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US Africa Experts Encourage African Union to Do More Despite Money Shortages

As a top African Union delegation wraps up several days of high-level government and business meetings in Washington, Africa experts in the United States say the pan-African body has made great strides in its principles, but still lacks resources to bring meaningful change.

A former U.S. ambassador in Africa, David Shinn, says the African Union has done a much better job in recent years in condemning coups.

"The African Union has made enormous strides in being more critical of governments that come to power illegally in Africa," said David Shinn. "They have spoken out in the case of Togo, Mauritania, Madagascar, recently in Niger and probably several that I am not thinking of at the moment and I give them great credit for that because 15 years ago they would not have done that."

The 53-member African Union was formed as a successor to the Organization of African Unity in 2002.

Boston University African Studies Center Director Timothy Longman says the body is definitely making progress in its new incarnation, but that it needs to go further, and also harshly condemn human rights abuses and botched elections.

"It is a relatively new organization," said Timothy Longman. "I think it is still learning how to be more effective and I would challenge the African Union really to be willing to take a strong stand, to stand for human rights and democracy, because from my perspective that is the future of Africa."

One area the pan-African body has paid close attention to is trying to help end conflicts on the continent, by sending high-level mediation teams, which Mark Davidheiser, who specializes in peace in African studies, applauds.

"The mediation of elders initiative involving people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and other such venerable leaders and elders from former presidents and prime ministers and so forth, those sorts of things are quite promising, however I think there is still quite a ways to go," said Mark Davidheiser.

The African Union also recently sent peacekeepers to conflict zones like Sudan, Somalia and the Comoros Islands, but with many challenges, according to former Ambassador Shinn.

"They have not been completely successful in any of those locations, because they do not have the resources to fund those kinds of efforts and the AU is simply at this point not financially in a position to conduct a very expensive peacekeeping operation," he said.

The director of the Africa Security Research Project Daniel Volman says the U.S. government is trying to help with new ideas to help stop Africa's conflicts more effectively. He says emergency security teams could also help with natural disasters or major accidents.

"The U.S. is very deeply involved in efforts to develop the stand-by brigades that the African Union is trying to develop in the different regions of Africa to respond to all kinds of crises and emergencies in those regions," said Daniel Volman. "But first of all the AU headquarters has virtually no personnel. The people who are supposed to be responsible for organizing and directing that effort, there is literally only a handful of them."

On this issue, like on all others, the experts said the African Union has so little money and equipment, that beyond statements, ineffective peacekeepers, and volunteer mediators, it has very little to offer for the time being.

In a statement promoting this week's meetings, the State Department said the United States is the largest financial supporter of the African Union's peace and security programs, and that it believes the pan-African body is essential to defending principles of democracy and governance.