Helping Achieve Africa's Promise: Meeting the Expectations of Youth on the World's Youngest Continent

Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
The Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs
Washington, DC
December 20, 2016

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you Ambassador Cohen for that introduction. And thank you to Ambassador Hughes and the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs for having me here today.

When one thinks about Africa, we often think about the headlines in the news: Conflict, terrorism, crisis, famine, disease, poverty. True – these things exist. But these things do not define Africa. Today I’m going to try to present to you a more balanced view of the continent. I’m going to share with you in addition to the challenges, the vast opportunity and promise of the Africa that I have come to know and believe in.

While Africa faces economic headwinds in the short term as a result of commodity price declines and reduced Chinese demand, the longer term trends are very favorable. Africa is still one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. It is a continent with tremendous natural and human resources, and a vastly expanding middle class. It is the next frontier for global opportunities.

You still hear about a scramble for Africa, but I don’t see it that way. Africans are taking charge of their future. And that’s a good thing, because as President Obama said earlier this summer, “Africa’s rise is not just important to Africa, it’s important to the entire world.”

Looking back at the last eight years, under President Obama’s leadership, we have developed the U.S.-Africa relationship into a strong partnership that focuses on the people of Africa. It’s no longer just about the government-to-government relationships.

We’ve had a number of successes and initiatives in Africa, and I’m not going to name them all, but I will highlight a few central focuses of our policies in Africa.

First, we have focused a tremendous amount of attention on developing the next generation of Africans. The median age in Africa is 19. In Mali, it is 16. Thus, we created YALI, the Young African Leaders Initiative, which has been a tremendous success.

YALI empowers young Africans through six weeks of academic and leadership training at U.S. colleges and universities, and it connects them to one another and to Americans throughout the country. YALI Fellows are talented and ambitious, and they are the future of their countries. Many of them are already making a difference and they will be engines of change.

Second, we have focused on developing public private partnerships and getting the U.S. private sector more engaged in Africa. One of these key initiatives is through Power Africa. Power Africa is bringing together technical and legal experts, the private sector, and governments from around the world to make electricity more available and affordable.

A third important focus has been on empowering women throughout Africa. We’re working to get more girls into school. We are building networks of women entrepreneurs. Africa’s success depends on women contributing to all aspects of society.

As we look ahead to January 20th and beyond, we – and that includes everyone in this room – have the opportunity to shape the incoming administration’s views on Africa. We also have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to explain to the new administration why our relationship with Africa is so important.

As we prepare for this transition, we recognize that there has been robust bipartisan support for U.S.-Africa policy across administrations. Our commitment to Africa has remained steadfast. Bipartisan policies that make sense include the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). We hope the next administration will continue initiatives such as YALI and Power Africa.

But we must also address challenges. One of the tasks we are working on right now is highlighting for the next administration the challenges that Africa faces.

At the top of the list is the youth bulge. Africa’s population is projected to double to two billion people by 2050. Almost 70 percent of Africans are under 25 years old. Adding to this challenge is Africa’s rapid urbanization – the share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36 percent in 2010 to 50 percent by 2030.

Over the next ten years, Africa’s success will depend on countries effectively integrating their youth population and providing them with opportunities. If they don’t have opportunities to contribute to their countries, then we run the risk that they will be targets for crime and extremism.

There is a significant education deficit in Africa. Countries are not investing enough money in education. Lack of education leads to lack of opportunity, and it leads to people getting on poorly-built boats and putting their lives at risk fleeing for Europe.

African countries need stronger economic growth to create jobs for the burgeoning youth population. According to a Pew Research Center Report last month, over 70 percent of South Africans and Nigerians say their economies are in bad shape, and over 50 percent of Kenyans say the same. Large majorities in all three countries consider the lack of employment opportunities a very big problem.

Corruption continues to stifle opportunity. When youth see rampant corruption in their countries, they become disillusioned. The vast sum of money that is lost to corruption in Africa is money that could be used for building infrastructure and building schools.

Conflict and terrorism are affecting many parts of Africa. South Sudan’s civil war has been devastating the country for three years now. Boko Haram continues to destroy local communities in Nigeria and the greater Lake Chad Basin area, and al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups continue to threaten the stability of countries throughout the continent.

These groups have increased high-profile attacks against so-called “soft targets,” including a series of attacks against international hotels and resorts in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire. I was in Mali recently and spoke with women leaders in Timbuktu who were valiantly working to counter the negative influences of terrorist groups who had denied girls access to education.

This is not an exhaustive list of the challenges Africa faces, but it gives you an idea of what we are dealing with.

In my mind, however, most of these challenges are better framed as opportunities. That’s what I’m here to talk about. How can Africa seize the opportunities to achieve its great promise? How can Africa meet the high expectations of its massive youth population? And how can we help our African partners do this?

There is reason for optimism, and it starts with Africa’s youth. Just as the youth bulge is the top challenge for Africa, it is the top opportunity as well. Africa’s people are its greatest resource. The youth bulge gives Africa a demographic advantage, as long as these youth are properly educated and trained.

Every time I travel to Africa, I meet with our YALI Fellows. Their passion for contributing to their countries never ceases to amaze me.

I just returned from Mali, Ghana, and Liberia. The YALI Fellows in these countries are energized from their experience in the United States this summer, and they are committed to becoming true leaders and agents for change in their country. Africans see the value of this program. We’ve received 62,000 applications for the 1,000 YALI slots available next year. We have close to 400,000 signed up on the YALI network.

We also have an opportunity with education in Africa. The starting point here is that there are kids who are passionate about learning. Strong education systems are central to providing opportunity for the next generation. Countries need to compare their education and security budgets and consider if they are investing sufficiently in education.

We have an opportunity to help strengthen democracy in Africa. We’re seeing some positive trends. Two weeks ago, I traveled to Ghana to observe the presidential elections. Ghana reaffirmed its status as a democratic model for the continent through a peaceful, transparent, and fair election. The outgoing president not only respected the results and agreed to transfer power to the opposition candidate, but he also offered his support to help promote democracy in Africa.

Nigeria’s election last year was a major success. The people were determined to get out and vote; their ballots were counted; and the candidates respected the results. This election – in the continent’s most populous country – was a model for the rest of Africa and the world.

An Afrobarometer survey last month indicated that 67 percent of Africans say democracy is preferable to any other form of government, and a survey last year indicated that 75 percent of Africans support term limits. Africans want democracy! We need to capitalize on this sentiment. Leaders who are clinging to power in Africa are doing so against the wishes of their people.

The most high-profile example is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is playing out before us now and where elections have been postponed potentially all the way to 2018. According to the Constitution, President Kabila should have stepped down yesterday, December 19th, at the conclusion of his second term. This didn’t happen, despite clear indications based on recent polling that the Congolese people overwhelmingly support term limits and President Kabila stepping down at the end of his term. As a result of the government’s repeated delays in organizing elections, the DRC is at high risk for widespread violence and prolonged political instability. Protests started at midnight and we are monitoring the situation very closely.

It’s not just statistics like these that demonstrate Africans’ passion for democracy. I see it every time I observe an election.

Last year I observed Nigeria’s elections. People showed up early in the morning to vote, and they stayed all day. I spoke with one man when he exited the polling location and asked him if he was going to return home. He told me, “No, I’m going to wait to see my vote counted.” That showed the world how much Nigerians cared about democracy. I saw the same enthusiasm in Ghana just two weeks ago.

We need this passion for democracy, because it is strong democratic governance that will lay the foundation for peace and prosperity.

We have an incredible opportunity to boost two-way trade and investment in Africa. The continent’s huge economic potential, growing integration into global markets, expanding infrastructure, and demographic boom is a major opportunity for American investors and companies.

Investors already doing business in Africa remain overwhelmingly positive about Africa’s prospects and potential. On the other hand, those not doing business in Africa have remained negative, largely because they don’t have a good understanding of the real risks and opportunities that are out there. We need to correct those perceptions and educate companies about those opportunities.

Events like the second U.S.-Africa Business Forum in New York this summer are helping to do just that. The deals and commitments announced at the business forum totaled more than $9 billion in trade and investment with Africa. That’s on top of roughly $33 billion generated by the first forum, which took place on the margins of our U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

Now for the role of women: We have a great opportunity to help boost women’s participation in all aspects of society throughout Africa. This is essential for Africa’s success. Only 8.5 percent of African workers earning wages in the non-agricultural sector are women. Only 51 percent of women in Africa above the age of 15 are able to read and write. Think about how much more countries could accomplish if we can help our African partners improve on these statistics.

In August, I traveled with Secretary Kerry to Nigeria, where he met with 14 young Nigerian girls who were participating in our Embassy’s STEM initiative that promotes girls’ education. They were inventors and creators, and they were confident. One of these girls said, “I have the confidence to speak with you, Secretary Kerry, because of this STEM program.”

We have the opportunity to strengthen entrepreneurship in Africa. Through the State Department’s WECREATE initiative, we have established entrepreneurial community centers in African countries that are empowering women to start and grow businesses.

Last month, our WECREATE Center in Kenya celebrated its first anniversary. It has made a huge impact since opening its doors, providing training to more than 1,600 Kenyan women entrepreneurs who collectively have started 344 new businesses and created over 200 new jobs.

Africa has the opportunity to make huge gains in manufacturing. Given rapid urbanization and a burgeoning labor force, Africa is positioned to become a manufacturing powerhouse. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute indicated that by 2025, the continent could nearly double its current manufacturing output of $500 billion to almost $1 trillion.

We have the opportunity to expand electricity access throughout the continent. Right now, two out of three people in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity. This is one of the key factors holding back the continent.

Through Power Africa, we are planning to change this by providing electricity to more than 60 million African homes and businesses by 2030. Last week in Liberia, I participated in the re-opening of the Mount Coffee hydropower plant, the country’s single largest power source. This plant is going to provide opportunity for children studying under streetlights in Monrovia. Some of these kids will now be able to study in homes with electricity. And we helped make this happen through our partnership with the private sector and other donors – Germans, Norwegians, and the EU.

When you think about all of these challenges, opportunities, and the fact that almost 70 percent of Africans are under 25 years old, you realize that this is a critical time for the continent. This is a time when African countries must step up to meet the expectations of their population.

I have confidence that countries will overcome the challenges and embrace the opportunities in front of them, but I also know that we have a big role to play in the United States to ensure that this happens.

I firmly believe Africa’s future success depends on a continued strong partnership with the United States to help Africa achieve its promise in the years ahead.

Thank you so much, and I’m happy to take your questions.