GLOBAL: World's largest gathering of Africa experts

More than 1,000 scholars and researchers from around the globe converged on Washington DC on Thursday for what the US African Studies Association said was the world's largest gatherings of experts on Africa.

Organised by the African Studies Association (ASA) in cooperation with colleges, universities and museums throughout the US and Canada, the two-day conference - the non-profit organisation's 54th annual meeting - celebrated "50 Years of African Liberation".

According to the conference website: "There is much to celebrate: Today, Africa has the highest number of democracies since 1960; institutionalised apartheid has been eliminated in southern Africa; and women are emerging as political actors. There is much that we can learn from Africa's experiences.

"At the same time, the 50-year mark provides us with an opportunity to reflect critically on the complex ways that history has unfolded on the continent."

The conference invited proposals to reflect on the many achievements, challenges and disappointments the past five decades have heralded.

With participants from Africa, Asia, Europe and North and South America the conference, according to an ASA media release, featured more than 200 panels, roundtables and plenaries and more than 1,000 academic papers on topics as diverse as agriculture, the arts, culture, economics, education, the environment, gender, health, liberation movements and politics.

"We are fortunate to have such a concentration of experience, knowledge and understanding on such a wide array of African issues here," said Judith Byfield, ASA president and professor of history at Cornell University.

The conference was attended and addressed by high-level US officials including Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Johnny Carson and US Special Envoy for Sudan Princeton Lyman. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Vicki Huddleston also attended.

Other high-profile speakers included Professor Thandika Mkandawire, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Dr Sylvia Tamale, dean of the faculty of law and jurisprudence at Uganda's Makerere University.

Ambassadors from six African nations also participated.

An ASA media release quoted Byfield: "With the Arab Spring, elections in Liberia, and recent independence of South Sudan, this is a critical time for Africa. Governments around the world are as deeply engaged in the continent as they have ever been, from the US military intervention in Uganda, to the international response to the famine in the Horn of Africa.

"Unfortunately, their policies are sometimes not as effective as they could be because they can be based on fundamental misunderstandings."

Byfield said that the research and expertise available at the conference would provide valuable insights for improving international cooperation in Africa.

Several tributes and honours were presented during the event, including the annual Distinguished Africanist Award, which recognises scholars who have contributed a lifetime of outstanding scholarship and service to African studies.

This year's recipient, Dr Toyin Falola, was honoured for his role in mentoring young scholars and his ongoing promotion of African studies. He is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, has published more than 100 books spanning a wide variety of disciplines from history to poetry and was a long-time editor of African Economic History Review.

* The ASA is the leading North American organisation promoting the study of Africa in all disciplines and for contemporary practitioners. It has an international membership of approximately 1,700 individual members and institutional subscribers. The conference programme is available on the ASA conference website..