A group of women made history in California last week, and almost no one noticed. These women are extraordinarily influential and powerful and they are leading efforts that have enormous impact on the lives of millions of people.
These women in question are 13 first ladies from Africa. They come from Angola, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Kenya, the Gambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia. They were joined by delegations from six other African nations. And these power players came together in Los Angeles for the first meeting of its kind: The African First Ladies Leadership for Health Summit, sponsored by U.S. Doctors for Africa and attended by 300 health-care professionals and policymakers, foundations and NGOs.
The summit’s guest list included the requisite Hollywood celebs, including Paris Hilton and other actors who admittedly knew nothing about Africa but claimed they were interested to learn.
Over a three-day period, the first ladies met with experts and practitioners from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in the fields of health, education, and women’s empowerment. Their subject was improving the lives of the most-vulnerable citizens throughout the African continent: women and children. This summit zeroed in on ways to improve the health and education systems, to identify the resources available, to develop partnerships in the public and private sector, and then put ideas into action.
Each first lady was invited to make remarks. They came prepared with detailed presentations—including Powerpoint slides. They spoke about the challenges their fellow citizens face, the work they are already doing to address these issues, and, most importantly, a “to-do” list of action items.They discussed access to clean water, sanitation, improved nutrition, expanded opportunity for girls to get an education, making testing for HIV/AIDS more acceptable (one slide showed the president and first lady of Tanzania voluntarily testing for HIV with the hope of encouraging their fellow citizens to do the same), and malaria prevention (more than one million people die each year from malaria—90% of those are in Africa—and the most vulnerable are pregnant women and children).
In each of their presentations, a common theme emerged: The choke point to providing even the most basic health-care services is the absence of skilled practitioners. One in eight women will die of pregnancy-related causes in Sierra Leone. That could change dramatically with a skilled midwife and, believe it or not, an $85 bicycle to reach remote, rural areas..
The first ladies impressed the audience with the depth of their knowledge. I looked around the room and sensed what many were thinking. The experts came to tell the first ladies what they needed to do, but instead the first ladies gave them a lesson in the on-the-ground realities—and the support they needed to deliver even the most basic services to their people. In the parlance of my 11-year-old son, the first ladies “schooled” the experts.
I was impressed with the first ladies, but not at all surprised. Because of my work and travels as the chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, I had met many of these women before and knew they were actively engaged in addressing and solving the struggles of their fellow citizens. We had learned about their work during their visits to the White House; we worked with them to identify best practices in education that should be shared at the White House Conference on Global Literacy and the UNESCO regional literacy conference in Mali; we visited programs in their countries that are supported by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the African Education Initiative and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
What many in the room didn’t realize was that these women are strong partners in the important work of their government and they have made very specific choices about the work they do. Listening to them, I was reminded of what Mrs. Bush always said: While a president has every problem come to his desk, a first lady has the ability to choose what she wants to work on.
I participated in this conference as a panelist on how to build the lasting legacy of a first lady. I was pleased to share this platform with my friend Melanne Verveer, who served as first lady Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and now is ambassador at large for women’s issues at the State Department. We offered practical advice and shared the experiences we had in directing the activities and diverse portfolio of issues for a first lady. Our presence together delivered an important message to these women—people from different political parties and philosophies can find common ground on tough issues and can work together to help solve them. We made the point that a change in government doesn’t mean the proverbial wheel has to be reinvented. The work of a first lady can build on the work of her predecessors.
For example, one underreported case in point is this: After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the eyes of the world were opened to the deplorable treatment of women in Afghanistan and that girls were denied the basic right to attend school. An NGO founded by Hillary Clinton, Vital Voices, sought to deliver donated fabric for uniforms for Afghan girls going to school for the first time. They turned to Laura Bush to use her influence to get the fabric into the country—and she made it happen.
And during her hearing for secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that she admired Laura Bush’s leadership of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council and pledged her support to this organization and its ongoing vital efforts to help the women and children of Afghanistan.
Last week our eyes were turned to Africa. For those who travel to the region, it is a life-changing experience. One is gripped by the spirit and determination of the African people despite the enormous challenges of poverty and disease and, in too many cases, completely devastated economies and infrastructures that have been inflicted by years of war.
Even so, their hearts communicate joy, and the hope for a better future. Despite these times of economic uncertainty, they know that the United States is working to help them solve some of the most pressing issues from civil war to HIV/AIDS and malaria. For Americans, it is uplifting to see that our generosity and infinite compassion is saving lives.
I know it is not popular to point this out, but much of the hope we see in Africa is a result of George W. Bush. As president, he believed it was in America’s strategic and moral interest to help Africa. Consequently, no president has devoted more American resources to helping Africa. Leader after leader in Africa attested that this comprehensive and coordinated foreign assistance finally gave them a chance to break the cycle of poverty and disease in their countries. And for the first time, they felt like partners in developing the strategic plans for their countries rather than merely the recipients of generous but paternalistic foreign aid.
Today the first ladies are taking this to a new level. In addition to welcoming remarks from the first lady of California, Maria Shriver, only one non-African first lady attended the summit—and she stole the show. Sarah Brown, wife of the prime minister of Great Britain, delivered a powerful speech about maternal child health.
Mrs. Brown is the patron of the White Ribbon Alliance—an international coalition dedicated solely to saving the lives of women and newborns who lack basic health care. She has been working hard to establish a network of international champions for the issue of maternal health and has become the lead international voice in the campaign to meet Millennium Development Goal #5—reduce infant mortality by 75% by 2015.
Her remarks captivated everyone in the room. Who wouldn’t be moved by hearing the news that every minute, every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth? Mrs. Brown explained how she arrived at the decision to lead the charge on this issue: It comes from the belief the key to any sustainable progress in the developing world is protecting the health and life of a mother.
But she came to the summit as a partner and not a patron, asking her fellow first ladies to use their influence to establish a task force in their countries to push for international support to reduce the number of maternal and infant deaths. She knows the power of their positions and knows, too, they can press their husbands to push world leaders to put MDG5 on the agenda for the G-8 in Italy this summer.
During a small meeting with Mrs. Brown, I asked her what conversations she had about this project with the spouses of the G-20 leaders who were recently in London for the global financial summit. She said that she had indeed brought the topic up and solicited their help. Talking with her reminded me so much of why I loved being the chief of staff to Laura Bush. It’s rewarding to work for a champion of important causes who brings his or her personal and professional background to the table and uses it in the service of others.
Mrs. Brown and the African first ladies had the same effect on the other participants of the summit, including the corporate executives, philanthropic representatives, and NGO capacity builders. The summit gave them an opportunity to meet with the first ladies to provide the framework for developing partnerships and specific action plans, including financial and technical assistance. The first ladies went home having used their influence to advance the cause of their fellow countrymen. All in a days’ work for a first lady.
Incidentally, the summit’s guest list included the requisite Hollywood celebs, including Paris Hilton and other actors who admittedly knew nothing about Africa but claimed they were interested to learn. We can only hope they put their celebrity to good use for the women and children of Africa. I’ll be interested to see just how they do that.
One very notable absence was the first lady of the United States. No doubt Mrs. Obama would have been enthusiastically received and her presence would have sent a signal that Africa still matters to the United States.
Perhaps it’s just that “once a chief of staff, always a chief of staff,” but when I saw all of the African first ladies on stage to receive an award from Mrs. Brown, I immediately thought the American first lady should be with them. It’s the kind of powerful image that would be right up there in the first-lady history books. It demonstrates convening power and diplomatic skill. I know firsthand that there are tremendous and competing demands on a first lady’s schedule but I think this was a missed opportunity for Mrs. Obama.
Still this was a good week for these African first ladies. I am sure it’s not the last we will hear from them. And I suspect we may yet see Mrs. Obama make her own mark with these extraordinary women.
Anita McBride served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009.