Miguel Southwell, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, was slated to travel to Durban, South Africa, in October, but he had to cancel.
Mr. Southwell wanted to be there: He relishes his role as president of the ACI Fund, an initiative through which Airports Council International provides financial backing for training of developing-world airport leaders.
His absence was steeped in irony: While African leaders were there to learn from him and other experts how airports can help keep deadly pathogens from crossing borders, Mr. Southwell was back in Atlanta implementing new Ebola screening measures by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ebola took a heavy toll on Africa this year, especially the West African nations where the deadly virus hit hardest and spread most quickly. In its best-case scenario, the World Bank estimates that their economies lost $2.2 billion last year and will lose $1.6 billion more in 2015 if cases hover around 20,000 and commerce starts to return. In a more grim case, where the outbreak balloons to 200,000 cases, more than $25.2 billion could be lost this year alone. That would deepen a vicious cycle: As business and tourism flee, it becomes that much more difficult for cash-strapped governments to shore up their already-ailing health systems.
There’s no silver bullet to fix this. The solution, experts say, is sustainable long-term economic growth to buttress strong public-health systems. Lauded for its medical contributions, Atlanta has also been committed to the continent’s economic health this year. When Ebola became a major international crisis in March, Atlanta had already set its sights on Africa as a business partner, and it continued to embrace enhanced ties at a time when the continent’s future seemed most bleak. New U.S. Census Bureau data release in September showed why this is more than charity: Atlanta exports to Africa more than doubled over the five years ending in 2013 to $862.7 million.
Africa Atlanta 2014, a series of events built around an exhibition of Central African art hosted at the Carter Center, was the cohesive force behind much of this activity. Groups like the Atlanta International Arbitration Society came under the Africa Atlanta umbrella, basing its November conference around arbitration in Africa. Two days later, strategically, the U.S. Commerce Department held its Discover Global Markets: Sub-Saharan Africa conference in Atlanta. Overall, the week of Africa-related business activities drew hundreds of executives and government officials from around the South and all the way over from the continent. Donald Nay, a U.S. commercial service officer who recently moved from Atlanta to Johannesburg, was a central force in organizing this, returning for the conference despite just having crossed the Atlantic to take up his new post a few months before.
That U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker attended was a coup for Atlanta, but one of the most poignant moments in the conference was when five African diplomats asked American business leaders and policy makers not to turn their backs on West Africa economically.
Some of Atlanta’s Africa initiatives, however, didn’t pan out as planned. While slated to visit two African countries this year, Mayor Kasim Reed didn’t go at all. After an October trade mission to Nigeria was postponed amid concerns about violence perpetrated by the terror group Boko Haram. A later mayoral visit to South Africa was also rerouted when the Nobel Peace Laureates conference was moved from Cape Town to Rome. Five Nobel laureates boycotted the event to protest South Africa’s decision not to process a visa for the Dalai Lama, in an apparent bid to please China. Atlanta is to host the Nobel conference in 2015.