Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is no stranger to ONE’s issues. As the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, he is a champion of US development assistance and a witness to the benefit it has in helping to pull the world’s poorest people out of poverty. He’s travelled to nearly 20 African countries, and most recently, traveled to Uganda to get an update on the activities and hunt for criminal warlord Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
I had the pleasure of interviewing the Senator this week on Capitol Hill. In our conversation, he praises Invisible Children for their work in Uganda, criticizes China for not giving Africans employment opportunities on their own soil, and offers an important tip to our ONE members on how to pitch foreign aid to members of Congress.
Read on to find out what else we discussed:
Malaka: Were you surprised by the level of the response to the Kony film in the US? Do you think this shows that there is an appetite within young Americans to get engaged in African issues?
Sen. Isakson: After thinking about it, I wasn’t surprised. It was a penetrating video and a horrible story about Kony and what he does. Young people are, by definition, passionate — and they like to right wrongs. Obviously what they’ve done is bring an awareness to an issue that needed worldwide attention. I’m proud that young people have responded.
You just returned from Uganda with an update on LRA activities and the hunt for Joseph Kony. What did you learn? Is American involvement in the hunt welcomed by the people of Uganda?
It was a wonderful trip, and focused on Joseph Kony and the Invisible Children, AIDS and PEPFAR, and women’s empowerment in Uganda. The government of Uganda was very appreciative, because Uganda has carried the burden of the weight of pursuing Kony for years. I would assume Ugandans would be appreciative as well. Kony is now in CAR and the DRC.
Have you seen any improvement?
US military assistance is helping measurably, because the area Kony is in is heavily vegetated. The US is providing important intelligence to the Ugandan army and the UN troops.
If you could make your own viral video — and receive the level of attention of the Kony video — what would you focus on?
Darfur or Dadaab (a refugee camp in Kenya, currently home to Somalian refugees from the 20-year conflict and the recent famine). I think the starvation and the malnutrition would go equally as viral. The Dadaab camp has over 450,000 refugees and is the most horrible situation you can imagine. Darfur looks like Mars, with its dry red surface. There’s little foliage. Women have to scavenge for wood for charcoal. America is delivering aid through NGOs — but it’s not the whole answer. Most of these women’s husbands have been killed, and the women have been raped, and it’s terrible. I met with the Sudanese government to stress to them the importance of allowing humanitarian access, and traveled with them and with UN troops to Darfur. There is still some violence but it not anything like it was, and America helped a lot, but there’s still some isolated violence.
On your trip back to the US from places like Dabaab Camp and Darfur, what goes through your mind as you sit in the airplane?
How much I have to be thankful for. Thankful America is such a caring country. If you go to Dadaab, Darfur, Uganda, there are US NGOs delivering health care, food, nutrition. Our country does great things to help with no anticipation in return. The Chinese people are all over the place and they’re expecting a return. It’s great that China builds, but they bring their own labor. America tries to be a catalyst for development. When I was in Uganda, most of those administering development programs were Ugandan. We’re empowering Africans as they take over administering programs such as PEPFAR.So we’re providing jobs as well as hope. I’m very proud of what America does.
You’ve been a longtime champion of development assistance. Why is it important to keep fighting for it? And what’s your inspiration?
We live in a very small world, and because of technology and transportation, there are no boundaries anymore. Mountains and oceans don’t keep us apart. If you’re the most powerful country in the world, it’s important to be a part of that world in a meaningful way. People in the developing world don’t need to be dependent on America, but they could use some help to grow and develop to better themselves. We need to push for beneficiaries to take over more of the responsibilities for themselves. We are a compassionate people but we have finite resources. In Tanzania, America provides most of the HIV antiretroviral drug, but most of the testing, lab work and distribution is done by Tanzanians. That’s the way that it should be.
How does development assistance help U.S. national security? We live in a very small world and because of tech and transportation, there are no boundaries any more. Tom Friedman’s book says, the world is flat. The barriers don’t keep us apart anymore. If you’re the most powerful country in the world, it’s important to be a part of that world in a meaningful way.
How will you support foreign aid in these tough economic times?
We have to analyze every appropriation on the cost-benefit basis, meaning there must be a benefit to justify the cost. And ONE knows that justification is the benefit that you get back. If we’re giving foreign aid assistance to a country that doesn’t like us and doesn’t use the aid, then we’re not making a good investment. But if we go to another land and use aid to help them become less dependent on us, then that’s the way it ought to be.
Lifesaving development programs depend on bipartisan support for adequate funding. In these tough times, do you feel optimistic in the future of bipartisanship?
I’m an eternal optimist.
What are you most proud of achieving in the Senate, on US-Africa policy?
What we did with the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act has helped bring greater security to Peace Corps volunteers in difficult situations. In Nigeria, I tried to persuade a Muslim Imam that vaccines are safe and important. If that saved any children’s lives, then I’m proud of that. I was also proud to share, at a Kenyan national prayer breakfast, the story of how Rwanda, under President Kagame, ended a genocide and is turning its economy around. That’s monumental. And at the request of the U.S. Embassy, I discussed the importance of human rights with President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, which helped to secure the release of several political prisoners shortly after.
What can ONE members can say to convince their Members of Congress to support development assistance?
Every organization has a story to tell, and telling that story is very important to get your message out. Tell your story to elected officials. “Just because” doesn’t work. If politicians understand that the benefit outweighs the cost, then you’ve made your case.