Mora McLean, President/CEO, Africa-America Institute

Mora McLean, President/CEO, Africa-America Institute

Mora McLean has served as president and CEO of the New York City-based Africa-America Institute since 1996. Founded in Washington, D.C., in 1953, AAI is a nonprofit, multiracial, multiethnic organization whose mission is to promote enlightened engagement between Africa and America through education, training, and dialogue. Prior to joining AAI, McLean served as deputy director of the Ford Foundation's Africa and Middle East programs and was also the foundation's West Africa representative, based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands and graduated from Wesleyan University ('77) and the Columbia University School of Law.

Philanthropy News Digest: Although media attention and philanthropic interest in Africa has increased over the past year, particularly with the situation in Darfur and the announcement of a joint effort by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations to foster a new green revolution on the continent, there still remains a noticeable lack of focus on African issues. What role has AAI played in trying to shed light on some of these issues?

Mora McLean: Although the core of our work has always involved providing opportunities for Africans to secure advanced education and professional training, we have a longstanding corollary focus on giving people in the U.S. balanced and substantive information about Africa. For many years we hosted major conferences in Africa that drew policy makers from Africa and the United States — heads of state, and decision-makers concerned about U.S.-Africa relations — to discuss and debate ways in which the U.S. could intervene on the continent and be helpful. Unfortunately, due to funding constraints we no longer host these major gatherings, but we have other programs aimed at educating American audiences, including a congressional seminar series on Capitol Hill called Africa Thursday that aims to inform members of Congress and their staffs, as well as others within the Beltway region, about topical Africa issues. On an ongoing basis we also host roundtables in Africa, in the United States, and online that are designed to elicit African insights and opinions on issues and make these available to key segments of the American public — particularly leaders in the private and public sectors. AAI's distinctive contribution is to make African perspectives available to a U.S. audience. Too often, discussion and debate about Africa doesn't include any sense of how Africans view their own situation.

PND: What role have African Americans and Caribbean Americans historically played in AAI?

MM: Communities in the African diaspora, especially in the United States, have always been important to AAI's mission in that they have the potential to have a great impact on U.S. policies toward Africa, which in turn can greatly influence private-sector engagement with the continent. We conducted a study some years ago to analyze the variables that led some members of Congress to take more of an interest in U.S.-Africa policy. We found there was a direct correlation between voting districts with substantial African-American populations and members who were likely to display active interest in Africa. Interestingly, there has been a shift in this dynamic over the last decade or so, in the sense that we are seeing broader, more widespread interest in U.S.-Africa policy from policy makers cutting across partisan, racial, and other demographic categories. A good portion of that interest is focused on the continent's emerging market potential. It's still true, however, that African-American members of Congress take an active lead in advancing policies for the mutual benefit of African countries and the U.S. The co-chair of our Africa Thursday Congressional Seminar series is Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), now chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, and we have wide support for our education mission from other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Charles Rangel (D-NY), the new chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Barbara Lee (D-CA), an influential member of the House International Affairs Committee.

PND: Have you been encouraged by the interest major philanthropic organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seem to be taking in Africa?

MM: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there is genuine and growing interest on the part of these organizations in having a significant and positive impact on Africa and the well-being of Africans. For example, the Gates Foundation's major investments in health programs, in particular its work to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine, can't help but lead to major advances for Africa in that area. On the downside, I don't see anywhere near enough investment in Africa's human capacity. There still seems to be an overarching tendency to think, "We're going to go in and fix Africa." At AAI we have long understood the value of making long-term investments in education and training programs that equip Africans themselves to identify and solve problems and play leading roles in addressing their own needs and in engaging with other problem solvers around the world. Ninety percent of the individuals, from all over Africa, who have benefited from AAI's short and long-term programs, have returned home to Africa to make a substantive contribution. It simply will not be possible to meet Africa's dire public-health needs, to address the need for private-sector development, or to improve the ability of African countries to manage their own conflicts if we do not invest heavily in African education and skills building. The significant presence of non-African technicians and Chinese laborers building roads, bridges, and other infrastructure in places like Angola graphically illustrates the extent and nature of the capacity problem.

PND: What role, if any, do you think philanthropy can play in ending the crisis in Darfur?

MM: Beyond addressing the immediate humanitarian crisis, I am always inclined toward the kinds of interventions AAI has promoted for more than fifty years, because they are do-no-harm kinds of interventions that have the potential to be transformative. Even in the face of what appears to be a complex and intractable conflict with many interests at stake, we have to maintain our optimism that the conflict will ultimately end. At the same time, philanthropists can begin now to make the kinds of contributions that will enable the people of the region to rebuild and become a functional society able to look after its basic needs and move forward. This would mean programs to educate children and, just as important, adults, who over the course of this long conflict have been educationally deprived. Indeed, although the situation in Darfur is often compared to Rwanda in 1994, the reality is that Rwanda today is an example of what is possible when a country decides to put education among its highest priorities and treats its people as a resource worthy of major long-term investment.

We have in our database several hundred Sudanese nationals who benefited from AAI-administered scholarship programs that, for the most part, were underwritten by the United States government. Sadly, these programs have ended. Yet we know that whether the challenge is to prevent conflict, promote good governance and democracy, or promote trade and economic development, the capacity needs on the continent must be met, and that is no less true of Sudan and the Darfur region.

PND: A recent study issued by the Greenlining Institute titled Investing in a Diverse Democracy - Foundation Giving to Minority-Led Non-Profits found that only 3.6 percent of the grant dollars awarded by America's twenty-four largest foundations went to minority-led organizations. How do you view that finding?

MM: I think it's extraordinary, and I hope Greenlining will publicize the results of the study and follow up with additional in-depth studies and reports. The study's findings suggest a firm basis for our impression that, on the whole, minority-led organizations have trouble garnering major foundation support for their work — especially in the field of international development. I think it's yet another manifestation of the tortured history of race relations and the ongoing struggles of African Americans and minorities in this country. It comes as no surprise that those of us who are members of minority communities are not connected to private sources of support in the way that our non-minority peers are. So, I congratulate Greenlining on the work they have done, and I hope it will inspire major foundations to do more on their own to examine their staffing patterns and giving trends and work to improve minority participation on all fronts.

— Mark Allwood