Remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum Leaders Forum Session

John Kerry
Secretary of State
"Game Plan: Shaping the Future of a Fast-Growing Continent"
Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Washington, DC
August 5, 2014

Good afternoon, everybody. I’ve had a chance to be able to say a few words to a number of you at a few different events in the course of yesterday and even today, but I appreciate this chance to be part of the business forum.

I want to thank, first of all, the Vice President, who’s been a friend of mine for 35 or 40 years now, 29 of them in the Senate. And I thank him for his contribution of conscience and of commitment to Africa that he has made for as long as he has been in public life. In the Senate, we worked hand-in-hand on Darfur, South Sudan, PEPFAR, and as the Vice President said, he has traveled far and wide, but especially as Vice President to Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, to help build transparent and accountable institutions and to help lift millions of people out of poverty.

I also want to especially thank Michael Bloomberg for – and everybody has, but it’s appropriate – the Bloomberg Philanthropies for sponsoring this event. Michael’s contribution to Africa comes not just in the form of this summit, but through his latest commitment of $10 million that he made just this February to African countries to build media capacity with a business focus and to promote reliability in reporting, educational opportunities, and the transparencies that the Vice President just talked about that markets need in order to give capital confidence and in order to grow.

And finally, I also want to thank Penny Pritzker, my partner, a fellow member of the President’s Cabinet, but a terrific partner in our endeavors to make certain that people understand that in this globalized world, in the transformative societies we’re living in today, that economics – excuse me – is not divorced from foreign policy; it is foreign policy. And foreign policy is economic policy. They absolutely go hand-in-hand, and we are working very, very closely to marry the efforts of the Commerce Department and the State Department in order to assist companies and to work for American business, but also to work for the countries that we represent in terms of their interests and their vision and their aspirations.

Penny, as you all know, spent 30 years building a business empire, literally. She understands that the investments in Africa are a two-way street, and when we help nations stand on their own two feet, we create opportunity elsewhere in the world, and that everybody benefits as a result of that.

Now, my singular responsibility and privilege is to represent the United States of America in our diplomacy. And I get to wear the hat of the top diplomat of the State Department, and it’s a privilege. But I want to say something to you today that is not just from the business perspective, but which comes from the wearing of that hat, which is a reflection of the people that I see in the countries I visit, the leaders I meet and talk with, the aspirations that I hear all of them express, and the firsthand opportunity I get to sink my teeth into other people’s culture, other people’s history and see the world as they see it, and see even America as they see it.

Everyone here understands that we are living in a very different world from two years ago, from five years ago, ten years ago, and certainly from the world that emerged with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Forces have been released everywhere that have changed everything because of their own ideology in many cases, or in some cases just outlook on the world, but also because other things have changed. A world – I sat with a number of young diplomats in the State Department not so long ago, and one of them recently minted from college and the Foreign Service School and this new world of technology made a very profound observation to me, which has had an impact on my thinking about power and how it works. He said that a world where power used to be defined exclusively in hierarchies is now a world where power is defined in networks.

And in much of Africa and across the networked world, it is evident. We heard the statistics earlier of the number of people who have cell phones in Africa today. Everybody shares everything with everybody all the time, and the fact is that that changes politics. It changes the cross currents of decision making. It changes how political leaders can or can’t build consensus in order to try to make decisions and bring their people along with them as they make those decisions. It also, obviously, profoundly changes business, something that Bloomberg has understood way ahead of the curve, which is why they’ve been so successful. It changes hopes and dreams and aspirations. And every political leader and every business needs to be tuned into that reality. No matter how hard some powerful leader of a country might desire, no one can put this genie back in the bottle and change what is happening.

So because of that, we face a very common challenge, all of us together. In Africa, there are some 700 million people under the age of 30, a staggering youth bulge unknown at any time on the face of this planet. And the fact is that all of them, or most of them – not all of them, but most of them – with their increasing awareness of this world we live in are desperate for opportunity, yes, but also for dignity and for respect.

On the other side, we all know too well there are extremists, too many radical religious extremists who distort theology, religion, and even ideology. And they are prepared to seduce these young people in a very calculated and disciplined way to lure them into what is nothing less than a dead end. And we’ve seen the instability that this creates, all of us, and what’s important is that none of them – none of those extremists, they don’t offer an education that helps a young person gain a skill. They don’t help anybody to be able to compete. They have not one idea about a health system. They don’t build infrastructure. They don’t tell you how to build a nation. And they don’t talk about how they will provide jobs or offer a vision for the future. They are stuck in the past. Their challenge is modernity, and because of it, it’s our challenge too.

So there’s something else about those extremists, and it reflects a little bit on what the Vice President just said to you. It’s not just the lack of jobs and opportunity that give them their opening and their recruitment tools. They’re just as content to see corruption and oligarchy and kleptocracy and resource exploitation fill the vacuum. Because it may look like economic growth on paper, but that’s another way that they can seize on the frustration and exploit the sense of lack of opportunity and violation that is the anger of so many people – to wit, a young fruit vendor in Tunisia who ignited so much of what followed. There’s another target that they can turn to. They are the swing voters, in a sense, in the struggle against extremism.

So my friends, that is our challenge. It’s not just to come here and do business. That’s important, obviously. It is the key, the economic key to the future, and we have to do business to grow the jobs, provide the skills, provide the tax base to be able to do the things we want to do. But we have to come together, all of us, with a unified vision and a purpose so that we can present this growing number of young people in Africa and across the world with a viable alternative: quality education with skills for the modern world and with jobs that allow them to build a life and have a family and have confidence in their countries.

All of us together have the greatest ability of any people on the planet to be able to provide this opportunity. And it’s not just economics that creates the sustainable growth and shared prosperity; it’s also this larger vision of what life is about and why there is a greater purpose than just living to work. You have to work to live and there has to be a living there that’s worth it. So we know beyond any doubt that the places – and this is a polite summary of an experience here in America where we do not profess to have all the answers, nor would we suggest to you that ours is the only track – but one thing that we have learned is that in the places where people are free not just to develop an idea, but to debate different ideas, to have not just a job but the promise of entrepreneurship and innovation to be able to transform the best ideas into reality and into a business and into a future – those are the societies that absolutely are the most successful and the most stable on our planet.

And this success is not a mystery. It’s not something that’s hard to achieve if you make the right choices. It’s possible for all of Africa, and that is how one can choose to have an Africa that is not defined any longer, as it has not been for these last 10 and 15 years as it goes through this transformation defined by conflict – less and less. But it becomes an Africa that is defined by rights and by capacity, by dignity, respect, and opportunity. And opportunity is something that Boko Haram and al-Shabaab and many other groups will never, ever provide.

So when the United States is home to some of the most innovative and well-known and respected companies in the world, and when Africa is already home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world and new leadership that is anxious to grab the future, we have to do more together. We have to partner – which is a theme of this conference – to invest in the next generation, to create good jobs for young Africans, to build a stronger middle class, to provide families with clean power and clean water, to build societies where an open exchange of ideas and information are the defining hallmark.

Business is not just business for the sake of business, and I think all of you know that, at least not for most of the thoughtful businesspeople here and in our country. It is for providing the foundation for people to be able to live their lives with that opportunity, dignity, and respect. I don’t have to remind anybody here that Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest leaders the world has seen in all time, did not spend 27 years in jail so that he could get out and run a business, with no disrespect to anybody here. He did it so that people of his country would have an opportunity to live up to an ideal. He did it for rights – human rights – that are the foundation of any civilized society. And those rights across the continent are best lived out, best given meaning in strong countries with strong economies where prosperity is shared by a strong middle class.

So I close by just saying there is absolutely no question in my mind, from the excitement that we felt yesterday at the first meeting to the energy that we felt in all of your presence here and in the meetings and discussions thus far – all of this is not just possible; it is the future. But we have to make the right choices about skills and education and opportunities, and that will define the U.S.-Africa partnership. And if we work together, if everybody gets this right, this – this meeting and this moment and the days ahead of us can literally become a pivotal defining moment for our future history and for the world.

Thank you all very, very, much. (Applause.)