By Adva Saldinger*
They represent all 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and on Monday they had an opportunity to question and challenge U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of their countries’ leaders.
So what did these Young African Leaders want to know from Obama? They asked about debt forgiveness, entrepreneurship, gender equality, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, governance and youth involvement in Africa, most of which are subjects likely to come up when the leaders of their countries gather next week in Washington, D.C. for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
“The security and prosperity and justice that we seek in the world cannot be achieved without a strong and prosperous and self-reliant Africa,” the U.S. president told delegates at the Young African Leaders Initiative presidential summit.
About 500 young African leaders have spent the past six weeks at universities across the United States learning leadership and networking skills they can deploy in their countries to strengthen democracy, build businesses and tackle issues of peace and security.
One of the early questions, about his commitment to closing gender inequality gaps, seemed like an easy one for Obama.
“You will not find anybody more committed to this issue than I am,” he responded, adding that one of the single best measures for the success of a country is how it treats its women.
Obama stressed that any U.S. government program in Africa — be it related to education, health, small business or economic development — will include a gender equality component.
An enabling environment for African business
Several of the other questions touched on issues that the president said would be priorities at next week’s summit, like entrepreneurship and improved access to finance — especially start-up capital.
Too many African entrepreneurs lack the seed money to start businesses, and Obama said that the U.S. government will work with existing programs, determine the financing gaps and ensure that resources are being utilized in the best ways possible so that young entrepreneurs are able to start small and medium businesses. It’s critical that financing be available to everyone and not just those with connections, he insisted.
Governance and transparency is also key to ensuring that countries have an environment that will enable those businesses to grow. The president acknowledged that governance can be a sensitive issue, but emphasized that it is critical for the success of African countries.
“Regardless of the resources a country possesses, regardless of how talented the people are, if you do not have a basic system of rule of law, of respect for civil rights and human rights, if you do not give people a credible legitimate way to work through the political process to express their aspirations, if you don’t respect basic freedom of speech and freedom of assembly … if you do not have an economic system that is transparent and accountable … If you don’t have those basic mechanisms it is very rare for a country to succeed,” Obama said.
Young people have a critical role to play and need to hold their leadership to high standards, he said, adding that they shouldn’t be “fooled” by the notion that there is a different, African way of government — one that involves setting up Swiss bank accounts and long terms in office.
Trade, debt relief
Obama also discussed ways the U.S. government can help open economic markets, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is used to promote trade between the U.S. and African countries and is set to expire in 2015.
Negotiations to reauthorize AGOA are ongoing and will continue next week. The idea is to build on lessons learned, including that in some cases barriers other than tariffs are preventing companies from getting goods to market, the president said. The next version of AGOA will likely try to tackle some of those additional challenges, and may also seek to address the issue of trade between African countries.
Obama noted that he is “very strongly committed” to making sure AGOA is reauthorized.
One of the event’s more challenging questions was about whether the president would consider advocating for the G-7 to forgive the debt of some countries so the money can be spent on providing social services like health and education.
He acknowledged there was a discussion to be had about helping countries get out from under the burden of debts from past leaders, especially if loans were made but weren’t put to productive use — but he challenged the notion that the reason governments aren’t providing those services is primarily because of that debt.
“At some point we have to look to the future and say we didn’t get a good deal back then but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward,” Obama said. “The truth is there is not a single country in Africa — and by the way this is true for the United States as well — that with the resources it has it could not be doing better.”
There are many countries that are generating a lot of income, enough to make progress even while paying back the debt, but they instead are not investing in social programs like health or education, the U.S. president added.
More US initiatives for Africa
The event was more than an opportunity for Obama to make several announcements, like a $38 million U.S. Agency for International Development commitment with several partners — among them the MasterCard Foundation — to open regional leadership centers in Ghana, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya.
The U.S. African Development Foundation and the Department of State will also be teaming up to distribute $250 million in small entrepreneurship loans and the U.S. government will support mobile incubators to travel to rural areas and smaller cities.
The YALI program aims to provide points of connection and new relationships that can spur progress.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who also addressed the group, encouraged them to use the relationships they made through the program and work together to create change.
“Africa will be the place of great growth in this century. You will be the witnesses to remarkable transformation but how you transform, who benefits, what you become, what rights you protect, what opportunities you create and guarantee – that will write the real history,” Kerry said. “Each of you has incredible opportunities to change lives for the better and you can define your countries in the doing of that.”