Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
Representative Bass, distinguished guests, scholars, colleagues, and friends.
I’m honored to be in the company of so many friends of Africa.
And I am especially pleased to have been invited to this event by Representative Bass, one of the most dedicated and consistent voices for sustained, positive engagement with Africa that we have on the Hill.
Representative Bass, I salute the work you are doing in bringing together policy experts, members of the African Diaspora communities and senior government officials to focus America’s attention on this very dynamic and important part of the world.
Africa is incredibly important to me. I’m Hungarian by birth; American by citizenship and education; but I gave my heart to Africa shortly after I arrived there in 1978.
Truth be told, while I’m a presidential appointee confirmed by the Senate, the person who made me really want to pursue this position is Linda Thomas-Greenfield, someone well known to this audience and a true leader on all things Africa. I’d like to recognize her and my other immediate predecessors in this role, including Jendayi Frazier, Johnnie Carson, and most recently, in an acting capacity, the indefatigable Don Yamamoto.
Those of you who know Africa know the incredibly smart, dedicated, and talented individuals who work in the Bureau of African Affairs. I’m grateful to be back in their company and humbled at the chance to come back into what is truly a family.
I’ve had innumerable and wonderful experiences living and working in Africa for over 22 years in 8 postings, as has my own family.
My wife Jane became deeply involved in worthwhile causes at our postings, and our children were the first triplets born in an independent Zimbabwe. This has become a family business for us – my son Peter and his wife Amanda are enjoying their third posting on the continent, and hope to spend their careers there.
I am delighted to see that this Africa Braintrust gathering is highlighting the “diversity of Africa” and the demographic trends – really, a demographic tsunami – that is profoundly shaping the continent.
I couldn’t agree more with the critical importance of focusing on youth and the youth bulge that will surely transform not only Africa’s political and economic landscapes, but that of the globe.
It may well be one of the most significant demographic events in human history – and the steps we take now will determine whether it’s for good or ill.
As you are probably aware, over 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, more than 600 million young people, is below the age of 25, and this population also represents three-fifths of the region’s unemployed. Even more are under-employed.
And these young Africans with few prospects, see no future in their countries and are more likely to embark on the dangerous route of migrating to Europe, joining militant groups, or engaging in criminal activities.
Unless we harness the entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism of young Africans and help create the jobs and opportunities that will anchor them to their countries, we will see more African brain drain and young people risking their lives to get to Europe.
One thing is certain – because of modern technology, young Africans have exactly the same dreams as young people everywhere – and they should!
Recent events have made me even more of an Afro-Optimist than before…and the good news goes on. The young Africans I have met since returning to Washington, including this year’s Young African Leader Initiative’s Mandela Washington Fellows, continue to be exceptional. I have been inspired by their enthusiasm, their civic-mindedness, and the high levels of achievement and potential they have already attained.
So while nothing ever seems certain in Washington, I can assure you of my firm commitment to YALI – one of America’s best public diplomacy tools. Consider a few highlights:
There are now 3,700 alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa. They represent the rising generation of new leaders and entrepreneurs with new visions for the future.
Over 10,000 alumni of the four YALI regional centers and two satellite centers in Africa are also honing their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
The on-line YALI Network now comprises more than 500,000 young leaders from across the continent who are connecting with each other via social media and through direct engagement in their communities. The YALI Network platforms help these young leaders learn from each other and spur change.
More than 150 YALI Network members hosted community service activities on Mandela Day 2018. Network members are also connecting every day to share knowledge. For example, Brian Magwaro, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow from Kenya, created a YALI Network chapter in Kisimu to share what he learned and to address challenges and opportunities in his community.
And Chukwuma Okenwa mobilizes youth across Nigeria around the themes of democracy and peaceful elections through his YALI Network connections.
Let’s be clear. These are connections fueled by young people. These are not networks created by the older generation. I’m so inspired by their faith and hope for their futures, and I’m committed to continuing this important engagement.
Of course African governments have the most crucial role to play in helping the younger generation succeed, and I will do all I can to ensure the United States continues to provide helpful support. As we look to Africa’s future and try to ensure the youth bulge is a boost for the continent rather than a hindrance, it is important to keep several critical factors in mind:
The growing number of young people requires an exponential increase in jobs;
Jobs require growing economies driven in part by increasing foreign direct investment;
And responsible foreign companies won’t invest in the absence of political stability, good governance and a welcoming investment climate based on fairness and transparency.
Since my arrival in Washington six weeks ago, I have emphasized two key priorities I intend to focus on during my tenure as Assistant Secretary that I believe will be helpful in the face of Africa’s demographic trends.
One, I want to encourage many more U.S. businesses to pursue commercial opportunities in Africa; American firms have a good record of developing local talent, employing Africans for jobs that Africans can and should be doing, creating opportunities for women, and ensuring worker safety
And, two, I want to continue to do all we can to help African states develop ways to provide the type of environment beneficial to their own people and attractive to global investors.
This is why it’s so important to have gatherings like the Africa Braintrust. I need your help and insights, we need your support and expertise, as we think about the best ways to engage on the continent.
The African diaspora plays a vital role in helping to strengthen the connections between the United States and our partners on the continent. Members of the African diaspora, which includes African Americans and the array of Afro decedents from around the globe, are eager to engage with the continent and have a voice that should be heard, most importantly by the U.S. government.
This CBC Foundation’s keen focus on Africa and well attended events like today are part of what I hope will be a growing wave of support for African issues. Let us work together to galvanize interest about Africa and set a bold agenda for developing a new paradigm for U.S.-Africa relations.
Over the course of my career, I have found tremendous interest in, and support for, U.S.-African engagement across the entire U.S. government. Similarly, and I think Representative Bass would agree, our engagement in Africa is one of the few issues that enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress.
By mobilizing all of these forces together I know that we can do much, much more!
As it is said in Swahili: “Unity is strength; division is weakness.”
Or, as the Bondei say: “Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.”
Thank you again for the privilege of sharing a few thoughts today. I am honored to be here and excited to collaborate with all of you as we work together to promote a more secure and prosperous future for all Africans. Thank you.