Top U.S. Diplomat Toward Africa Highlights Opportunities over Challenges

photo: Linda Thomas-Greenfield (r) and Amb.George Moose
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, is interviewed by Amb. George Moose, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs
December 11, 2014

“Africa’s prosperity depends on Africa’s greatest resource—its people.” This was the theme of the Elliott School’s David H. Miller event featuring U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

“The challenge we face is balancing the near-term and urgent imperatives with our long-term priorities,” said Amb. Thomas-Greenfield at the November 3 event. “That’s my challenge in Africa.”

She pointed to current crises—such as the Ebola outbreak, or political conflicts in South Sudan and Central African Republic—that draw attention away from positive developments elsewhere on the continent.

“If we didn’t know any better—and I know that all of you know better—we would think that Africa is Ebola,” she said.

“But challenges are only one side of the story. There are also tremendous opportunities in what is a dynamic, innovative, and resilient region,” said Amb. Thomas-Greenfield, who spearheaded a summit of 50 African nations in Washington, DC over the summer.  “Our summit in August focused on these opportunities, particularly on our trade and investment relations. As Secretary Kerry often says, ‘economic policy is foreign policy.’”

With 10 of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a burgeoning youth population and middle class, she said, the African continent represents a huge new market for consumer goods—and may lead to job creation in both Africa and the United States. To this end, the summit yielded $33 billion in commitments to the continent for new trade and investments from new companies.

The economic potential of Africa, however, is limited by the strength of its institutions.

“Support for democratic institutions and good governance will remain our highest priority for our partnership on the continent of Africa,” said Amb. Thomas-Greenfield. She discussed the recent political crisis in Burkina Faso, saying that popular protests against President Blaise Compaoré were a reflection of citizens’ increasing demands for democracy over one-party rule.

“It would have been easy for Compaoré to have given up power, served out the rest of his term, and actually left with some kind of legacy, despite his history,” she said. “Yet he chose to fight to stay in power and now he leaves his country in turmoil.” Calls for democracy, she said, can be heard across the continent. Between now and 2016, 14 African countries will hold elections.

The U.S.-Africa partnership is also dependent on cooperating with and strengthening the security institutions of African partners, the assistant secretary said. In addition to supporting African-led security missions, the United States announced a new Security Governance Initiative (SGI) at the summit. The SGI is a multi-year effort that will focus on six countries—Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, and Tunisia.

“The initiative emerged out of consultation with African partners who wanted a more strategic, more sustained approach to security sector reform efforts,” said Amb. Thomas-Greenfield.

The assistant secretary also discussed the State Department’s freshly launched Mandela Washington Fellowship, an annual project in which the U.S. government hosts 500 outstanding young Africans for a six-week academic and professional training program.

“Everybody thought it would be a problem for us to use an online application process on the continent of Africa. They thought people wouldn’t be able to get on, they thought there was not enough bandwidth,” said Amb. Thomas-Greenfield. “Well, we had enough bandwidth to get 50,000 completed applications.”

Amb. Thomas-Greenfield said that she is particularly optimistic after her experience with the young leaders.

“The next generation in Africa is extraordinary, and the next generation in Africa gives me tremendous confidence in Africa’s future.”

The mission of the Miller Foundation is to sustain the lifelong efforts of David H. Miller (B.A. ’87) to advance U.S.–African relations by raising funds to support the David H. Miller Endowment for African Studies at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.  The Miller Foundation believes that within the context of the global economy, Africa's future success will be ensured by providing access to higher education for African nationals and by educating the developed world—including students, government leaders, policy-makers, and the public—on the economic, cultural and political issues that exist in Africa today.