Paradigm Shift: Talking about possibilities instead of problems

AVC Founding Director Caitlin Kelley reflects on her time at the 2014 New York Forum Africa. 

I recently got back from Libreville, Gabon, where I attended the New York Forum Africa, an annual conference for business, political, and thought leaders to discuss African issues and the future of the continent. It was an honor to be invited and a really cool opportunity to explore a new African country and build relationships for AVC’s expansion.

At the conference with fellow attendees

With new friends from Gabon and Morocco

As one of the leaders of Africa Volunteer Corps, the most important part of my job is to listen – to what the community needs, to the challenges and opportunities facing young people, to how people across Africa are thinking about the continent’s growth. The New York Forum Africa was a great opportunity to listen to what leaders in business, policy, and nonprofits are doing and thinking about Africa and its future.

When I first started studying Africa over 10 years ago, the international conversation about Africa was different. It was about aid and fixing Africa and asking the question “what’s wrong with Africa?”. The paradigm is now shifting in how the international community sees Africa, and how Africa talks about itself. Thankfully, the conversation is less and less about aid, and more and more about local solutions, investment, and entrepreneurship. The conversation is no longer about problems, it is about opportunities. Hallelujah! It is about time.

Attending the Africa Design Award ceremony at the conference

Attending the Africa Design Award ceremony at the conference

I was inspired, and quite reassured, to be in a room of over 1,000 people thinking and talking about the opportunities available in Africa. Many challenges remain, of course; that is always true in life. But the future that Africa wants to see for itself starts with people on the continent and international partners seeing the reality of Africa’s possibilities.

Over and over again during the Forum we discussed the need to invest in entrepreneurs, especially young people, and to create opportunities for young people in the form of education, training, and jobs.

It was exciting knowing that Africa Volunteer Corps is already meeting those needs. One of the most exciting things I experienced during the conference was hearing so much positive feedback about Africa Volunteer Corps. Several people from Morocco offered to help us expand to Morocco, and people across Libreville kept asking, “When are you expanding to Gabon?”.

Africa is a mind-bogglingly diverse continent, and yet, at the Forum, when I met people from all across the continent, not just from Tanzania or from East Africa, the response to Africa Volunteer Corps was overwhelmingly affirmative. People across Africa want the service that AVC is providing. Our job now is to position ourselves over the next several years to be able to meet the demand.

I had the opportunity to meet a lot of Gabonese youth, to talk to them about the opportunities they see for their country and what they think needs to be done. They are proud of Gabon and optimistic about their country’s future. Again, it is far more valuable to listen to what they think needs to be done and to see how Africa Volunteer Corps can help than to assume that we already know what is best for them. As Auma Obama said, “Don’t give us a fish. Don’t teach us to fish. Ask us if we eat fish.”

One of the most interesting initiatives of this year’s Forum, was the Train My Generation Survey, a survey of Africa’s Generation Y about their hopes for the future and the challenges they face in achieving their goals. With 70% of Africa’s population under the age of 30, Africa is poised to have a major demographic dividend, if we can create opportunities for the massive youth population. As we (Africa Volunteer Corps and anyone else trying to take the lid off African potential) move forward, the voices, energy, and ideas of those young people are vital to building a positive future.

Listening to youth share their ideas

Gabonese students posing at the podium during the African Citizens’ Summit

While it is valuable to have leaders and influential changemakers speaking to each other and building connections, I wondered how much voices from the grassroots were being heard and taken into account. It hit me that Africa Volunteer Corps gets to straddle two worlds, attending high-level conferences such as the New York Forum Africa, while also working with local volunteers and partnering with grassroots organizations.

People know what their own communities need, and I wondered how much their ideas filter up to the business and policy leaders, or how much business and policy leaders seek out the perspectives of people on the ground. I am so grateful that Africa Volunteer Corps supports the ideas of people on the grassroots level while providing a channel for those ideas to reach the world. We look forward to bringing more and more of those voices to the world in the years to come.