L'AQUILA, ITALY -- In a meeting this morning with the leaders of Egypt, Algeria, Senegal, Nigeria, Libya and Ethiopia, President Obama spoke about his personal connections to both Africa and poverty, and according to a top White House aide, "you could have heard a pin drop."
After describing a food security initiative that the president and other G-8 leaders have been working on the president talked about development and the importance of governance.
"He shared a personal story," said deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman. "Everyone knows that his father was from Kenya, that he still has relatives living in poverty, and that while he’s President of the United States he feels poverty in a very personal way because of this of his family situation."
Froman recounted that the president shared that when his father, Barack Obama Sr., came to the United States from Kenya, Kenya's GDP was higher than Korea's.
"Obviously much has happened since then and he wanted to make it clear that the problems that Africans face weren’t just a product of colonialism or past history," Froman said, "that this partnership -- whether it's over food security or other development ideas -- require local governments to take responsibility seriously. This wasn’t a time to make excuses. And that it was important to join together in a clear-eyed way."
As the president put it, Froman went on, "his cousin in Kenya cant find a job without paying a bribe, and that’s not the fault of the G8. And when companies can’t operate without paying, in some parts of Africa, without paying the 25 percent fee off the top in bribes, that’s not colonialism."
The president said, Froman said, recounting from his contemporaneous notes, "that it is important to think about people on the ground who are focused not about who’s at fault on how to survive in Africa’s situation but are focused on how to survive and succeed and provide for their families and in that context he emphasized the importance of transparency, openness, and efficiency."
It's important, the president told the African leaders, that development programs are implemented so they "reach people who really need them, that the assistance actually gets to the farmers and the farmers benefit from this. That was the point he made. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Several following speakers noting that they thought it was a very moving remark and thanked him for sharing his personal story with them. And I think it helped define the seriousness of the discussion and the importance of the subject."
-- Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller