After Melania: Next Steps for U.S. Policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa
October 9, 2018
First lady Melania Trump last week volunteered for a tough assignment: she traveled to three sub-Saharan African countries and Egypt to represent her husband’s administration. The first lady's trip, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), showcased U.S. development and health initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa. She visited regional hospitals, primary schools, and a wildlife conservatory, all of which are standard fare for visiting U.S. first ladies. However, it was difficult for Mrs. Trump to escape the shadow of the president’s negative tweets, disparaging comments, and relative disinterest in African issues. Her travel, in the absence of a clear U.S. policy, renewed questions about U.S. priorities, programs, and funding in sub-Saharan Africa.
Q1: How did Africans react to the first lady’s visit?
A1: The response to Mrs. Trump’s visit ranged from mild interest to indifference. The first lady seemed at ease during her travels, connecting with her counterparts and warmly embracing children in Ghana, Malawi, and Kenya. African officials applauded the trip, including Malawi’s ambassador to the United States, who told the Washington Post that Melania’s five-hour stop in Malawi was positive and underscored the bond between the United States and Malawi.
However, she did not receive the public fanfare that greeted former first lady Michelle Obama in 2011 and 2016. Aside from official airport arrival ceremonies, there was a marked lack of enthusiasm and engagement at several stops. As BBC commentator Elizabeth Ohene noted, few Ghanaians even knew the name of the U.S. first lady. Similarly, her visit failed to earn significant space in local newspapers; only a minority of media outlets placed her trip front and center, while most Ghanaian, Malawian, and Kenyan dailies addressed her visit in frontpage sidebars or not at all. Even her decision in Kenya to don a pith helmet—a symbol of colonial rule—did not register outside of Twitter in part because the trip failed to capture the imagination of the broader African public.
Q2: To what extent will Melania Trump’s trip offset the president’s negative statements and limited engagement?
A2: The first lady’s visit was an important start to soften the president’s image in sub-Saharan Africa, but it was not enough to fully reset relations with the region. African leaders and the public understand the difference between a first lady's trip and the president’s policies. African heads of state have unanswered questions about U.S. priorities on counterterrorism, economic engagement, and foreign assistance. They have repeatedly pressed for greater engagement from the U.S. government. So far only President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya have visited the White House whereas Presidents Bush and Obama hosted more than five leaders at this point in their first term. The same complaint has been levelled at the U.S. business community. Last year, African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly privately told President Trump that "We would prefer to do business with the United States and other Western countries, but you were not there, unlike China."
Q3: What impact, if any, will the first lady’s trip have on USAID programming and foreign assistance budget to Africa?
A3: Mrs. Trump’s visit heralded the role of USAID and reinforced the Trump administration’s objective to help countries to become self-sufficient. It was a well-timed move in part because the FY 2020 budget is currently in draft, and her intervention has the potential to stave off another attempt by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to drastically cut funding for State Department and USAID. In the FY 2018 and FY 2019 budgets, Congress rejected the White House’s efforts to reduce foreign assistance programs by roughly 30 percent. At the minimum, her trip raised the issue publicly and will put the government’s budget wonks on notice.
The first lady, in general, echoed the U.S. government’s new mantra of supporting a “Journey to Self-Reliance,” to enable partner countries to eventually solve their own development problems. Indeed, USAID recently published country roadmaps to assess each country’s progress toward self-reliance. While the first lady’s donation of 1.4 million books to Malawian schools seemed slightly off-message, her decision to travel to Ghana served as an excellent example of a shared vision between the United States and an African partner. President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana regularly touts his goal of a “Ghana Beyond Aid.” The U.S. Senate’s recent passage of the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD Act) was equally auspicious. The BUILD Act, which establishes a $60 billion agency to increase private sector investment in energy, ports and water infrastructure in developing countries, exemplifies the transition from U.S. assistance to private sector investment.
Q4: What’s next for the U.S. policy on sub-Saharan Africa following the first lady’s travel?
A4: The first lady’s trip, as the most high-profile White House visit to the continent, provides an opportunity to elevate the public discussion on the U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Tibor Nagy recently started this process, affirming his commitment to address youth employment, combat corruption, and promote opportunities for U.S. firms in the region. It is imperative to build on these initiatives, explaining how Melania’s emphasis on health and education and the assistant secretary’s priorities will fit into a larger, interagency framework that ensures coherency and communicates the president’s goals in the region.
Ideally, the U.S. strategy will expand on traditional U.S. priorities and update its programmatic focus in recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is becoming more youthful, urban, educated, and networked. Below are three recommendations to capitalize on Mrs. Trump’s trip and to formulate a more forward-looking approach to the continent.
- Invest in People. The United States typically has used its culture, values, and people-to-people engagement to shape positive outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa. President Obama introduced the wildly successful Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), but the United States in other ways has fallen behind its global competitors. For instance, China is now issuing more scholarships to African students than the United States and the United Kingdom. If the United States seeks to remain a partner of choice, it is essential to sustain and expand opportunities for Africans to participate in the Department of Defense’s International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), and to attend U.S. universities and colleges.
- Leverage Global Partnerships. The international community is dramatically expanding its diplomatic, commercial, and security ties to sub-Saharan Africa. While many of these countries—including China and the Gulf States—have been involved in the region for decades, the sheer number of countries and the significant influx of resources has reshaped the landscape. Indeed, according to the University of Denver’s Diplometric Project, more than 150 new embassies have been established in sub-Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2015. The U.S. government should forge new partnerships with these emerging partners, working out how to burden-share responsibilities and crowdsource complex problems in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Prioritize Urban Development and Innovation. Sub-Saharan Africa’s future is urban. The continent will become 50 percent urban by 2030, and its urban population will double by 2050, yet policymakers have not revised their programmatic approach. It’s not only urgent to pivot to urban development and governance issues, it also presents the most attractive opportunities for U.S. businesses. Similarly, there is a real opportunity to engage in the continent’s burgeoning technology sectors. According to the GSMA trade association, there are 442 active tech hubs in North and sub-Saharan Africa, and Amazon, Facebook, and Google are investing in the most promising companies and entrepreneurs to profit from this booming tech scene.
Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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