Keynote speaker President Bill Clinton addresses the crowd at U. S. Senator Chris Coon's third annual Opportunity: Africa conference at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington, Del., on Monday, March 10, 2014. / Suchat Pederson, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal
WILMINGTON -- Americans can act to help those in Africa, along with those in need here, by first deciding specifically how they want to help, former President Bill Clinton told a crowd gathered Monday to discuss trade opportunities in Africa.
The difficulty is that "we live in an interdependent world that is full of possibilities," but one that is "severely constrained by too much inequality," Clinton told the gathering of about 1,200 attending the Opportunity Africa trade conference at the Chase Center on the Riverfront in Wilmington.
"The first thing I want to say to all of you is, you have to do what I made up my mind to do," Clinton said. "Decide what you care about and do it, and don't fail to do it because you can't do everything. You can do something. We can all do something."
Clinton, offering insight into how he chose to serve through his private foundation after leaving the presidency, urged political leaders to act with greater cooperation.
He praised President Barack Obama for continuing work on AIDS relief in Africa and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for using Ukraine as "a giant, important piece on a chessboard of international politics."
Clinton waded into the crisis in Ukraine. "The people underneath get lost," when leaders use the country's fortunes as a political pawn, he said.
"It's a crazy way to approach the 21st century," he said. "The only thing that works is creative cooperation."
The former president offered praise for protesters in Ukraine, saying they "stormed" the presidential palace but did not steal or loot. "They just wanted people to see the excess," Clinton said.
But he focused much of his 40-minute speech on his Clinton Foundation's efforts in Africa and on the need to share economic prosperity broadly.
"That is very important to remember right now about people who feel desperate not only in Africa, but the United States," Clinton said. "People need something to look forward to when they get up in the morning."
U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who leads a Senate subcommittee on African affairs, hosted the third annual Africa conference.
"Africa is at a real crossroads with enormous opportunities for the future but real challenges that may constrain its potential," Coons said during opening remarks, citing a lack of infrastructure, human rights challenges and security concerns in North Africa.
During his speech, Clinton offered examples of work the Clinton Foundation is doing in Africa to improve health care access and economic opportunity, including a project underway to train health care workers in Rwanda with the goal of standing up a self-sustained health care system by 2020.
"Hundreds of Americans are going to Rwanda to retrain the workforce according to a plan they approved, not us," Clinton said.
He also talked about a foundation project in Malawi that subsidizes the purchase of higher-quality seed and fertilizer and uses anchor farms of 100-200 acres to teach local farmers skills to improve production and boost incomes.
"We need to seriously look at in America what we can do to dramatically increase food production in South Africa, without throwing the small farmers off the land," Clinton said.
Clinton used the story of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader, to urge political leaders to act with greater cooperation.
"Somehow, in 27 years of prison and being physically and emotionally abused, never seeing his kids grow up ... he still came out of it understanding, whether we like it or not, we need each other," Clinton said.
"Any place you see that is being dominated by a conflict model is not doing it very well," he said. "Any place that is being dominated by vigorous, vibrant, sometimes screaming debates, but if they end in an effort of creative collaboration, they're doing it pretty well."
Clinton opened his remarks with humor, saying he feels at home in Delaware. Like Arkansas, his home state, Clinton said, "you've got more chickens than people."
On Delaware politics, he said the state is "small enough where people know each other, where they can have differences and argument and still actually come to a conclusion, which is actually quite important."
For Delaware politicians, and some vying for statewide office, Clinton's appearance served as an opportunity to glad-hand.
Brenda Mayrack, the Democratic opponent to Republican Auditor Tom Wagner, worked the room before Clinton's remarks. As did Sean Barney, the Democrat who has filed to challenge state Treasurer Chip Flowers in the September primary election.
Among the elected officials in attendance were Gov. Jack Markell, U.S. Rep. John Carney and Wilmington state Sen. Harris McDowell, all Democrats.
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