As world leaders strategize about how best to combat international terrorism and groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, they should give serious consideration to a long-term plan that supports nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that promote education, human rights, health care and economic development.

Military action alone will not rid the world of terrorism nor prevent the conversion of young men and women into terrorists.

International terrorism and violence is not confined to ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. There have been major incidents in North Africa (Libya), in the Horn of Africa (Somalia), in East Africa (Kenya) and in West Africa (Nigeria), as well as in Europe, Canada and Australia.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told last week’s White House summit on violent extremism that “bullets are not the silver bullets. Missiles may kill terrorists, but good governance kills terrorism.”

NGOs like St. Paul-based Books For Africa and other charities already are working to advance education and human rights across Africa. Shipping more than 32 million books to schoolchildren and law students across 49 African countries leads to a more educated and stable society, which in turn leads to the development of democracy and the rule of law. And a more educated society leads to stronger economic development, less poverty and more opportunity — all ingredients that counter radical violence.

The work these NGOs perform across Africa is preventive. It keeps problems from occurring and helps create a more positive feeling toward the West and Western values. This work is being done by private citizens, not the U.S. government. This is citizen-to-citizen diplomacy at its best, and it is extremely effective. The U.S. government should provide more support to these efforts, as they are far cheaper than military action after problems develop.

Books for Africa and related charities also work hand in hand with African diaspora groups here in Minnesota and around the world. Such collaboration empowers these groups to demonstrate to their friends and family in Africa that they, working with the West, have something to offer that is of value and that friendship with the West brings benefits.

If NGOs like Books for Africa and other related charities did not exist, the U.S. government would be working hard to create something like them, because they bring so much value with virtually no financial cost or government oversight.

For the most part, the African continent and its people are favorable toward U.S. interests. This is a positive, but we should not take that attitude for granted. As we know, forces of destabilization are hard at work in Africa — and across the world. And the United States’ great rival, China, has a very strong and growing economic presence in Africa. Our efforts as citizen diplomats with NGOs like Books for Africa is an important “soft” initiative that, when taken as a whole, is delivering tremendous benefits to the West.

President Obama acknowledged the importance of democracy and human rights when he told the summit: “We must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy. That means free elections where people can choose their own future and independent judiciaries that uphold the rule of law and police and security forces that respect human rights, and free speech and freedom for civil society groups and it means freedom of religion.”

One important path to achieving those goals is the continued support of the work done by NGOs and charities, including those from Minnesota, across the African continent.


Rosemond Owens, a native of Ghana, is president of St. Paul-based Books For Africa. Patrick Plonski is executive director.