First lady Melania Trump is on her first major solo trip abroad, and the first to Africa by a major White House figure since President Trump took office in January 2017.
The first lady’s trip to the continent – featuring stops in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Egypt – is being closely coordinated with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the main U.S. government institution tasked with administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance abroad.
Given Mrs. Trump’s deep interest in fostering youth engagement and developing young leaders – as embodied by her “Be Best” initiative – Africa is an apt destination. Her visit is an opportunity to showcase America’s support of democracy, human rights and female entrepreneurship on the continent.
Mrs. Trump has a demonstrated interest in children’s rights and development. I know this from having worked with her and with several of her colleagues at the White House on various issues.
According to a recent Gates Foundation survey, there will be an additional 4 billion people on Earth by the end of this century – including about 3 billion born in Africa. This comes on top of the current world population of nearly 7.7 billion.
While these daunting figures expose the challenges that are surely to come, they also highlight potential areas of engagement on the continent that can successfully build upon past initiatives.
These initiatives include the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) under President George W. Bush, as well as President Barack Obama’s more recent Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
We should not ignore Africa’s challenges and successes. At a time when Russia and China have increased their political, military and investment influence in Africa – and of hyper-partisanship in the United States – the first lady embodies a calming and an influential voice to bring awareness and positive change to U.S.-Africa relations.
In my mind, there is no better way to help Africa’s next generation – to solidify their aspirations for prosperity and peace – than to focus on democracy building and supporting good governance.
In many parts of Africa today young people are seeing their futures looted by unaccountable leaders and a brazen lack of respect for fundamental democratic rights.
These basic rights are not something being imposed by outsiders – as often portrayed by the continent’s dictators and despots – but are enshrined in seminal declarations like the African Charter on Democracy, which entered into force in 2010.
That sub-Saharan Africa lost an estimated 6 percent of its gross domestic product from 2002 to 2011 through “illicit financial outflows” – a term that includes tax evasion, official corruption and graft, and myriad financial crimes – is unacceptable.
African youth – better connected today than at any point in history – are well aware of their leaders’ misdeeds and are becoming increasingly fed up and frustrated with the status quo.
Indeed, as famed anti-corruption campaigner John Githongo – a Kenya-based democracy and human rights activist recently said: what we are witnessing is “a massive generational struggle between entrenched elites and impatient youthful populations across the continent.”
Disillusioned with increasingly unfree and unfair elections and deliberately shut out of political processes, Africa’s youth are becoming more and more apathetic and frustrated. A 2017 Pew Research poll showed that only 18 percent are now “committed to representative democracy” – the second-lowest percentage in the world.
There are dire consequences here. For example, studies have shown a strong correlation between Africa’s entrenched, unaccountable leadership and developmental and security challenges – including conflict and instability, stagnant or declining economies, and overall democratic backsliding.
The first lady’s visit to Africa is an opportunity to focus on these and other causes of the crises Africa is grappling with – namely, the lack of democratic foundations and leadership, in addition to its apparent symptoms like the lack of basic services, health care and quality education.
First lady Melania Trump, third from right, and Ghana's first lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo, third from left, pose with hospital personnel at Greater Accra Regional Hospital in Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. Mrs. Trump is visiting Africa on her first big solo international trip, aiming to make child well-being the focus of a five-day, four-country tour. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
While institutions such as USAID and the U.S. State Department – as well as numerous foundations and philanthropists – nobly focus on improving basic services in Africa and throughout the world, common sense suggests we could expect a bigger return on investment for the Unites States if we diagnosed these problems in the first place.
Across Africa, it is often the supply side of democracy that is woefully missing. By focusing efforts and awareness on this evident discrepancy – and indeed the root causes of continued crises across the continent – the United States can help empower the citizens in Africa to take true ownership over their futures and their democratic process.
By investing time and resources to building democracy and accountable leadership, the first lady and the Trump administration can realistically contribute to what we all ultimately desire: a brighter, more prosperous and stable future for Africa and for U.S. national interests.
Christopher Harvin is a co-founder of Vanguard Africa and partner at Sanitas International, a communication and political advisory firm based in Washington, DC