Politics

Why a congresswoman from Los Angeles is talking about Africa

It’s 8 a.m., Congress isn't in session and Washington’s roads are icy, but more than 100 ambassadors, academics, African emigres and heads of humanitarian groups have crammed into a basement room of the U.S. Capitol for an unofficial meeting about how Boko Haram and other terrorism groups are stunting African progress.

The regular breakfasts are the brainchild of Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), who is frustrated by a lack of attention paid to the continent and sees her own constituents with deep interest in policy toward Africa. 

“In community organizing, you believe that the best policy is made by having those people that are most affected by the policy at the table. It’s not rocket science. If you do policy in a vacuum it can have unintended consequences,” she said in an interview after the meeting.

Bass first got involved in African policy because of South African apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s when she co-chaired the local Southern Africa Support Committee.

When apartheid ended, and Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, Bass’ attention shifted to stopping crack cocaine abuse and gang violence in  South-Central L.A. Bass started and ran the Community Coalition, a social justice organization. In 2004, she was elected to the state Assembly and in 2008 was the first African American woman in U.S. history elected speaker of a state legislative body.

“I stopped doing international work and just focused on domestic work. One of the reasons I was excited about coming to Congress is I could do both,” Bass said. “I really took almost a 20-year hiatus away from foreign policy.”

She views it as her responsibility.

“The same way it was my responsibility to figure out how to address the gang and crack intersection in South-Central, I also felt it was my responsibility to help fight to end apartheid and especially the U.S. government’s policies,” Bass said.

When she joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee after taking office in 2011, Bass said it didn’t feel like those actually affected by the committee’s decisions had a voice.

“When I would go to hearings on Africa, you would have no Africans participating, but they are sitting there in the audience while we’re talking about their countries. That just seemed odd to me,” she said.

She is now the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Human Rights, and International Organizations. Other Foreign Affairs Subcommittees focus narrowly on one or two subjects.

“That in and of itself to me kind of says that Africa is not a big enough priority to have its own focused subcommittee,” she said. “We could go easily a month or two without having a hearing on Africa [with] so many subject matters.”

Bass said she’s gone out of her way to work with the Foreign Affairs Committee, not supersede it, by having committee leaders co-host the breakfasts or speak.

Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) said a wider group of people are excited about legislation before the committee because of Bass’ breakfast meetings. He’s spoken at a few.

“It’s effective,” he said. “Karen Bass is able to strategically use the enthusiasm of those who participate in the breakfasts in order to try to assist us.”

Royce pointed to several cases, including a bill recently signed by President Obama aimed at electrical infrastructure around the continent, the global anti-poaching act and congressional response to Ebola.

Bass said Africa may seem so far away to her Los Angeles constituents, “but we have a huge diaspora community in L.A.”

Her district includes Little Ethiopia, a block-long stretch on Fairfax Avenue between West Olympic Boulevard and Whitworth Drive.

“Even Little Ethiopia is a commercial strip. It is not like Ethiopians reside in that area. I’m sure some do, but that area’s very, very mixed,” she said.

She plans to talk with Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council about a trade mission and also a seminar to connect federal agencies with private businesses interested in investing in Africa, Bass said.

This year she wants to coordinate with the African diaspora living in Los Angeles and hold a policy breakfast in the city so her constituents can be heard too.

“I know there’s a huge Nigerian community, Cameroonian, and there are seven official consulates for seven African countries, and then there’s about another five honorary consulates,” she said. “There should always be a voice. If we come up with a policy we want to bounce it back and forth. You want the people that are most affected also pushing for the policy as well.”

Nii Akuettah, executive director of the African Immigrant Caucus, a coalition of immigrant groups in Washington, called Bass “a big champion for Africa.”

“There is a great deal of good will in the African community here for her and on the continent for her,” he said.

The periodic gatherings draw members of Congress, ambassadors from African countries, emigres or diaspora, and other people who have a stake in the United States’ policy regarding Africa, such as businesses, State Department officials and academics--and often the groups are "not on the same page,” Bass said.

The meetings began as a way to draw attention to reauthorization of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. First created in 2000, AGOA gives special market access to certain sub-Saharan countries that maintain legal, human rights and labor standards. In June, President Obama signed bipartisan legislation extending the act until 2025.

The talks continued, with a focus on trade and economic development between the United States and African countries. Topics have ranged from Ebola to elections to electricity, and the July 2014 breakfast was also about instability because of Boko Haram, the northeastern Nigerian Islamist group.

Bass said Boko Haram must be addressed when looking to set policy about Africa's future.

“You can’t talk about economic development, you can’t talk about the implementation of AGOA in countries without security and in countries that are not stable or are being destabilized because of Boko Haram,” she said.

Bass said many Americans underestimate the threat from the group.

“When you look at the number of people that have been killed by Boko Haram, it’s more than the number of lives lost to ISIS. I think part of our job here is raising the consciousness in the U.S. that just because something is happening on the continent, that doesn’t mean that it does not have international significance,” she said.

It’s her goal to reshape U.S.-Africa relations.

“We still kind of view Africa as a charity case and not as a continent that is a partner. Unfortunately, I think the United States is behind the rest of the world, because the rest of the world sees Africa as much more of a partner than we do,” she said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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