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Secretary Blinken Holds Virtual Discussion with Alumni of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)

April 27, 2021

Secretary Blinken held an interactive session YALI Alumni

MS KENEWENDO:  A very good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.  We are very pleased to be with you this afternoon on our side, and I am being joined by several YALI alumni, so the Young African Leaders Initiative.  And they are all looking forward to engaging with you on how best we can strengthen U.S.-Africa relations and how best we can ensure that we, as young people in Africa and the alumni of YALI, can continue to engage with you in strengthening these relations.  And we are pleased again, alumni, fellow alumni, to be joining the Secretary of State, Mr. Antony “Tony” Blinken in order to engage further, and we are calling today’s engagement “10 Questions with Tony” and in honor of YALI’s 10th anniversary.  We very much look forward to hearing from you, Mr. Secretary, and I’m very much looking forward to all the questions that the alumni will be asking.  So once again, a very warm welcome to you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, hello.  Thank you so much for that warm welcome, and it is wonderful to celebrate the 10th anniversary.  I guess if this was the 20th anniversary it would be “20 Questions,” but we’ll start with 10 this time and maybe I’ll get a chance to come back in another decade.  But I got to know the YALI program very well when I served as deputy secretary of state for President Obama and my wife, Evan Ryan, oversaw the Mandela Washington Fellowship, among other things.  She was the assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs responsible for all of our exchange programs, and this was right at the heart of what she was doing.  So our family is basically full of fans of this initiative.

But even to someone like me who knows a little bit at least about YALI, I have to tell you it is remarkable to see its impact after a decade: more than 24,000 alumni between the Mandela program and the regional leadership centers.  While the program has grown, the core idea is the same as it was from the start.  A continent of 1.3 billion people, median age 19 – the best way to expand opportunities, grow economies, promote human rights is to invest in Africa’s young leaders.  That’s the power of the idea.

The work that you all do is testament to that, including during COVID-19, which is why unfortunately we’re meeting virtually today – and I look forward, I hope in the future, to opportunities for us to get together in person.

The pandemic has underscored three points that I think go to the heart of why this program is so important.  The first is that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic are those that were already underserved and marginalized.  That’s true here in America and it’s true in your countries.  Whether you work on improving the health of adolescent girls in Ghana like Maxwell does, empowering women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo like Passy does, expanding opportunities for kids in Kenya’s informal settlements like Billian does, you’ve seen this unequal and searing impact up close.

The second point is that the best way to prepare communities for massive challenges like the pandemic is building resilience, expanding opportunity, strengthening local voices of rising leaders before the crisis strikes, and by ensuring that innovations in technology and other vital tools meet the needs of these same communities, not just the well-off and well-connected.

YALI alums have been at the forefront of this effort.  People like Mary Mwangi, who developed an app that lets tuk-tuk passengers book a ride and pay online in advance so they can skip the packed lines and avoid exchanging money by hand, eliminating key vectors of the virus spread.  Alumni like Moussa Kondo, whose NGO Accountability Lab in Mali is combating misinformation with daily blasts that debunk popular myths about the virus.

And that brings me to my last point.  The pandemic has made clear how our fates are really bound up in one another.  Whether in fighting COVID-19, meeting the climate crisis, building a sustainable and inclusive global economy, or dealing with any of the other challenges we face today, we are all in this together.  So the need for YALI’s leaders has never been so urgent, and that’s why I’m really eager to hear from all of you and particularly to hear how we can make this program even stronger.

So to that end, let me kick it off by getting to ask the first question.  I’ll be answering some questions but I wanted to get to ask the first one.  And my first question is this:  As YALI enters its second decade, what more can America do to empower Africa’s rising generation of leaders?  How should the program evolve to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that you’re all seeing today? 

So why don’t we kick it off with that, and back to you, Bogolo.

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, and thank you for the warm, warm welcome.  It is very wise that you kick us off because we have so many questions and everyone is very excited to field their questions to you.  But let me just ask a colleague of mine, Mr. Maxwell in Ghana to take that first question.  Maxwell?

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for such a thought-provoking question.  My name is Maxwell Kumbeni.  I’m a 2018 Mandela Washington fellow.  I did public management at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, after which I proceeded to the Cincinnati Health Department to do my six weeks of professional development experience.

Now, to answer the question, I think that YALI is the best thing to ever happen to this generation of young people in Africa.  It is amazing if you look at the kind of huge economic empowerment and great leaders that have emerged from this program just in a period of 10 years, and the prospects are even higher when you look at it.

And so for me, I think that the best or the first step for the U.S. to best support this next generation of YALI participants is for the U.S. to ensure the continued existence of the three arms of the YALI program – that is, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the YALI Online, and then the Regional Leadership Training Centers.  This would ensure that we continue to have access to connections and resources with which to build our businesses and then our communities.

Secondly, although there is some level of integration among the three arms of YALI programs, that strong bonding or cohesion does not seem to exist.  So there’s a need to create programs that will ensure that these different arms work together to ensure that cohesion exists and that unity will inspire more things to happen.

And then I also think that if the number of slots for the professional development experience is increased to at least 25 percent of fellows that are recruited for a year, this would go a long way to inspire more fellows.  This is because this program actually exposes fellows to the real working environment of the U.S. and that it gives us that skill to move to come and start our own businesses, or better still, build upon businesses that existed before we went for the program.  And for the future of YALI, I think that if funding can be guaranteed for the next couple of decades, YALI will eventually become the greatest economic and decision-making body in the continent of Africa and perhaps beyond.  We will have YALI members leading most organizations and then being the critical decision-makers in this continent, and I think that if you look at these things, YALI stands a chance of becoming an economic force and then a policymaker in the continent and perhaps beyond.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  That’s an incredibly thoughtful and insightful answer, and I’ve got some very good ideas just from hearing that.  So I really appreciate that.

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you very much, Maxwell.  Thank you very much, Secretary.  I just want to also add that we used to have great reunions and we strengthened our networks.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.

MS KENEWENDO:  And I would be looking forward to more reunions because they really do help us in growing within the continent amongst ourselves.

And now I am sure that the burning questions are already close to 100 degrees, and I want to turn over, Mr. Secretary, to all the questions, starting with Yared in Ethiopia.  Yared, do you have your question ready?

QUESTION:  Yes, I do.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  My name is Yared Abera.  I am a 2017 alumnus from Nairobi Regional Leadership Center, where I participated in the civic engagement track. 

My question to you, Secretary Blinken:  Problems like climate change need urgent global cooperation.  As America is back on the world stage, what should we expect in addressing the pressing major and growing challenges of climate change beyond the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much, Yared.  This is really maybe one of the most, if not the most, crucial questions of our time because climate change is an existential challenge for all of us.  And to your point, the President rejoined Paris immediately.  He appointed one of my most illustrious predecessors, John Kerry, to lead our efforts internationally about climate change.  And as you know, we’ve convened a climate summit in Washington which is an important event in terms of leading to Glasgow and the COP 26 meeting at the end of the year.  And this year is so pivotal in terms of really working to raise the ambitions of countries around the world in terms of what they’re going to do about climate change, setting even more ambitious targets, looking at how we finance this, turning the challenge of climate change into an opportunity with green technology and good new jobs.  And all of that, I think really the starting off point has been this April 22nd Earth Day meeting that President Biden put together, and we’re going to – we’re using that really as a jumping off point to help make sure that COP 26 in Glasgow at the end of the year is a big success.

Last thing I’ll say on this – this is really a pivotal year in a pivotal decade.  The decisions and the actions that countries take now and that they take between now and 2030 are really going to determine whether or not we succeed in meeting the ambitious goals that many of us have set for 2050.  We can’t wait until the 2040s to start to take action.  It has to happen now, and all the action this year hopefully will get us off to that very, very important start.

Bogolo, back to you.

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you, Yared.

Our next question, Mr. Secretary, will come from South Africa and will be questioned by Melene.  Melene, you can —

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Bogolo.  Yes, ma’am.  Thank you, Secretary Blinken.  My name is Melene Rossouw and I am a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow.  I participated in the civic engagement track through the presidential precinct at the University of Virginia.

My question to you, sir:  One of the greatest threats to Africa’s future is gender inequality.  Denying 52 percent of Africa’s population their right to full participation and equal opportunity impacts democracy, security, governance, human rights, and the economy.  What actions will the United States Government take to not only promote gender equality within the United States but also in Africa, which recorded the highest inequalities in the world?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you for a very, very important question.  And I have to tell you from the start, the Biden-Harris administration sees gender equity and equality not just as a moral and human rights imperative, which it is, but also as a strategic imperative because it is vital to reducing poverty, promoting economic growth, and strengthening democracy.  On March 8th, International Women’s Day, you may have taken note President Biden issued an executive order on the establishment of a White House Gender Policy Council.  That in and of itself is a strong signal of the commitment that he has and that we have to really revitalizing our work toward gender equality not just in the United States, but, to your point, globally.  The work of the council is to advance gender equality through the activities of the U.S. Government, all of its agencies and departments, and internationally what it aims to do is to advance gender equality through our diplomacy – something that I work on every day; through development and the work of our development agencies like USAID; through trade and even through defense.

We recognize that women’s leadership is critical to lasting peace and prosperity across the sub-Saharan Africa, and so our support for gender equality really does extend throughout the continent, and one of the ways we’re doing this is through diplomatic efforts to reduce barriers to women’s participation in economic and political life, including addressing legal, regulatory, cultural barriers that hold women back.

We have an office here in the State Department which I think you probably know of.  It’s the Office of Global Women’s Issues, a very important initiative where we’re actively engaged in women’s economic empowerment.  We have programs in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  And across the continent, I think there’s a strong recognition that women and subject matter experts really represent the backbone of African economies in many ways, and economic growth, which is so vital to everyone, the growth that they generate leads to much greater long-term security, stability, prosperity in their individual communities but also in countries writ large.

You know this very well:  Women and girls are often excluded from decision-making, and that in and of itself is one of the most important barriers that I think we have to work to break down in our programs that are bilaterally with individual countries, but also multilaterally through different organizations.  We’re working to strengthen full, effective, and meaningful participation in conflict mitigation, in peacebuilding efforts, in security and law enforcement, in all levels of politics and governance.

And finally, there’s accountability that has to go with this because it’s important that governments be held accountable for human rights violations and abuses.  Basically, we have to end impunity for those responsible for such acts online, offline, to address gender-based violence – something that President Biden feels very strongly.  You may know that, I think, one of the things he’s proudest of in his career when he was a United States senator, many years ago, was something called the Violence Against Women Act here in the United States.  And I think if you asked him of all of his achievements what is he proudest of, it’s probably that.  And he’s worked also to take that international and to strengthen that around the world, and that includes everything from gender-based violence, whether it’s genital mutilation, whether it’s early and forced marriage, whether it’s conflict-related violence, rape, other forms of violence against women.  All of this is part of our policy.  And I’m sorry for going on on this question but it really is important.

We also have women, peace, and security initiatives underway in more than 11 sub-Saharan African countries.  We’ve got assistance programs that work to advance women, peace, and security efforts supporting local women leaders and preventing and countering violent extremism, enhancing survivor-centered efforts to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and working to advance women’s leadership again in the decision-making – this is so critical – on peace and security efforts.  We’ve found that when women are actually engaged in the decision-making, we get better decisions.  It’s as simple as that.

So this is something we’re very proud of but also very determined to advance in the years ahead, and I think you’re a testament to the impact of the YALI program with your own commitment to empowering other women.  So hats off to you and we really look forward to continuing to work together on this. 

Bogolo, back to you.

MS KENEWENDO:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, and thank you, Melene, for asking that question.  Your response to that was very elaborate and I particularly appreciate it because I believe that if we don’t empower women, then we’ll only get 50 percent of success and productivity.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yeah.

MS KENEWENDO:  So you have really captured it well.  Thank you.

For our next question we have Passy from the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Passy, it’s  your turn to ask a question. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary of State, for the opportunity and privilege to be in this meeting today.  My name is Passy Mubalama.  I am a pro-democracy and human rights activist based in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I am a 2014 YALI alumni in the civic leadership track from the University of Delaware. 

The DRC is a very resource-rich country.  How can the United States help to ensure more equitable economic partnership and to fight corruption if it’s both internally and externally from international corporations who want to take advantage of Congo’s resources?  Thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you very much, Passy.  And first, I’m not sure – it’s possible that we even met because when I was last in government, I went out to visit with the YALI fellows at the University of Delaware.  So I don’t know if – I can’t remember if it was 2015 or 2016.  But —

QUESTION:  Yeah, yeah, 2014.  I think we met at the University of Delaware, so it’s a pleasure.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yes, that’s right, so it’s great to see you again, even at a great distance.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Let me just say in answer to your question, the DRC’s natural resources are vitally important not only to the DRC but actually to the world, and we’ve got an embassy team in Kinshasa working to do something very important, and that is to expose corrupt networks operating in the DRC, which is one of the, I think, most important barriers and challenges to the appropriate exploitation of these resources as opposed to the inappropriate exploitation.

One of the other things that we’re doing is we’re working to increase trade and investment ties, including through the DRC’s restored eligibility under the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act.  That’s a very important trade preference program that I think can make a real difference, especially with the DRC’s renewed eligibility.

What’s also, I think, very important to focus on is efforts underway by the DRC to create a better business climate.  That’s really key to getting investors, to getting their interest, to getting their confidence.  And it’s also vitally important that as people, companies invest, they do so with the highest standards in mind, and that’s something we’re also very focused on.

Exposing corrupt actors who are actually trying to exploit this for bad purposes and encouraging legitimate business – these are, I think, the twin pillars that we’re working with.  And my expectation is we’ll see real change in our relationship in – with the DRC, and real progress.  So that’s my hope and we’re certainly working on it.  Thanks for the great question.

And Bogolo, back to you.

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you, Mr. – thank you, Mr. Secretary, and great question, Passy.

And now I will be moving forward to Kenya and take a question from Billian.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Hi.  My name is Billian Okoth Ojiwa.  I am a 2018 Mandela Washington fellow.  I was in civic leadership track at the University of Delaware. 

My question is:  How can we inspire the youth of today to overcome their acceptance of the status quo in becoming – and become the leaders of tomorrow?  And how can the United States and Kenya continue to partner to provide youth and young leaders with skills and resources they need to bring about the change they want to see in the world?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first of all, you’re doing it.  You and your colleagues in the YALI program are doing it, and that’s incredibly inspiring.  And I think in doing it you’re also setting an incredibly powerful example for your friends, your colleagues, your communities, and that’s going to have ripple effects that I don’t think you can even fully appreciate.  They’re going to – there are younger – even younger people today inspired by what you’re doing and what you’ve done, and as a – and they can see a different path forward as a result of that.  And that I think in itself is going to encourage people to stand up, speak out, be engaged, and try to advance beyond the status quo.

But look, we know that to really feel engaged and to really be inspired, people need to feel that they’re being heard – because speaking into a void can be an incredibly frustrating exercise.  So I think young voices are critical to any political discourse, for example, on electoral and constitutional reforms.  And that’s certainly true in the runup to elections in 2022 in Kenya.

We’re supporting a whole variety of programs to try to build the capacity of youth organizations to come together in a constructive way to help young people develop resilience against political manipulation and violence, to advocate for more inclusive governance and accountability.  And the YALI family, especially alumni of the civic engagement track like you, I think again you’re playing a really important role in this.  And the inspiration that you’re providing is, more than anything else, the most powerful force that we have going.

And let me add one other thing.  I’ve been around and doing this kind of work for a little while, and I know that even with every effort I might make and my colleagues make to have open minds and fresh perspectives, the older you get, the harder it is.  Everyone gets a little bit set in their ways, set in their thinking.  And the most important thing we have is to hear and to listen to new voices, young voices, fresh perspectives, new ideas.  No one has a monopoly on ideas, never mind good ideas.  And as you’re bringing these ideas to the marketplace of ideas, it’s going to make for a much more powerful and abundant market, and I think that’s the way we get progress.

So we have – we have to have open ears and open minds, and you have to step up, and I’m so glad that you’re doing that and really leading by example.

Bogolo, back to you.

MS KENEWENDO:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Alumni here, it’s to open the ears, open minds, and stepping forward. 

Mr. Secretary, our next question will be coming from Pedro in Cabo Verde.  Pedro?

QUESTION:  Hi, Secretary of State.  Thank you for this amazing opportunity.  Hi also to the YALI family.  I miss you, brothers and sisters.  It’s fantastic that we had this opportunity to talk and also to give a platform to your people like a brilliant lawyer, my friend Melene, and also Ms. Bogolo.  My name is Pedro Lopes.  I am a 2017 Mandela Washington fellow.  I participated in the business entrepreneurship track at the University of New Mexico. 

Fake news.  Fake news shared on social platforms is contributing to the erosion of democracy by misinforming and polarizing the public.  How can we protect small democratic states such as Cabo Verde, my country, from this challenge?  Should there be a global regulation of social media, Mr. Secretary of State?  Thank you so much for this opportunity. 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s one of the most important questions of our time.  And as you rightly say, we have a huge challenge with misinformation and disinformation, particularly using social media platforms, and it is a threat to democracies, and not just to your country and not just to other countries – to the United States and to many other democracies around the world.  And we have experienced that; we continue to experience that every day.  And here a few things are important. 

Social media platforms themselves obviously have a huge role and responsibility in fighting fake news, and their ability to do that and to do that effectively is one of the most important aspects of actually dealing with this problem.  And that, to understate, is a work in progress at best, but it’s vitally important that they stand up and play a leadership role.  And of course, balancing the different equities of making sure that we are combating misinformation and disinformation while preserving freedom of speech is one of the most profound challenges of our time and invites incredibly difficult questions and really philosophical questions as well as practical ones.  Because the free flow of information is critical to democracy, and that’s no less true in the digital age, but it also highlights that everyone has a role to play in fighting disinformation.

Many of us brought up in liberal traditions and who study this, I think, thought maybe naively that – we were talking about the marketplace of ideas.  John Stuart Mill, if you go back to some of the early social thinkers, believed that the basic idea is to put ideas out there and the best ideas will rise to the top and the truth will rise to the top.  But of course, we’ve found that it’s not as simple as that. 

We have at the Department of State many resources that may help you develop a strategy to combat fake news, including in Cabo Verde.  So one of the things I’d just do is to encourage you to engage with, work with our team at the U.S. embassy in Praia and to try to tap into these resources and programming.  That’s one very practical way forward and that may be helpful.  But this is something we’re going to have to grapple with together for a long time to come.

Bogolo?

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for that response.

Our next question is coming from Zimbabwe by Mantate.  Mantate?

QUESTION:  Yes.  Thank you so much, Bogolo.  My name Mantate Mlotshwa, and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Secretary.  I am from Zimbabwe and I’m a 2018 alumni from the regional leadership center in South Africa, where I was in the civic leadership track. 

So as someone that’s very passionate about democracy and governance, I see that there is a lot of violence in countries like Zimbabwe where they keep [inaudible] and attack opposition and civil society leaders – the insurgencies in Mozambique, for instance, and the ethnic conflict in Ethiopia. 

So my question really is about the position, the policy position of the United States where unresolved violence is concerned, past and present.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So this is something that we have to and we are paying attention to security concerns as well as to democracy and human rights.  And unfortunately, what we’ve seen is backsliding on both fronts in a number of places across Africa, and I have to say that we’re concerned about these trends – both rising insecurity and also decreasing, diminishing adherence to democratic standards and human rights. 

Ultimately, inclusive, accessible democracies are the most crucial thing to moving countries away from cycles of violence and onto a path of peace and stability and development.  What we’ve found through experience and what history suggests is that the countries that enjoy transparent, accountable governance and that deliver services for their people face fewer social grievances and ensure that the public actually is invested in building a stronger future, because they can see it.  They can feel it.

So if governance, if democratic governance is able to effectively deliver what people need and give them a voice in the system, that is ultimately the way that you deal with violence, you prevent it from erupting in the first place, and you strengthen democracy and human rights.  So we’re very much committed to working with partners to advance peace and security in Africa.  In the short term, sometimes that looks like security partnerships, conflict mitigation support, and diplomatic advocacy on human rights.  Ultimately, I think the most important thing that we can do is to help countries, where possible, strengthen their democratic institutions, strengthen the ability to deliver progress for people – economic growth – and that’s the real foundation that we need to put in place.  But that takes time.  And in the meantime, some of these programs and partnerships to deal with the immediate challenges are what’s most important.

Bogolo?

MS KENEWENDO:  Right.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Thank you, Mantate, for that question.  It is particularly relevant now because this week, the SADC troika is also meeting over the issues in Mozambique and we are all concerned.  I mean, it’s encouraging to hear a young person ask this question, Mr. Secretary, because it shows that the young people are aware that any instability is also closing doors for further opportunities for us to grow in the future.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yes.

MS KENEWENDO:  So thank you for that response as well.

So for our next question we will get Jamila from Uganda.  Jamila?

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you, Bogolo.  Hello, Mr. Secretary.  It’s nice meeting you virtually.  My name is Jamila Mayanja and I am a 2015 Mandela Washington fellow.  I took up the business and entrepreneurship track at Dartmouth College.

My question is:  Have exchange programs like YALI been beneficial to the U.S. Government like they have been to individual participants?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So I think that the real secret here is that we get even more out of these programs than you do, the participants.  I really believe this, profoundly.  I’ve looked at this very carefully over the years.  And it’s an incredible thing because if you look back over 75 years or so of exchange programs – and YALI is maybe one of the great examples but we have many other exchange programs of one kind or another: academic, business, skill-based, just visitor programs.

One of the things that we’ve been able to do over many years is to identify in each generation the rising, remarkable talent in different countries, and have them participate in one of our programs.  And as I’ve talked to alumni of programs, whether it’s YALI or any other, who have been able to spend time in United States and really see firsthand what our country is all about – in good ways and in not so good ways – but getting that firsthand and meeting with, connecting with, developing relationships with Americans; nine times out of 10 I’ve found that the participants leave with a strong attachment to the United States, relationships that endure for years and even decades.  And then what’s extraordinary, and you are all perfect examples of this – these young people that we’ve identified to come participate in programs invariably go on to positions of incredible responsibility, leadership, innovation in their home countries in governance, in education, in science, in the arts, in business, you name it.

I looked at the statistics a few years ago, so these are out-of-date.  But back then, about five or six years ago when I last looked at this, of all the participants in our exchange programs over the years, more than 300 had gone on to become prime ministers or presidents of their country.  Thousands had become leaders in business, the arts, education.  More than 50 Nobel Prize winners.  And to have that kind of connectivity, to have those kinds of bonds with people who go on to do such wonderful things for their communities and their countries, that’s a tremendous benefit to the United States.

The Mandela Fellowship, just to cite one piece of this, works with 26 universities throughout the United States, and through the professional development experience, we partner with 70 private, public, and nonprofit organizations to place fellows, and that’s building incredible bonds and relationships and networks that benefit us, that benefit the United States in remarkable ways. 

Fellows have donated more than 30,000 hours of service to their host communities while educating and opening the eyes of these communities to the insights that you bring about life back home.  So it’s not only what you go on to do, it’s what you’re doing when you’re in the United States participating in our programs.  And what we’re doing today is another good example.  I think you’re helping to underscore your interests, your goals, your vision for what America’s relationship with Africa can be.  And that’s going to help us here in Washington make decisions about how we focus our engagement with the YALI network itself and with the continent writ large.

So look, this is the – the real secret here is this is really a huge benefit to us, it’s a benefit to me, and I’m so grateful for your participation, for the participation of all the fellows, because it’s really, for me, one of the most productive things that we do and it is without question maybe the best return on the investment we make in these programs.  So thank you.

Bogolo?

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  You are clearly a big fan of this Mandela Fellowship and all our YALI programs, and we appreciate it.

The next question will be from Wezam in Nigeria.  Wezam?

QUESTION:  Thank you, Bogolo.  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary of State.  My name is Wezam.  I am a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow, business and entrepreneurship track from Northwestern University.

My question is this:  Considering the growth of China’s influence in Africa, will the U.S. be competing with China in Africa, especially as it pertains to Africa’s growth over the next few years?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you, Wezam.  That’s, again, a very important question.  And let me say a few things to that.

First, Africa, countries in Africa will and should engage with a broad array of partners, whether it’s China or France, Turkey or Brazil, the United States or many others.  And my hope is that African countries and African communities just approach those relationships with your eyes wide open.  China is a global competitor, and competition is a good thing as long as it’s basically fair and the playing field is level.  But as we look at it, we have different approaches to governance; we have different approaches to business; we have different approaches to security.  And the fundamentals sometimes of our partnerships are quite different.

We believe, the United States believes that a free and open rules-based order that we espouse, sometimes imperfectly but that is our – that is what we espouse, is a good model for people around the world to realize their full potential.  It’s been for us, and we believe that that holds true – not unique to the United States.

In Africa and around the world, we’ll continue to, for example, promote entrepreneurship, fair business practices, sound environmental and social standards for development assistance.  Because what we really need to see, wherever it is, is a race to the top, not a race to the bottom – to make sure that as we engage in business, as we engage in development, as we engage in assistance, we’re also paying strong attention to environmental concerns, to worker rights, to transparency, to other vital things that make for sustainable and equitable growth and opportunity.

So what we’re going to be doing at least is supporting good governance and strong democratic institutions, transparency with our aid.  People will know where it goes, what it delivers, who benefits, and they’ll actually be engaged in its implementation.  Transparency is vital.  That’s something we’re strongly behind.  Fighting corruption to make sure that when countries invest, when businesses engage, that’s free from corruption, which is one of the most corrosive things to democracy imaginable.  And we’ll speak out on human rights.

Ultimately, as we look at this, government should be of, by, and for the people and serve the needs of the people, and these are all pretty big distinctions – at least right now – between the way we look at this and the way the authorities in Beijing look at it.

So it’s a long way of saying we’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States or China, but I would encourage you to ask those tough questions, to dig beneath the surface, to demand transparency, and to make informed choices about what is best for you and your countries.  If someone is coming along and saying, “I’m going to invest a lot of money in your country, but it’s a loan so that means you have a debt, and you’re going to have to pay it back someday, and if that debt is too great and you can’t pay it back, then I’m going to own the asset in question,” well, you should look carefully at that.  Because assuming too much debt becomes an unsustainable burden on countries, and then they face an incredibly hard choice between having to pay it back and probably pay it back in ways that takes resources away from the people, or hand over whatever the investment was to whoever made the investment and owns the debt.  You should be looking hard at whether when other countries come in to build a big infrastructure project, are they bringing their own workers with them or are they giving jobs to people in the country where they’re making investments?  What are the environmental standards?  What are the standards for workers and their rights who are working on these projects?  Is there transparency about where the money is going?  All of those things are things that are important to dig into, and anyone who’s making an investment should be held to a very high standard.

So we’re, for our part, going to remain focused on Africa.  We believe in Africa.  We believe in the extraordinary potential.  We believe that it’s necessary because when you have such a huge proportion of the world’s population in Africa, and that’s only growing, everyone has a stake in Africa’s growth and success because it’s going to contribute to the world, not just to Africa.  Your success is our success, and we want to invest in it but in the right way.

Bogolo? 

MS KENEWENDO:  All right.  We almost made it, Mr. Secretary, to 10 questions without that question.  But I was going to be surprised if it hadn’t come up because pre-COVID, everyone was talking about U.S.-China relations and how Africa is affected, and now with COVID it’s all about the COVID diplomacy and what we’re going to do going forward. 

So I want to thank Edwige for bringing up that question, very pertinent question.  And to wrap up our “10 Questions with Tony,” we’ll be – sorry, so to wrap it up will actually be Edwige from Cote d’Ivoire. 

QUESTION:  Thank you, Bogolo.  Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary of State.  My name is Edwige Dro.  I am a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow.  I did the civic engagement track at the University of Delaware.  I am a writer and a literary activist who has always been fascinated with the ways in which artists from the Harlem Renaissance to Hollywood have shaped the narratives of the United States.

So what collaboration can we expect under the Biden administration between African writers and artists and their American colleagues?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, thanks.  This is a wonderful question to end on because this, too, is something that’s near and dear to my heart. 

I’ve seen for many, many years and I’ve seen up close the incredible power of cultural diplomacy and exchange.  One of the single greatest exports that the United States has is our cultural diplomacy, but it’s also one of the greatest imports that we have.  And bringing U.S. citizens of a diverse range of backgrounds – writers, artists, businesspeople, students – into contact with their counterparts in Africa makes for an incredibly powerful and fertile melting pot for cultural expression, cultural innovation, cultural ideas.  And I think that writers and artists like you play a very important role in advancing through the arts, through culture, through these bonds that connect people in the most profound ways possible, that transcend politics and that transcend some of the issues, the geopolitical issues that we talk about – that’s so vital to advancing democracy and social change.  And this open and dynamic exchange of ideas, particularly through cultural expression, more than anything else I think bonds and binds people together in ways that are resilient sometimes to other challenges that we face in relationships between countries.

The Iowa writers’ program – and I understand that’s something you’re going to be taking part in; it’s a remarkable program, so congratulations – and One Beat and Arts Envoys, we have a variety of programs that we at the State Department are working to support, to facilitate.  And as I’ve seen it, some of my – some of the moments that will stay with me and that resonate the most are having engagements with participants in cultural exchange programs to see the work that they’re doing, the expression that they’re giving to these human emotions that we share no matter where we’re from, no matter what our backgrounds.  It’s hard to think of anything that better connects people at a time when these connections, I think, are more important than ever.

So thank you for what you’re doing.  Thank you for your own engagement, and good luck with the writers program.  It’s pretty remarkable.  And I look forward to reading you sometime in the future.

Bogolo?

MS KENEWENDO:  All right, great.  Thank you very much, Edwige, for that question, and thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.  That wraps our “10 Questions with Tony,” and Mr. Secretary, I just want to highlight that I have been asked for my opinion several times on different forums on how the U.S. can re-engage with Africa and how we can refresh our relations.  And many times I say young people I hear, they are ready, they are willing, and the engagement should start there, but it should also be rising to the ambitions that the continent has – the ambitions on trade and investment, as has been shown by the questions out there; ambitions around empowerment of young women and women in general; ambitions around leadership preparation and really assuming our place at the table; ambitions on arts and culture, on democracy, on peace and stability.

These are all areas that we are very passionate about and we have charted ways forward on how we want to engage, and we are ready for partners that are willing to move forward with us.  And what we are also seeing from today’s engagement, Mr. Secretary, is that everyone here is saying that they are not leaders of tomorrow but they are leaders of today, because every day they are working hard to ensure that they have a future and something to bequeath to the next generation.  So I’m very pleased that at the highest level in your office you chose to engage with us today.  You chose – even in the midst of a pandemic and dealing with a crisis in the U.S. you chose to engage with young African leaders.  And as you said, we need to step up, and I believe that everyone is ready to rise to that challenge. 

And I want to just ask you, give you this moment if you have any parting words for us, any last words, take-home that you want us to remember you by.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Bogolo, it’s incredibly hard to follow your extraordinarily eloquent remarks, because you’ve captured it so powerfully and so well, and I subscribe to everything that you just said.

Let me just say that for me, this conversation, despite the fact that it’s virtual and unfortunately a little bit brief in time, is just incredibly energizing and incredibly positive.  I get a huge amount out of hearing from you and being inspired by you.  And Bogolo, to your point, this is – and I think this is the perfect demonstration that we’re not just talking about leaders of tomorrow, we are talking about leaders of today.  And what each of you is doing in your lives, with your lives is leadership and it’s going to be inspiring, as I said a little earlier, to people in ways you can’t even imagine.  And it’s that kind of example and that kind of inspiration and that kind of engagement that is what progress is all about.

So I just want to both thank you for some of the – both the important questions, some good ideas that I heard today about how we can build the – build this program even stronger going forward, but mostly to thank you for stepping up, for your engagement, for the example that you’re setting, for the work that you’re doing.  It gives me tremendous confidence in the future.  And I know that there’s so many hard things that the world is dealing with, that we’re all dealing with, that many of you are dealing with in your own lives.  But just take a moment to reflect on the fact that what you’re doing is having an impact, and that, more than anything else, is confidence for the future.  So thank you.

MS KENEWENDO:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Let me conclude and close this session by actually introducing myself.  Bogolo Kenewendo from Botswana, and I am a 2011 alumna of the First Lady’s Forum of Young African Women Leaders.  So I’ve been listening to everybody here; I think I am older than all of them in terms of YALI participation.  So it has been an absolute pleasure to have you this afternoon, this morning on your time, and I believe I speak for all of the alumni here today and joining us online when I say thank you and we look forward to more engagement with you and your department and the U.S. in general on how we can continue to strengthen, refresh, and reinvigorate our relations between the U.S. and Africa.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you all.

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