from Africa in Transition

The Myth of Isolationism, in Africa, at Least

February 03, 2014

Blog Post

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Civil Society


United States


This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

There is currently a view that America’s role in the world is shrinking, as the country and its leaders reportedly become more “isolationist.” That term is code for Washington’s unwillingness to use military force in situations where experts, in and out of the press, believe it ought to be applied. And while potential political candidates refer to the U.S. as “the indispensable nation,” they too tend to see engagement through a military lens.

Thank goodness political pundits are often wrong.

In sub-Saharan Africa, U.S. engagement remains robust, vitiating the isolationist charge, and that engagement is not necessarily military. A broad range of non-governmental organizations and individuals are active in African countries. Their presence supports William Easterly’s view that progress in reducing African poverty, and other socio-economic ills, is in part, a result of “the work of entrepreneurs, inventors, traders, investors, activists—not to mention ordinary people of commitment and ingenuity striving for a better life.”

“Ordinary people of commitment” are accomplishing much at the grassroots level, far from elite pundits’ field of vision. The Ayisatu Owen International School in Techiman, northern Ghana, is a sterling example. Founded in 1997 by American aid worker Wilfred Owen, his wife Ayisatu, and the student group For One World, the school opened with one teacher and four students. By 2010, the school had grown to over four hundred students and thirty-eight teachers.

It continues to expand as additional resources and personnel arrive. Writing in his annual Christmas Letter, Owen commented that operations are supported by forty-one For One World volunteers and that the teaching aids and material brought in by students (mostly girls) from Vermont’s St. Johnsbury Academy have “actually overwhelmed us.” Outside the realm of government policy, there is little isolationism in America. Volunteer participation in the school is flourishing, Owen says, and it often comes from high school and college students from the U.S., who are deepening their commitment to international engagement by volunteering in Africa.

Their initiative is working. The Ayisatu Owen School has been judged the best private school in Techiman, Ghana, and girls’ scores on national exams are ranked among the highest in the district.

Engagement with Africa at the grassroots by ordinary Americans may well prove more effective than the efforts of “Davos man” and his elite counterparts.