’s conflict with Italy limited American aid to medical assistance. However, the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, set up in New York City in February 1935 by delegates from twenty Harlem organizations (including the New York division of Garvey’s UNIA-ACL), the Young Men’s Christian Association’s educational branch, the local Elks lodge, and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights were among the largest African American groups established to press then-President Franklin Roosevelt to do more to help the invaded Ethiopia.

“Blacks in this country knew comparatively little about Ethiopia, except that it stood as the symbol of African achievement. Ethiopia, the sole African kingdom which had managed to retain its independence during the European scramble for colonies at the close of the nineteenth century, had a long recorded history, an ancient Coptic Christian faith, a monarchy which claimed descent from King Solomon, and internationally recognized diplomatic status. Negro Americans did what they could to prevent her destruction,” wrote Rod Ross in his essay “Black Americans and Italo-Ethiopian Relief 1935-1936.”

The United States has the second largest African Diaspora behind Brazil. That Diaspora – both native-born and new residents – currently numbers 46 million. According to Nielsen, a global performance management company, this population will grow to 74.5 million by 2060 and its buying power will reach $1.5 trillion by next year, according to Black Enterprise magazine. The African-born or first-generation members of this group already may have economic roots on the continent of Africa and can be the leading edge of a growing American economic engagement with companies within the countries of Africa.

Nielsen found that native-born African Americans have tended traditionally to invest more in real estate than in equities, but that trend is changing. Meanwhile, the Journal of Development Economics reported as far back as May 2006 that remittances from African-born Americans had become the second largest source of external finance to Africa after foreign aid. Those living in the United States have made this country the largest source of remittances globally. Trends for both segments of the African American population are just turning to investments, but this wave may eventually significantly drive investment in Africa from the United States.

Furthermore, the African Diaspora in the United States can help even the playing field with former colonial powers and China who have representatives throughout African countries. The Presidential trade initiative Prosper Africa considers those born in Africa as America’s vanguard to identify actionable business opportunities through existing relationships, opening the African market to all Americans.

The black immigrant population has increased fivefold since 1980. There were 4.2 million black immigrants living in the U.S. in 2016, up from just 816,000 in 1980, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Since 2000 alone, the number of black immigrants living in the country has risen 71%. Now, roughly one-in-ten blacks (9%) living in the U.S. are foreign born, according to 2016 American Community Survey data, up from 3% in 1980. (Immigrants make up 10% of the black population in the March 2016 Current Population Survey.)

Working together, the entire African Diaspora can accomplish much. We can buy and sell from one another and increase our mutual wealth through business and job creation. We can leverage the wealth that already exists in our mutual communities. In short, we should do all we can to help ourselves first. Doing so first means that those in government who can provide assistance, such as the virtual deal room being put in place by USAID’s West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, don’t have to start from scratch with the businesses transacting through them.

That’s why the relationship between AWEP and the African Merchants Association is so important. These are Diaspora buyers and sellers, not dependent on any government funding, working together to enrich one another. I was pleased to be able to help them get linked together. I’m also pleased that AWEP is working on an agreement with the Afripolitan Marketplace, an online sales conduit, so that African producers can sell their goods directly to consumers. Sales channels have changed greatly during the current pandemic, and selling online is now a necessity, even for businesses that have a brick-and-mortar presence.

We stand at the beginning of a historic movement that we must hope works this time as it failed a century ago. But we must approach this with mutual respect and not think either side is there to save the other. We must learn from each other and be open to doing things differently – not thinking our way is the only way to do business.

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