This afternoon the President held a town hall with 115 young leaders from more than 40 countries across Africa — it was the kind of White House event under this President that surprises you, catching you off guard with its honesty.
For those interested in Africa and its development, or for that matter this President’s engagement with not just heads of state, but with people all over the world, the video is well worth watching (for info on America’s diplomatic progress see our fact sheet as well). Here’s the transcript of the final Q&A:
Q Good afternoon, Mr. President, your excellencies. I am from Somalia. I came all the way here with one question, and that is, living in conflict in a country that has confused the whole world, and being part of the diaspora that went back to risk our lives in order to make Somalia a better place, especially with what we’re going through right now — how much support do we expect from the U.S.? And not support just in terms of financially or aid, but support as an ear, as a friend, as somebody who hears and listens to those of us who are putting our lives and our families at risk to defend humanity.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think you will have enormous support from the people of the United States when it comes to trying to create a structure and framework in Somalia that works for the Somali people.
Now, the history of Somalia over the last 20 years has been equally heartbreaking, if not more so. You have not had a effective, functioning government that can provide basic services. It’s been rife with conflict. And now the entire region is threatened because of radical extremists who have taken root in Somalia, taking advantage of what they perceive to be a failing state, to use that as a base to launch attacks, most recently in Uganda.
And obviously the United States expresses its deepest condolences to the lives that were lost in Kampala — at the very moment of the World Cup. And it offered two contrasting visions. You have this wonderful, joyous celebration in South Africa at the same time as you have a terrorist explosion in Kampala.
So we desperately want Somalia to succeed. And this is another example of where our interests intersect. If you have extremist organizations taking root in Somalia, ultimately that can threaten the United States as well as Uganda, as well as Kenya, as well as the entire region.
So right now you’ve got a transitional government that is making some efforts. I don’t think anybody expects Somalia anytime in the next few years to suddenly be transformed into a model democracy. Whatever governance structures take place in Somalia have to be aware of the tribal and traditional structures and clan structures that exist within Somalia. But certainly what we can do is create a situation where people — young people are not carrying around rifles, shooting each other on the streets. And we want to be a partner with Somalia in that effort, and we will continue to do so.
And some of it is financial, some of it is developmental, some of it is being able to help basic infrastructure. In some cases, we may try to find a portion of the country that is relatively stable and start work there to create a model that the rest of the country can then look at and say, this is a different path than the one that we’re taking right now.
But in the end, I think that this metaphor of the success of the World Cup and the bombing shows that each of you are going to be confronted with two paths. There’s going to be a path that takes us into a direction of more conflict, more bloodshed, less economic development, continued poverty even as the rest of the world races ahead — or there’s a vision in which people come together for the betterment and development of their own country.
And for all the great promise that’s been fulfilled over the last 50 years, I want you to understand — because I think it’s important for us to be honest with ourselves — Africa has also missed huge opportunities for too long. And I’ll just give you one example.
When my father traveled to the United States and got his degree in the early ’60s, the GDP of Kenya was actually on partner, maybe actually higher than the GDP of South Korea. Think about that. All right? So when I was born, Kenya per capita might have been wealthier than South Korea. Now it’s not even close. Well, that’s 50 years that was lost in terms of opportunities. When it comes to natural resources, when it comes to the talent and potential of the people, there’s no reason why Kenya shouldn’t have been on that same trajectory.
And so 50 years from now, when you look back you want to make sure that the continent hasn’t missed those opportunities as well. We want to make sure of that as well. And the United States wants to listen to you and work with you. And so when you go back and you talk to your friends and you say, what was the main message the President had — we are rooting for your success, and we want to work with you to achieve that success, but ultimately success is going to be in your hands. And being a partner means that we can be there by your side, but we can’t do it for you.
Okay, thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. (Applause.)
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders in the East Room of the White House. August 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders in the East Room of the White House. August 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Participants raise their hands as President Barack Obama asks for questions during a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders in the East Room of the White House. August 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama listens to a question during a town hall-style meeting with young African leaders in the East Room of the White House. August 3, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
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