All the Way to Africa

Dec. 1, 2014

A distant capital may host the world's next think tank. It's kind of a surprise because it's in Ethiopia.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, or UNECA, which comprises dozens of member states and is working to address the continent's development issues, is aspiring to be Africa's premier think tank. 

About three weeks ago, I traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to attend a Fulbright specialist mission designed to assess the various strategic communication skills in the UNECA. As the only female Arab-American tenured journalism faculty member at a Research I university in the United States, I had been hand-selected on that mission on behalf of the US Department of State public diplomacy program to assist in its efforts to improve ongoing dialogue with the African Union.

In carrying out this assignment, I attended the African Economic Conference's "Knowledge and Innovation for Africa's Transformation."

During the mission, I had discussions in different languages using interviews, questionnaires (in person or via email) and focus groups with communications staff and management, and also professionals and senior management of the various divisions at UNECA. During these sessions, I clarified the importance of needs assessment regarding communication skills and explained the potential benefits for creating a framework for improvement. 

Also, I worked closely with U.S. diplomats in Ethiopia, where I had the honor to meet one-on-one with ambassador Reuben E. Brigety, representative of the U.S. to the African Union and permanent representative of the U.S. to the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Brigety was extremely supportive and highlighted the importance of my mission in improving U.S.-African relations.

One of the most fascinating aspects of my trip was attending a speech in historic Africa Hall by Irish President Michael Higgins. During his speech, Higgins drew parallels between the Irish and African nations' histories, specifically regarding the struggle for independence. He explained that this struggle, by and large, enlightens Ireland's dedication to developing cooperation with its African partners.

We — and by "we," I mean U.S. academics — have a responsibility to support healthy economic development in Africa and to show deep appreciation of the strategic significance of the African continent. There are so many misperceptions regarding a sea of investment opportunities in the region. We need to sustain and pledge policies that encourage economic symmetric partnership agreements among African countries. There could have been no better time to go to express this type of support and advocacy.

The two-week diplomatic experience proved to plant the seeds for a lifelong memory, just as I hope the event plants seeds toward future growth and prosperity in the region. I appreciated my service mission. Service has always been a key part of my job. Without a doubt, I am very proud to have been on this prestigious mission, especially while representing the University of Arizona, the U.S. Embassy's undertaking for promoting African development and the Fulbright's mission for encouraging international cooperation.

Also during my time in Ethiopia, I met some magnificent local people and made friends with some of the most global citizens. I met UN professionals who lived and worked in more than 40 countries and have dedicated their lives to helping others. These types of selfless individuals live a life of extreme altruism, and I am truly thankful for this Fulbright specialist award that allowed me to experience this perspective.

Shahira Fahmy is an associate professor at the UA School of Journalism. Fahmy's research is situated in the general areas of international reporting and visual journalism. She is particularly interested in issues that intersect these domains in the context of wars and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Much of her research for global reporting examines media performance of news professionals. She has conducted studies investigating the role of embedded journalists in reporting the Iraq War. Also, Fahmy is interested in the visual reporting process involved in providing news photographs and broadcast material at times of crisis. She may be reached at 520-621-6217 or

Photos courtesy of  Shahira Fahmy