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Minnesota companies and nonprofits can play an important role in African Union’s progress

The author at the African Union mission in Washington, D.C.

At a time when the European Union is under severe pressure to change dramatically or perhaps even break apart as evidenced by the recent Brexit vote and a perceived immigrant crisis in some countries, there is a place where the European model is moving in the opposite direction. The members of the African Union (AU), formed in 1999, seek an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena,” according to its vision.

The AU sees itself as an organization that is “spearheading Africa’s development and integration.” The AU, widely known for its peacekeeping troops sent to warring countries, is interested in developing more trade and currency linkages as a way to develop the continent’s economies.

I see a parallel to the discussions around the formation of the EU. In the early 2000s I conducted research on the European Union as they were planning to expand membership for countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Baltic countries and the Czech Republic. I traveled to Poland, Hungary, Belgium, and Italy to do research on expectations regarding what enlargement would bring, especially in the agricultural sector. My final analysis was that many farmers were worried that joining the EU would drive them out of business, but in the end, the opposite happened and they prospered greatly after unification, something they were not expecting.

Enthusiasm for development

Last month I had the opportunity to speak to the African ambassadors to the U.S. at the African Union offices in Washington, D.C. I sensed enthusiasm from them about breaking down trade barriers, developing their economies, becoming more integrated and building education as a foundation for all this economic and political development. And Minnesota, through both its international companies and its internationally focused nonprofits, can play an important role.

Minnesota companies such as Cargill, General Mills, Donaldson Co. and Thomson Reuters already do business in Africa. While economic activity in Sub-Saharan Africa fell in 2015 from the 5 to 7 percent range experienced over the past decade to 3.5 percent, the International Monetary Fund says that “medium term growth prospects remain favorable.” The countries of Africa, with their abundant natural resources, improved financial services and banking and a huge youthful population, have tremendous potential.

Minnesota nonprofits can also contribute to African growth and development. What I heard from the ambassadors last month was that the key to all of their plans for working together and for economic and political development was education. Children who learn to read and get a good education lead to an educated workforce and development of democratic states and the rule of law, which in turn fosters economic and business growth.

A nonprofit example

I told the ambassadors the story of the founding of Books For Africa (BFA), based in St. Paul. Books For Africa was created in 1988 when founder, Tom Warth, visited Jinja, Uganda, the source of the Nile River. Warth (originally from England but relocated to Minnesota) had just sold his business – a book company – and was traveling in Africa where his grandfather had been with Cecil Rhodes in the 1800s. While traveling in Africa, he was invited to visit a library in Jinja, and being interested in books he said yes. He found that the library had very few books. When he returned to Minnesota, he arranged with some of his friends in the publishing world to ship several mailbags of books. The books were well received in Uganda, and so Tom and his friends decided to keep doing it.

Over the past 28 years, Books For Africa has become the world’s largest shipper of donated books to Africa. BFA has shipped over 36 million books to 49 African countries. Last year alone, BFA shipped 2.4 million books and 467,000 digital books valued at over $34 million to 25 African countries. Working with Thomson Reuters, BFA has also sent over 80 customized law libraries to 20 countries through its Law and Democracy Initiative.

The ambassadors expressed interest in building a connection to BFA and to Minnesota. We plan to continue to work with USAID offices, U.S. embassies, the Peace Corps, UNICEF as well as local universities and nongovernmental organizations to ship more agriculture, law and medical and school books to their countries. We even discussed the possibility of Books For Africa gaining observer status at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The ambassadors believed, as do all of us at BFA, that a library shelf that is filled with books for Africa’s students will make all the difference in the future of their countries and their continent as they build their economies and democratic governments and break down international barriers.

Patrick Plonski is the executive director of St. Paul-based Books For Africa.

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