Africare Leader Addresses Growing Needs Of Continent

Julius Coles is the president of Africare, the oldest and largest African-American led organization specializing in development and relief aid to the Africa. Coles explains the mission of his organization and some of the greatest challenges facing the continent and discusses .

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Every now and again, you want to get away from the issues of the moment and explore the deeper questions behind the headlines, to talk about an issue with people who aren't just smart but wise.

That's why we created Wisdom Watch. It's an occasional feature where we ask some of our most respected elders to guide us through some of today's most challenging and important issues.

Our topic today is Africa, and we speak with a man who has worked for years to improve the lives of the people of that continent. Julius Coles is the president of Africare, the oldest and largest African-American-led organization specializing in development and relief aid to Africa. After seven years of leadership, he has decided to hand the reins to someone else, and he was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. JULIUS COLES (President, Africare): Thank you, Michel, it's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: How did you get interested in international work? You spent much of your career with USAID, and you served in Nepal, Swaziland, Liberia, Morocco, Vietnam. How did you get interested in that kind of work?

Mr. COLES: It's a very interesting story. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, in the civil-rights era, and when I was in high school in the 10th grade, a group of people from Michigan came to Atlanta called Moral Rearmament to talk about living in a world where racism, ethnic division didn't exist but a world where people learned to work together and helped each other.

MARTIN: Moral Rearmament.

Mr. COLES: Yes. It's a very old organization that was located in Mackinac Island, Michigan, and in Caux, Switzerland, and they went about promoting peace. And that was the first time in the city of Atlanta that I was allowed to go to the city auditorium and sit in an integrated audience and watch an integrated play, and I said at that point in my life that I wanted to be a part of that world rather than the segregated world that I was living in. I wanted to be a part of the international community.

So from that point in my life I began to work toward being involved in international affairs and international work.

MARTIN: Why are you interested in Africa?

Mr. COLES: Well, I think the crossroads Africa experience was the one that really got me involved in Africa. I went to Africa in 1961. That was 48 years ago, and I traveled to Dakar to Mati(ph), Bandagar(ph), Opai(ph) to Dogon(ph). These are sort of historical places where people just don't get a chance to visit.

So as a young man, only being about 19 years old at that point in time, to travel some three or four thousand miles on the African continent by mule, boat and otherwise, I just fell in love with African culture and the African experience, and from that point on I've sort of been an African and have served in Africa off and on for some 48 years of my life, which is a long time.

MARTIN: Has your sense of what our relationship with Africa should be as Americans, as African-Americans, but as an Americans in general, African-Americans in particular, if you care to engage that, has your sense of what Africa needs changed over that course of time?

Mr. COLES: Well, I think my appreciation for Africa and it's problems has changed over a period of time. Looking at the relationship between African-Americans and Africa, I've always been disappointed in that relationship, even while I was a student at Morehouse and even more recently, having served on the faculty at Morehouse and Howard, I was always sort of disappointed that American students didn't become more interested in their fellow African students.

There was a sense of non-identification, and African students often complained that they could have a better relationship with white families and white students, more so than African-American students.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Mr. COLES: I don't know.

MARTIN: Because I have to tell you, I've heard it both ways. I mean, I've heard it expressed both ways. I've heard African-American students express the view that some of the African students come here and think they're better than them or that they feel - you know, that they sort of have contempt for people who were enslaved and looked down on them, and there could be a wealth gap in some ways.

I've it expressed, and I've heard also what you said, which is that first-generation African students or diasporans feeling that the African-Americans have no real interest in them and their lives. So I've heard both sides. But what's your take?

Mr. COLES: Well, I've heard them also, Michel, and I think probably some truth on both sides, but I think it's a cultural difference. You know, African-Americans very often profess to have a strong identification with Africa but very often don't understand what that means.

It's more than wearing a dashiki or wearing African clothes. It's really an identification with a people who come from a very diversified culture. And I think for a lot of African Americans, it may be difficult to deal with the cultural difference. But I think this is something that African-Americans, and Americans in general should do, is to try to gain a better understanding of Africa and African students.

I think African students are very, very receptive to Americans and American culture, and I think we as a society, whether white or black, are less receptive to African culture, and I think African culture has contributed a lot to our own culture and to world civilization and we need to have a better understanding of that.

MARTIN: As you leave this post, your latest adventure in the course of a very long career, working oversees and working in this country and in support of international issues - as you step down, what do you see as the most pressing issues confronting the continent?

Mr. COLES: Well, I think the most pressing issue in Africa is the whole idea of reducing the level of poverty that Africa confronts. While a lot of progress has been made over the past 50 years or so, and that many of the countries in Africa have achieved their independence, still a lot needs to be done in terms of improving the distribution of wealth on the African continent. And that's something I've seen a lot of progress been made, but I see a lot needs to be done to reduce poverty on the African continent.

Another problem that's concerned me and I think there's been a lot of improvement over the years has been the question of leadership in Africa. I think we've had some wonderful leaders and I think we've had some terrible leaders. And it never ceases to amaze me that this question of leadership really has an impact on the country and how much progress it makes. And when you look at Africa over a 50-year period, those countries that have had progressive and good leadership had done very well, and those that haven't have done very poorly.

MARTIN: On the question of leadership, in 2005 you wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post where you said quote, "A generation from now, when historians analyze the turning point in Africa's development, they may well have to credit George W. Bush with playing a surprisingly important role in the continent's economic progress." What do you think that George W. Bush did as president that was so significant in supporting Africa?

Mr. COLES: Well I think the first thing he did was to triple economic assistance in the African continent. I mean more than any other president; Bush provided more aid resources to help continental Africa than any president in the history of our country. He also did quite a lot in the area of HIV AIDS, which is a major pandemic on the African continent with over 20 some million people being infected with HIV AIDS and virus.

He had specialized programs to help and alleviate malaria, special programs for women's education. He just did so much. And I think when we look back at his legacy, we can a lot of criticism of what he did and what he didn't do, especially in the world, that when it comes to the continent of Africa, that people are going to say my god, this man has really done a lot to help the African continent.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking to Julius Coles. He is the president of Africare. He's stepping down at the end of this year after seven years leading this development organization. Of course, you know that the whole issue of providing aid to Africa is a controversial one. The economist, Dambisa Moyo had gotten a lot of attention for her argument that aid is actually undermining Africa's development. She talked to my colleague on MORNING EDITION. I'll just play you a short clip of what she had to say.

Ms. DAMBISA MOYO (Economist): I believe that having an aid-dominated society discourages entrepreneurship. It makes the government unaccountable, and obviously it supports rampant corruption through government but also into the wider population. The aid model is to Africa is definitely predicated on pity and Africa doesn't need pity. I think it's time that we started to innovate a way from a system that has not delivered those things. And we should do what we know is the right way to actually deliver growth and reduce poverty, and America knows how to do that.

MARTIN: As a person who's worked in the field for, in development for a very long time all over the world, what's your take?

Mr. COLES: Well I think it's an interesting perspective. I think that it's one approach to development, but I think for those of us who've been towering in the, in the what I call it's princess of development over the years, that it's a sort of a simple solution to a very complex problem, and that sure is important for the private sector, it's to pay a more important role. That trade is also important in terms of providing resources to developing countries. But you can't do it without aid resources and I don't think that the people in a program regard aid as a social welfare program that shows pity to African people. It's looking for a way and a mechanism to help people to improve the quality of their life. And I think that's the way we approach the problem and that's the way we look at it.

MARTIN: We wanted to ask you how do you go about deciding when to get involve?

Mr. COLES: Well Africare is very non-political as an organization. We're out to help people who have a need and there are needs in many areas of Africa. And there's more need than we have the resources to really to begin to apply. First thing that has to happen is that we have to be invited to work in a country. And after being invited, this is not to say that we condone a particular government or support a particular government.

Good example is Zimbabwe. Another good example is refugees from Sudan. We're working in both situations because the need is great and we want to help the people to help themselves. And so we are there because we want to be there and we had been invited to be there, and without being invited, we would not be there. And where the need is the greatest is where you'll find that we work. We often say that Africare works begins where the tarmac ends. That means in very isolated and poor rural areas is where you'll find us.

MARTIN: Do you have any wistfulness at all about stepping away from this position at a time like this? I mean here this is the first African American president. Father born in Africa who clearly has a connection to the continent in ways that these other efforts not withstanding is deeper and richer than any we've seen before. How can you miss this?

Mr. COLES: I think it's wonderful. I'm really enjoying it to the fullest. I think that President Obama has done a lot to reestablish the prestige of America internationally. And think it's a wonderful time. But I also think it's a time when things seem to be going well, and I think they are going well in Africare. I mean we are one of the top private voluntary agencies working international development on the continent of Africa. But sometimes it's better to leave when you're doing well than when things are not going well. And I think after seven years that I'm very pleased with what has been achieved with the organization, and it's time to turn it over to young and more youthful leadership.

MARTIN: As you move on to this next stage of life, this is a question we always like to end these conversations with, do you have any wisdom to share?

Mr. COLES: I would like to say that more than any other thing, that I would like to see American society read more about Africa, study more about Africa, and to travel in Africa. I think you will come back with a profound understanding of a wonderful continent that is so rich and has so much to contribute to the world that I think you will find it to be a place that you will like to be identified with in your life.

MARTIN: Julius Coles is the president of Africare. It's the oldest and largest African American-led organization specializing in development and relief aid to Africa. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Julius Coles, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. COLES: Thank you Michel. It's a pleasure being here. And thank you very much for inviting me.

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