First lady Melania Trump wound up her week-long official trip to four countries in Africa a few weeks ago. Between the Kavanaugh controversy and more recent storm over the barbarian murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the visit received relatively little attention in the U.S.
Much of the American coverage she did receive, moreover, revolved around criticism of her wardrobe. According to reports, she offended Africans by donning a pith helmet, historically worn by white colonists on the continent.
This is a regrettable outcome. Not only did the minimal reporting not adequately capture the warm reception Melania in fact enjoyed, in doing so, it missed the larger story of the enormous potential of American soft power to address an urgent challenge on the continent.
The context is that the latest manifestation of foreign ambition in Africa is not a new form of Western colonialism. It is rather activity by China, amounting to a variety of economic imperialism that threatens to harm the continent's development. The best remedy is a robust American effort to partner with Africans on equitable terms: At a time of heightened competition between the U.S. and China, a deeper form of American engagement in Africa can do triple duty, at once stemming China’s global ambitions, connecting America’s economy and society with a continent of vast potential, and supporting the hopes and aspirations of African peoples.
At last month’s Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in funding to 40 African leaders. But many civic actors on the content see the move as “debt trap diplomacy,” whereby Beijing uses loans to achieve dominance of states, their industries, and even their media. In doing so, China also perpetuates the same graft and corruption that has hindered development on the continent for decades. Meanwhile, 3,000 companies operate in China, often on terms that are highly disadvantageous to locals. In Kenya, according to The New York Times, Chinese investment “brings racism and discrimination.” In Zambia, Djibouti, and Congo-Brazzaville, finds a Johns Hopkins study, Chinese loans have been a principal cause of debt distress. Chinese businesspeople on the continent, says seasoned Africa observer Jean-Francois Fiorina, Vice Dean of Grenoble Ecole de Management, are “soldiers of economic war.”
American involvement on the continent has been strikingly sparse. President Obama’s successive visits to Africa, though symbolically significant, were not accompanied by substantial measures to participate in African development or support American enterprise on the continent. This amounted to a missed opportunity to build on the goodwill generated by the Bush Administration’s substantial contribution to fighting AIDS in Africa.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration signed an important bill that reflects a desire to change course. It will create a new foreign aid agency called the United States International Development Finance Corporation, to provide billions in loans, loan guarantees, and insurance to American entrepreneurs seeking to do business in Africa as well as Asia and developing countries in South America. It reflects a shift from the president’s prior statements of discomfort with foreign aid, which had gone so far as calls for sharply reducing the funding of USAID. The new plan is widely understood in the context of a newfound American resolve to at last confront China.
Enter first lady Melania Trump. Among stops on her tour of Ghana, Malawi, Kenya, and Egypt, she visited Malawi's Chipala Primary School, where 8,544 children are served by a mere 77 teachers in 22 squalid classrooms. After spending time with school staff and students, manifesting genuine empathy for the latter’s struggle to learn, she used the occasion to announce USAID’s donation of a total of 9.6 million textbook’s to the country’s 5,600 primary schools. She helped hand-deliver needed school supplies to the school she visited as well. She visited a severely under-equipped hospital in Ghana and a children’s orphanage in Nairobi. During a stop at the historical slave trade outpost of Cape Coast Castle, she paid tribute to the victims.
Business people, civil society leaders, and others in numerous countries on the continent with whom I interact said that the First Lady sent a powerful message that was heard and appreciated by African publics. She struck an emotional chord, connecting the continent’s aspirations with the “American dream.” In sparking new hopes, she tapped into pent-up demand for a new relationship with the United States, its institutions, and its people. Her exceptional performance was a reminder of the American capacity to inspire others. However much this quality has been battered in recent years, it still resonates powerfully in struggling corners of the world. Between smart new policies to engage the African continent and the likes of Mrs. Trump’s deft human engagement, the U.S. has the potential to strike a blow at China’s authoritarian model and again move democracy forward — in a great American tradition.
Ahmed Charai is a Moroccan Publisher. He sits on the Board of Directors of The Atlantic Council in Washington and International Councillors at The Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's also on the Board of Trustees of the The Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and member of The National Interest’s Advisory Council. Mr. Charai is a Mid-East policy advisor in Washington whose articles have appeared in the major U.S. media. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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