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Yesterday, I attended a talk on “Determinants of African Perceptions Toward Chinese and American Engagement in Africa: A Hierarchical Approach” at SAIS.  I forgot my camera, so I have no fuzzy pictures of the speaker, Dr. Kristie Inman, to post.  I understand that Dr. Inman recently received her PhD from UC – Davis, in Political Science I believe.  She is currently a research adviser at the Center for Strategic Intelligence Research at the National Intelligence University.

Like almost all public speakers with government affiliations, she gave the standard disclaimer that her remarks reflected her personal views and not those of her employer.  In introducing her, Dr. Lewis, the SAIS moderator, attempted to make a joke about the government shutdown keeping her from getting paid, which I don’t think came out quite the way he hoped.

While I took some exception to the frames of reference of Dr. Inman’s work (which are structural and not attributable to her as I’ll discuss later), she did two things that were exemplary and are unheard of in DC for which she deserves vigorous kudos (she also spoke openly of her struggle with acronyms!):

1. She took advantage of her disclaimer and actually made some comments that were not as sterile as a shopping mall in Riyadh – she criticized western media coverage of Africa and spoke frankly about US actions ‘to Muslims abroad.’

2. She actually left a long period of time open for Q&A, which many often say they’ll do, but don’t deliver on.

Dr. Inman noted that she is not a Sino – Africa specialist (although Dr. Deborah Brautigam of SAIS who is one was there), but that she has heard many anecdotal remarks about comparative African perceptions of China and the US while making the rounds in DC.  This prompted her to conduct her study, which uses Afrobarometer data to try to put some scholarly oomph in play to refute or support those anecdotal observations.

Not knowing what a ‘regression analysis’ is, or recalling much of my high school lessons about variables and coefficients (or even being up to date on the Afrobarometer surveys), I was at a position of weakness vis a vis the many SAIS students in the room.  My basic understanding was that she was able to roll up various questions from the survey and analyze them based on a question in the same survey about African perceptions of Africa.

Amongst other things, she found that Africans with more assets generally had a higher opinion of China and that African Muslims generally had a less positive view of China than non-Muslims.  She also found that Africans who had better access to health care did not have a better view of the US than those that did not.

This brings me to the beef I referenced above.  As far as I could tell, all the Afrobarometer questions dealt with bread and butter issues like healthcare, education, the economy, etc.  There was reference to one question about consumption of news media.

In my experience in Africa, I can easily relate to many Africans based on our shared knowledge of R. Kelly, Lebron James, and Will Smith.  The entertainment sphere is a huge part of the US’ perception abroad, much more so than programs like AGOA.

In my admittedly small reservoir of experience, both academics and policymakers underestimate the importance of ‘fun things.’  Dr. Inman appeared to recognize this, noting that the question on news consumption was the closest she could get to global entertainment from the Afrobarometer data.

If I can do anything in my blog, it is to draw attention to this discrepancy.  That is why I try to promote entertainment events on Africa much more than policy ones and why I review P – Square concerts and interview Miss Africa USA contestants.