September 25, 2022

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To African Diaspora Youth and Exchange Alumni – United States Department of State

9 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

Swahili Village Restaurant

MR MASSINGA:  I’m Erv Massinga from the Department of State, Africa Bureau, and thanks to each of you for joining us today.  It’s always my pleasure and honor to introduce Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Today he’s going to focus on issues that are important to him personally, to all of us: U.S.-Africa relations and his recent trip to South Africa, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It’s his second in-person visit to Sub-Saharan Africa as Secretary of State.

Before I turn the mic over to the Secretary to share some more specifics about his visit, I’d like to say a few words to all of you here today.  At the Department of State, we often mention the important role that you play in making positive change in their communities and countries.  We often cite Africa’s demographics by 2025, more than half the population in Africa will be age – under the age of 25.  By the year 2050, one in four people on Earth will be African.  These figures remind us how important it is for young people to be engaged and prepared to lead, and how important Africa is to the rest of the world and to the United States.

We’ve invited you all here today because the work you do embodies the ideals we all share.  We wanted to hear from you as participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative, Mandela’s Washington Fellowship, or other U.S. Government-funded exchanges building professional capacity – as well as those of you from the diaspora with deep connections to Africa – and encourage a productive and an interactive exchange.

What are your priorities for our shared future?  What should we be focused on?  What can – what are we doing well?  What can we do better?  We need to hear those questions to (inaudible).  It’s my pleasure to introduce the 71st Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has helped to shape U.S. foreign policy for over three decades and in three presidential administrations.  He has served as Deputy Secretary of State under President Barack Obama from 2008 to ‘17, and before that as President Obama’s Principal Deputy National Security Advisor.  Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Hey, just – Erv, thank you so much.  Thank you for your leadership every day in the African Affairs Bureau.  And I’m also joined by our Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Liz Allen.  And look, it’s pretty simple.  We just had this wonderful trip, and I didn’t want it to end, so we found a way to sort of continue it – (laughter) – today.  And I’m really grateful to each and every one of you for coming out.

Erv, by the way, who doesn’t look it unless you consider that we had a grade school program has actually been in this line of work for 27 years.  So —

(Applause.)

So as Erv said, we did just get back from the trip.  Actually, truth be told, we started on another continent.  We started in Cambodia, we went to the Philippines, and then we transitioned to South Africa, to the DRC, to Rwanda.  We made a couple of pit stops, too, on the way home, a quick pit stop in Ghana to refuel, but managed to see the president in the waiting room at the airport.  Very good.  Even hit Cabo Verde; it was our very last stop.  And then finally, finally back home.

But this is an ongoing story, which is really why I wanted to have the chance to be here with all of you today.  The trip, my second to Sub-Saharan Africa – and in a sense the third, because the very – I think the second trip that I did as Secretary was actually a virtual trip to Kenya and Nigeria very early on when we weren’t actually traveling.  So we’ve had extensive engagement, and I’ll come to it again later.  We’re going to have an African Leaders Summit that President Biden’s hosting at the end of the year.  So there’s a lot of work leading and ramping up to that.

But I think, as Erv suggested, this is evidence that for us, Sub-Saharan Africa is a major force for the future.  And it’s the very numbers that Erv cited that go to the heart of this, the fact that, as he said, in the next couple of years virtually half the population will be under the age of 25, and by 2050, one in four people on this planet from Africa.  That is the definition of the future, and we have a profound stake in trying to get that shared future right.

One of the opportunities that I had during the trip was to lay out our Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, and we tried to focus on a simple proposition.  For us now, this is not about what we do for Africa; it’s what we do with Africa.  And it comes down to a – I think a simple, powerful recognition.  There is not a single issue that is really having an effect on the lives of our people and on Africans – whether it is COVID that we’ve all been grappling with and global health more broadly, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the impact of emerging technologies on all of our lives – not a single one of these issues can we effectively address alone.  We have to find ways to cooperate, find ways to coordinate.  We have to find ways to do more with other countries.

And precisely because Africa represents so much of the future as well as the present, it’s in our interest to find ways to deepen our cooperation.  The partnership that we’re looking for extends well beyond government.  It goes to civil society and NGOs; it goes to the private sector; it goes to citizens more broadly.  And we had an opportunity on the trip to connect across these many different groups, and that’s part of the reason I was so anxious to in effect extend the trip by talking to all of you.

And in effect, these partnerships are actually going to be driven by whether you wind up or are in government, whether you’re in civil society, whether you’re in business, whether you’re in academia, whatever the case may be – the arts – you’re at the heart of the kind of partnerships that we hope to build.

In particular, we have here, as Erv said, folks from the diaspora and the Mandela Fellowship, something I’m very excited about.  You are, as a result, already in fact building the partnerships that we’re trying to build.

Let me just say a couple of quick words about the extraordinary power of the fellowship program.  Since President Obama launched the fellowship program, over 5,800 rising leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa have actually taken part.  That’s remarkable in just a few short years.  But what’s even more remarkable – because I’ve had a chance to talk to a number of you over the years, including most recently on this trip – is that I think the Mandela Fellowship does a couple of very powerful things.  One is that it actually allows you to create networks that will endure long after your fellowship and, I think, are going to power change far into the future.

I met some alums in South Africa just this past trip.  Fellows are tackling issues like getting more girls into STEM, just to cite one example.  But what is fundamental to the fellowship is that it goes both ways.  Ideas, innovations are flowing in both directions.  That’s true of the fellows who are here among you today.  You actually manage to enrich our college campuses, universities, even as you study there.  So American students who are there got as much, if not more out of this, I would say, than you did.

And it’s also true of members of the diaspora who are with us today.  You’re doing work that bridges our countries, our cultures, our communities, the arts, public health, education, human rights, democracy – all of that is what you’re doing.

The last thing I wanted to share is this, because I’m mostly anxious to hear from you and have a conversation.  One of the things that I hear some of the time when I’m meeting with young people is: how can the U.S. talk about the importance of democracy – which is one of the things we talked in the strategy – when you face your own challenges here at home in the United States when it comes to democracy, challenges that I think are visible every day?  And actually, that’s part of the answer.  The very fact that they are visible, that you see us grappling with them every single day, that it’s not pushed under the carpet, it’s not pretended that these problems don’t exist, we’re actually confronting them openly, transparently – that is actually part of the answer.  Because as long as you can do that, I think you’ll come out on the right side of things.

But the main point for our strategy is this:  It doesn’t treat democracy as an issue where Africa has problems and the United States has solutions.  On the contrary, it recognizes that we all have challenges in strengthening our democracies, making sure they’re resilient, and it’s everything from misinformation to inequity.  And we have a real stake in learning from each other.

One of the things that I found over almost 30 years of being engaged in foreign policy and so getting to travel the world in one way or another – first with President Clinton, and then with President Obama, and now with President Biden – is on just about everything that we’re trying to figure out, someone somewhere probably has.  And if we can just find ways to share that information so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel, we’re going to make progress a lot faster than what people can imagine.

We need to draw on the best ideas, we need to draw on the best innovations no matter where they’re from.  And that is the spirit of the Summit for Democracy that we initiated last year – President Biden did – and it’s the spirit that will animate the Africa Leaders Summit at the end of the year.  And that summit is going to have a big role for young people, rising generations, and a big role for the diaspora.

So stay tuned.  A lot more to come in the next few months.

The last point is this.  This trip, again, underscored for me that so many issues that we now consider global priorities and that we’ve talked about – including, for example, the interconnectedness of our health and our climate – are actually championed first in Africa by African citizens and nations.  In South Africa and beyond, we heard how our respective civil rights movements had inspired and energized each other over the generations, and we still find that today.

So let me end with this: two requests.  First, the 2023 Mandela Washington Fellowship application opens tomorrow.  So help us recruit.  If you had a good experience, if this is something that’s been beneficial to you, spread the word.  Share it.  We want to get the best of the rising generation to take part.

Second, from day one I have made it a priority to try to recruit and retain a workforce at the State Department that actually reflects the country that we represent.  So if any of you Americans here are interested in a career in foreign policy, the Foreign Service, the Civil Service, come on down.  We need you; we want you.  This is a time – it’s the most exciting time, as challenging as it is to be engaged in diplomacy, because of the very reason that I cited at the outset.  None of the problems that really matter can be tackled by any one country acting alone.  The role of our diplomacy, the role of our diplomats, is to build that cooperation, that coordination among countries.  There’s never been a more important time to do it, so come on down.

Let me stop talking with that, because I’m really anxious to hear (inaudible).  (Applause.)

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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