by Matt Raab
On Tuesday, March 21, Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy hosted Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, for a conversation on Africa’s position on the world stage. Thomas-Greenfield highlighted the problems and opportunities facing the continent in the near future as part of the Distinguished Practitioner Speaker Series. She shared her perspective from a 35-year career in the Foreign Service including the Ambassadorship in Liberia and a life that has been intertwined with Africa since her first visit in 1978.
Thomas-Greenfield began by considering general conceptions of Africa.
“Usually when you hear Africa, you start thinking of what’s on the news,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “So I looked at my Blackberry this morning, pulled up a few things on Africa in the news and it was all famine and war and disaster. That’s the news we all see on Africa so that’s how we tend to define Africa.”
She challenged popular narratives with her own expertise.
“My experience has been different. These things are true, they represent what we see in the news, but there’s a lot more out there that we don’t see,” she said, “and those are the things that have helped me come to a conclusion that there are tremendous opportunities on the continent, and the continent has tremendous promise for the future.”
Thomas-Greenfield established five categories of challenges for the African continent as that future develops: the youth bulge, economic investment, corruption, insecurity and terrorism, and humanitarian concerns. She also noted the link between all of these concerns, namely crosscutting issues like youth engagement, economics, and government in a transforming continent.
Her overview of these issues began with Africa’s demographic youth bulge.
“One of the top challenges at the top of the list for Africa and probably worldwide [is] the youth bulge. Africa is feeling that youth bulge more than anyone. It’s the youngest continent in the world,” she said, with half of its 1.2 billion population under the age of 19.
A large youth population raises critical issues for sub-Saharan African countries, particularly revolving around education and political engagement. As some governments fear the potentially destabilizing power of this population, Thomas-Greenfield urged an agenda of investment and empowerment, highlighting the State Department’s Young African Leader’s Initiative (YALI).
“They’ve gone back and they’re changing the trajectory of the continent,” she said of YALI participants, a cohort of 1,000 competitively selected young African leaders who are afforded a variety of mentoring and educational opportunities in the United States. “It’s like dropping one drop of red paint in a bucket of white paint. They have a multiplier effect. They taint the population around them with their enthusiasm and their ambition.”
With every YALI Mandela-Washington fellow that we bring to the United States at least 100 are impacted by those young people.
Investment and economic growth is another key area of concern—but Thomas-Greenfield also identified key signs of progress.
“American companies are beginning to see the value of investing in Africa and Africans are seeing the value of having Americans invest,” she said. “We have worked very closely with American companies to encourage their further investment to help Africa deal with its economic challenges.”
Critically related to the issue of investment and risk is governance, where Africa must contend with a legacy of institutional instability and corruption.
“We still have countries where elections are not free and fair,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We still have a lot of countries where the leaders have decided that staying president for life is in their country’s best interest when we all know its only in their own best interest.”
Thomas-Greenfield also noted examples of powerful progress, however—a trend towards democracy anchored by successful electoral systems in countries like Ghana and Nigeria, and growing regional consensuses opposing the persistence of non-democratic power.
Among this success, however, the specter of insecurity, terrorism, and humanitarian concerns on the continent still linger, tying those dynamics back to government and youth engagement.
“We have to deal with the root causes, and many of the root causes go back to the previous challenge,” she said. “That’s governance, being able to deal with issues of corruptions, to deal with issues of providing services that people expect their governments to provide.”
At their core, Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks balanced acknowledgement of very real concerns for Africa with an optimism based on the clear and growing potential the continent possesses.
“It’s a continent that has extraordinary natural and human resources, it has a rapidly expanding middle class which means a great deal to the private sector, it’s the next frontier of global opportunities,” she said. “It’s a continent that has made remarkable progress and change despite the challenges [it faces].”
Both the continent’s natural resources and a more critical resource—that youth population, will set the continent apart in coming decades.
“Africa’s role is going to be one that will be the envy of the globe,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “The resources are there and we’re seeing more and more recognition—not just here in the U.S., but across the globe—that Africa is on the move and that Africa will come out of these challenges that I have identified and become a player a huge player on the international scene.”
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is currently an ISD Resident Senior State Department Fellow.