During his trip to Ghana, President Barack Obama will deliver a major address celebrating democracy. The speech comes at a time when the president’s efforts to improve America’s image in the world seem to be paying off. But if Obama is to succeed in turning around those negative perceptions of America—the consequences of which Americans living abroad must deal with all the time—Americans at home have to help.
And that simply means Americans have to be better informed about people beyond the nation’s orders. This is a tough task when the foreign news that reaches most Americans rarely goes beyond the four Ds—death, disease, disaster and despair. Living and working in Africa has affirmed that for us. The Africa portrayed in Western media is almost unrecognizable to those of us who live there.
It is important, for example, for Americans to know that Ghana is one of a growing number of countries that refutes the claim that poor countries cannot afford democracy. Last December, Ghanaian voters removed the incumbent party in a hard-fought, but peaceful election—with an impressive 70 percent turnout.
It was Ghana’s fifth successful national election since the return of civilian rule in 1992, affirming a national consensus that politicians should play by the rules established by a constitution and upheld by a strong independent electoral commission. Ghana is also a soon-to-be major oil producer surrounded by countries of conflict, so its democratic development is also internationally significant.
Yet few Americans were aware of Ghana’s election in the midst of our own historic campaign. But for Ghanaians, many of whom live in America, their intense interest in the U.S. election was rivaled by their interest in what was happening back in Ghana. Americans, for too long, have been comfortable in a world where others know more about our society and politics than we know of theirs.
President Obama would do well to challenge Americans to become more informed about the world—the opportunities as well as the dangers. And he should encourage Americans to look for ways to be better informed and more engaged citizens—of their own country and of the world.
Even as the number of foreign-based, American reporters has fallen from 188 to 141 between 2002 and 2007, and major papers such as the Chicago Tribune are now closing many of their foreign posts, Americans can still remain in touch with the world.
While working in Africa, we have been impressed by the information explosion, including the thousands of African news bloggers at home and abroad. Moreover, there is also a reservoir of grassroots information appearing on the Web from the 4 million Americans working and living abroad. The number of young Americans studying in other countries has risen 150 percent since 2000 to nearly 250,000—many more now in Asia, Africa and Latin America. And many of them are blogging. It is vitally important that this pool of citizen reporters be heard.
If President Obama is to succeed in getting our global neighbors to love us, it is important for us to love them in return. We need to know that not every Muslim is a terrorist. We need to know that even the poorest African mothers and fathers have the same ambitions for their children as the wealthiest American parents. To do that, Americans must work harder at understanding the world beyond our borders, exerting a little more energy than is required for channel surfing or sticking with the one channel that shares your point of view.
President Obama has laid out a vision for bringing about international cooperation to contain extremism, advance peace with justice, and to better manage the global economy and the environment. But Americans need to hold him accountable for making that vision become reality.
Forging principled partnerships with young democracies such as Ghana is a welcome compliment to his recent efforts at improving ties with traditional allies and former adversaries, as well as his historic appeal for greater respect and understanding with Muslims around the world.
But none of this can succeed without the backing of a public that is better informed. We live in a global neighborhood, and it’s time we got to know our neighbors.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance.
John Stremlau is formerly Head of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and a frequent commentator on international affairs.