Consider for a moment the following three quotations, all made by First Lady Laura Bush during her recent trip to Africa:
On the AIDS crisis: “But when girls are not empowered, when girls are vulnerable, their chances of being able to negotiate their sexual life with their partners and to encourage or make their partners use a condom are very low.”
On the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman president: “She serves as a very important role model for little girls on the continent as well as around the world…. The question we must answer now is how do we nurture the development of the next generation of women leaders in Africa and worldwide.”
On education in Nigeria: “Education is the foundation of a happy and healthy life. Educated children grow up to be adults who have more opportunities for work, to support their families, and to fully participate in the life of their society.”
Laura Bush is on to something. In her recent trip to Africa, the First Lady covered a lot of ground, both geographically and socially. At first glance, her remarks may look like a series of unconnected observations, the rhetorical equivalent of a connect-the-dot puzzle. If the Bush administration will draw the right lines, however, the reality is more promising.
The problems in Africa are staggering: political corruption and apathy, the social and sexual exploitation of women and children, AIDS, unemployment, famine, a cobbled together infrastructure. One hardly knows where to begin.
And yet, the signs are not all negative. Liberia just elected the continent’s first woman president, a hopeful symbol of a new and overdue recognition of the role of women in society. More money is being invested in education, and there is even finally some good news on the AIDS crisis. Uganda, for instance, has lowered its infection rate from upwards of 30% to around 6%. The First Lady herself commented on the Ugandan example, praising Uganda’s three-pronged approach to the AIDS crisis, which stresses abstinence before marriage, being faithful in marriage, and the consistent and correct use of condoms, the so-called “ABC approach.”
This strategy for dealing with the AIDS pandemic is not without its critics. Some say stressing abstinence or monogamy is old-fashioned, and that resources could be better spent on anti-viral drugs or other treatments. They say that the ABC approach is just a 21st century manifestation of puritan morality. Likewise, there are those who say not enough money is being invested in education, or that it could be better spent. And while the election of Johnson-Sirleaf is a good sign, it cannot be taken as an announcement that social equality has been achieved.
On the other hand, there could be more going on here than meets the eye.
In academic circles, a number of prominent scholars have been making the case that culture matters when it comes to social, political, and economic development in the Third World. By culture, they mean the values, attitudes, and even the practices of the people in a society. In their 2000 volume, aptly titled Culture Matters, Harvard Fellow Lawrence Harrison and Professor Samuel Huntington, also of Harvard, made the case that values, not just material interests or foreign aid, shape human progress. In other words, what people believe and how they behave has a lot to do with where they end up. This is true not just on the individual level, but on the social level as well. Societies that do more to promote positive behaviors have a better chance of making social progress. Laura Bush is saying the same thing.
What’s more, the First Lady recognizes that the problems that plague Africa are inter-related. Controlling the AIDS crisis is connected to the empowerment of women, which is in turn connected to education, employment, and a host of other issues. Not one of these problems can be solved independent from the others.
So, when, in the space of few days, the First Lady talks about increasing the investment in African education, promoting the ABC plan, and draws the election of a woman president to the attention of little girls all over the world, she may be doing more than looking for photo opportunities.