U.S. and China Forging Bonds with Africa’s Future Leaders

Voting and governing are two critical but distinct components of democracy, just as vision and execution are elemental to business success. A feature in the New Republic this week provides a hopeful but instructive perspective on U.S. efforts to groom Africans who will soon take key leadership roles in their countries.

Democracy was in full bloom in Africa in the 1990s but it since stagnated in too many countries. Even in countries long regarded as democratic success stories such as Ghana and South Africa, corruption remains a serious problem. In Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria, newly elected leaders face daunting challenges to deliver better governance and improvements in daily life. Democracy’s long-term prospects in Africa depend not only on historic elections and enlightened politicians but also on the individual commitment of thousands of people to become fully-engaged citizens who strive to make public and private institutions more competent and accountable. This will enable aspiring business people to thrive and fuel home-grown economic development and opportunity.

To that end, the New Republic  story, with the overly-sober title, “Obama’s Disappointing Legacy in Africa,” explores President Obama’s little known Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), which brings young Africans to the United States to expose them to management fundamentals and technical know-how in fields from business to agriculture to public administration.  The main YALI program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship, recently brought 1,000 African professionals between the ages of 25 and 35 for its six-week professional development program. The participants spent a month and half at academic institutions all across the country. When they return to Africa, they will join a network of some 200,000 YALI alums. By all accounts, these young people are taking their networking seriously, staying connected with social media and in-person gatherings. They recognize that some in their number will ascend to leadership positions in the very near future and guide their countries for decades thereafter.

Approximately 60 percent of the continent’s total population is under the age of 35. Therefore, when President Obama spoke in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and said, “It will be the young people” to bring about change, it was not merely inspirational phrasing but a statement of demographic reality.

Obama, as the first U.S. president of African descent, has a special place in the hearts of many Africans. At the same time, his Administration has lacked the ambitious undertakings of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, whose AIDS initiative is credited with saving countless lives. Obama has needed to focus more on the growing threat of terrorism from the continent. He has also stressed empowerment. Obama minced no words in declaring, “Africa’s future will be up to Africans” when he spoke in Accra in 2009.This was a call to individual engagement in and stewardship of the future of individual countries.

Ideally, this spirit, coupled with grassroots initiatives such as the YALI fellowships, will create bonds between Africans and their counterparts in the United States that will strengthen in the years to come.  But the United States has competition in this endeavor. The New Republic story wisely noted that China has embarked in similar scholarship programs. Surprisingly, some observers quoted in the story believe China is taking a more holistic approach that emphasizes civic life and public institutions in addition to technical and business training aimed at entrepreneurs and management professionals.

Zachariah Mampilly, a professor at Vassar College and co-author of the book Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, said the U.S. is not imbuing program participants with a very strong sense of upholding democratic ideals and improving the political life of individual countries.

This is ironic and unfortunate. From Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa, there is a palpable sense that young people are restless and determined to be better served by those in power. Ideally, the United States, as one of the world’s most enduring democracies, should be reinforcing the idea that an accountable, professional civil service buttresses democracy.  China’s approach to civil society and the nature of government service makes it less well suited to be Africa’s governing mentor, to say the least.

In a speech last year UN Development Program Administrator Helen Clark said, “Ethics and meritocracy in civil service are important goals in their own right. They are also critical for making progress on sustainable development.” She added, “Excellence in civil service cannot be achieved without reform-minded politicians and leaders willing to create a more client-oriented civil service.”

The success of democracy rests in part on the success of those elected to act with integrity and deliver tangible progress in areas of education, health care, security and economic opportunity.  It takes a combination of technical skills and high ideals.