Remarks at the Presidential Summit of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Omni Shoreham Hotel
Washington, DC
July 28, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Wow. What a great group. Thank you. Please, sit down. Sit down, sit down. Thank you. It is so good to see you all. Welcome. You having fun?


SECRETARY KERRY: I’m glad to hear it. It’s just beginning. And the President’s going to get a chance to speak with everybody before long. That’ll be great. We look forward to it. I can’t tell you – I’m really excited to see you all here, and I hope you’re excited to be here. That’s important. (Cheers and applause.)

I cannot thank all the leaders all across the State Department and across the Administration – people have worked really hard to get here. Leaders on our campuses, college campuses all across the country, all of them have come together to help make this possible. And I’m particularly grateful to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Bureau of African Affairs, the Bureau of International Information Programs, USAID, the U.S. African Development Foundation, NGO IREX, and the staff of 20 – 20 – academic host universities. That’s a big group of people who helped make this happen, and we’re grateful for them. (Applause.)

But most importantly I want to thank you. I’m so honored and excited, as you can tell, I think – I hope you can tell – (laughter) – to welcome you all here. It is such a pleasure to welcome so many young African leaders to Washington. And as you know, the leaders of countries will be coming here in just a few days for a first-ever summit of all the African leaders. We’re really excited about that. The President’s been personally very focused on it. And right now, we have five hundred fellows from all 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This is really remarkable. This is a first. And I know the real presence of a kind of excitement, a hopefulness, a sense of possibility that is accompanying and defining this meeting. I can almost feel my hair growing brown again. (Laughter.) It’s reversed.

I actually had a chance to meet a few of you – and I don’t know where you all are in the ground here. How many of you met me along the way in the last journey? There we go. Hands waiving over here and here. Anybody over here? Hello, again. Nice to see you. Anybody back here? Thank you. And that’s what gave me such a great belief in this, was when I was in Africa in May.

And I will never forget the story of one young woman named Haleta Giday – (cheers and applause.) Where’s Heleta? Yeah, stand up. Let everybody know. (Applause.) So Haleta graduated from one of the best schools in Ethiopia. She could pick any job she wanted to do, believe me. She had the chance to do the most lucrative job there is – make a lot of money, go into the big corporate world, and literally do anything. You know what? Instead, she chose to represent women and children who were the victims of violence. And when Haleta saw how many widows went bankrupt after they lost their husbands, she began a campaign to educate women about their legal and financial rights.

She’s already lived a remarkable life. But what’s even more remarkable is that she’s not alone. She is just one of many young African leaders who are taking on some of the toughest challenges, all of you.

We’re here today because the United States and countries across Africa are natural partners, and it’s time to take our partnership to the next level by investing in the continent’s greatest natural resource of all: its people. (Applause.) And that’s what the Young African Leaders Initiative is all about: investing in your future – and ours – by engaging in the promise of a new generation of great leaders in every single field of endeavor. And when 65 percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 35, let me tell you, we don’t have a moment to waste.

The fact is that we have reached an inflection point for the new Africa. It is a time and a place where all of you have the great opportunity of a lifetime to bend the arc of history toward change, not stagnation. You can bend it towards peace and prosperity, not conflict and retribution. Africa’s course – and this is not an exaggeration – it is ultimately up to you, the next generation of leaders who will seize the future and become the next generation of CEOs and community and political leaders, the national leaders. You will define that future.

When I look out at this audience, I’m not kidding you when I say I see the promise of that future. (Applause.) I see the human faces behind the story of just how far Africa has come. Just consider what all of you have witnessed over the course of your young lives.

You have seen real incomes across Africa increase more than 30 percent, reversing two decades of decline. You’ve seen African trade with the rest of the world increase by 20 percent – 200 percent, excuse me. You’ve seen 35 peaceful transitions of power – 35 peaceful transitions of power – and the number of democracies has more than tripled. That is a continent on the move. And you’ve seen HIV infections decline by nearly 40 percent and malaria deaths among children decline by 50 percent. And we are on a cusp of looking at the first generation of children who may be born AIDS-free as a result of the efforts that we are making. (Applause.)

So this really is a moment of great opportunity for Africa. But make no mistake, it’s not automatic. It is also a moment of great decision. The choices that African leaders make, the choices that you make, the choices that you push the political systems of your countries to make, the choices that you help to debate and put on the table and make part of the dialogue of your countries – all of that will determine the future.

You will decide whether or not a decade of progress leads to an era of African prosperity and stability or whether your countries tragically fall back into cycle after cycle of tragic violence and mark a governance that is weak and stifles the promise of a continent for too long – your promise, the promise that each and every one of you bring here to Washington, the promise that I know motivates you every single day as you pursue an education or begin to work as professionals and go out into the world, whether it’s in the private sector or the public sector, all of you committed to try to change the future. You have the ability to do that.

And that is precisely why President Obama launched YALI, to empower you with new skills, new resources, new networks so that you can not just demand action but you can go out and act on your own dreams and hopes and vision for the future. Your brief experiences here in the United States are just the start of what we hope will be lasting relationships between each of you but also with us. We’re investing in you so that you can invest in your countries and in the U.S.-Africa partnership. YALI embodies the United States continuing commitment to that vision. And I am very, very proud that you aren’t just heeding the call, you’re leading the charge. (Applause.)

I’m also inspired by the story of Hashim Pondeza. Hashim, where are you? (Cheers and applause.) Hashim, stand up. I wanted to – Hashim is from Tanzania and he is leading the charge to strengthen democratic institutions. That’s never easy work and it can carry risks in some places. He has worked on child protection issues for Save the Children and for Zanzibar’s Ministry of Labor. But today, he’s working to strengthen civil society and democratic institutions at the local level across Tanzania.

Hashim knows that promoting good governance isn’t just about whether you can work well on your side; it’s about working side by side. And as he says, “The biggest challenge is trying to get many factions to cooperate to reach the same aim.” Let me tell you something, as somebody who’s in the middle of trying to get some people to just get seven days of a ceasefire in the Middle East, I know what you’re talking about Hashim. (Applause.) It’s never easy, but that doesn’t mean you stop and that doesn’t mean you turn away. You have to keep doing it. Remember what Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible, until it is done.” And that’s what we have to have as our guide. (Applause.) So I’m proud that the future of our partnership is in Hashim’s hands, in your hands.

I’m also inspired by Aichatou Tamba. Where’s Aichatou? Is she here somewhere? Aichatou. (Cheers and applause.) Aichatou’s from Ethiopia and she’s leading the charge to promote peace and security. Too often, in too many countries borders become a barrier – a barrier not just to communication but a barrier to trade, a barrier to the movement of talent, a barrier to technology. Aichatou has been working to turn those barriers into opportunities. She’s partnered with a dozen African states to promote conflict prevention, and she’s working with the African Union Border Program in Ethiopia to make a difference on the ground. I’m proud that the future of our partnership is also in Aichatou’s hands. (Applause.)

And I’m inspired by Zandile Lambu from Zimbabwe. (Cheers and applause.) Where is Zandile? Raise your hand. She is leading the charge to promote inclusive economic growth. And Zandile hasn’t just spoken words about shared prosperity; she’s walked the walk. She’s used her position at Econet Services to create new trade opportunities for mobile money products in Africa. She’s partnered with businesses to provide mobile money services to local communities. You know how hard it is to get money into people’s hands or move it or control it. Well, there’s a way to do that now in this mobile technological world that we all live in. And she’s being creative and grabbing the best of that, and she’s volunteered to teach other young women how to design and develop mobile apps. She’s not in this business to make money. She’s in it to make a difference, and I’m proud that the future of this partnership is also in Zandile’s hands. (Applause.)

Now we live in a very complicated world today, full of very close calls that can go either way, but I know this: When you promote democratic change, when you transform borders of conflict into bastions of peace, when you empower women to realize their aspirations, you create a better future, not for some, but for all. There is no way to win this battle in countries where women are left behind – you cannot leave half your team off the field and win the game. (Applause.)

I want you to know that the Obama Administration is inspired by the work that Hashim and Aichatou and Zandile are all doing, all of you are doing, and that’s why we are so committed to the Young African Leaders Initiative for the long haul – not just for this meeting, for the long haul. And when you leave here, I hope you will leave here with a renewed sense of purpose, with a renewed sense of hope, with a renewed commitment, with a renewed understanding of what is possible, and I hope you will take these connections you’ve made here and make the change that you seek.

The challenges may be real – no, they are real. We all know that. But guess what? So are the opportunities. Africa can be a beacon for the world. Dramatic transformations are possible. Africa will be the place of great growth in this century. You will be the witnesses to remarkable transformation. But how you transform; who benefits; what you become; what rights you protect; what opportunities you create and guarantee – that will write the real history. Each of you has an incredible opportunity to change lives for the better, and you can do – you can define your nations in the doing of that. It’s tough work. It requires sober commitment and a clear vision of a better future. But I have every confidence, and President Obama is more than convinced, which is why he convened this, that you will rise to the challenge and lift up and inspire citizens in your own countries, all of whom you know are hoping desperately for change.

I want to leave you with a thought from the man who inspired me when I was growing up, a younger brother of the youngest man ever elected America’s president, and a man who had a vision in his own right and went to South Africa in 1968 and laid it out to people at a time when it was still difficult – Robert Kennedy.

He said: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events – and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” He went on to say that each time a man or a woman works to strike out against injustice or change the lot of others, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other for a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples can build a current that will sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

My friends, this is your moment to write the history of Africa for the next generation. You have the will. You have the drive. You have the intelligence. You have the vision. You have the ability. You have the courage to stand up and say loudly and clearly, “I will be responsible.” And that is leadership. That’s the future that we can build together. And we are convinced that that future begins now, here, with these meetings and in the work that you will take back with you, and in our partnership over these next years.

Thank you all, and God bless. Thank you. (Applause.)