Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield returned to public service earlier this year when President Joe Biden nominated her to be the representative of the United States to the United Nations.
The veteran diplomat had a 35-year career with the U.S. foreign service that included major roles in U.S. policy toward sub-Saharan Africa as well as management leadership positions within the State Department. She also served as ambassador to Liberia and had foreign postings in Kenya, Gambia and Nigeria.
Thomas-Greenfield spoke with Hayde Adams, the host of VOA’s Straight Talk Africa, during the U.S.-Africa Business Summit about U.S. policy toward Africa, how countries in the region are recovering from the pandemic, and why women should play a central role in that effort.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: Earlier this year, you acknowledged that Africa has many challenges: COVID-19, of course, poverty, terrorism, amongst many others. But you also said that the Biden administration understands that it needs to focus on the opportunities on the continent and not just the challenges. What are the greatest opportunities that the United States sees on the African continent today?
Linda Thomas-Greenfield: Before COVID-19 hit Africa, African economies were some of the fastest-growing economies in the world. And somewhere between six out of 10 of the top fastest-growing countries were on the continent of Africa. I see many opportunities for these countries now to build back better, as we have said here in the United States, and they can build back better with more equitable growth, with more diversity, with more market-based transparent practices and with a focus on climate smart futures. And also, I have to add, with a focus on equity for women who have been key players in the marketplace on the continent of Africa.
So let me start with climate change. Climate change is a challenge for all of us all over the globe. But it also presents a tremendous opportunity to create well-paying jobs on the continent of Africa as the world transitions to renewable energies and develops transformational technologies that can help countries reduce emissions and also adapt to climate change. We’re committed to making sure, for example that developing countries can build back greener through public climate financing. Africa, with a population of 1.3 billion people with a median age of 19 … Africa’s youth are probably one of its greatest resources. There’s a tendency to see youth, for example as a problem. But for the continent of Africa, youth are an opportunity, and they are an opportunity that the continent needs to take advantage of.
VOA: Many African nations are currently experiencing their worst surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths since this pandemic began and it’s all largely driven by the delta variant. What are the most worrying pandemic trends that you are seeing on the continent right now? And what is your assessment of the way African governments have responded to these twin health and economic crises?
Thomas-Greenfield: This pandemic has really had a devastating impact on the economies of African countries, and as we reflect back on the last 18 months, I have to say that many of the actions that were taken by African leaders to confront COVID-19 early on have saved countless lives. Many of these countries shut down. Many of them had already had experiences dealing with pandemic-like conditions when some of them had to deal with Ebola.
But the situation continued to get worse and particularly as African countries were not able to access the COVID vaccines once these vaccines came on board. And they were not prepared, for example, with the challenges to their very weak health care systems, the countries began to falter. And with this new delta variant out there, I think the situation is going to get even worse. You may know President (Joe) Biden has just announced and pledged that the United States will be the world’s arsenal of vaccines. I love that phrase. And we’re working as fast as we can to get shots in arms, not just here in the United States but through COVAX (a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines directed by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the World Health Organization) to get as many vaccines out to the continent of Africa as possible, as well as through bilateral donations of vaccines. And so we see that we’re not just fighting the disease, we’re fighting to secure decades of development progress that the pandemic could unwind.
VOA: Given the opportunities for the U.S. on the African continent and beyond the COVAX commitments, what is America willing to do to ensure that Africa is not left behind as economies all over the world try to recover?
Thomas-Greenfield: We have tremendous programs that work with young people, that are working with women, that are working with finance ministries to support their development agendas through not just USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development), but also through DFC (the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation), through our engagements with the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) to ensure that these countries get the injections into their economy.
VOA: International institutions and civil society organizations are sounding the alarm that all the hard-won progress on gender equality and women’s empowerment is now at risk of being eviscerated. Can you help us understand what is at risk for women right now, especially those on the African continent? And do you think that any setbacks that we encounter now can be overcome in our lifetime?
Thomas-Greenfield: We have to do everything possible to ensure that whatever experiences women have right now in Africa, that we find a way to turn those around. There’s a lot at risk, but it’s not just for women and girls, it’s for their entire families because we know that when women are empowered, they empower their families, they empower their communities, they empower their countries.
We have to work with these countries to ensure that the pandemic and the alarming numbers of women worldwide who have been forced to choose between their jobs and their family and their health and their businesses, that they have adequate support to move forward. But what we’ve seen, and I think what has been so devastating is the impact. Early on, I saw statistics that indicated that child marriages are going up, that the rape of girls … sexual exploitation of girls … school-age girls, because they’re not in school, that those numbers have gone up significantly, that people are taking advantage of women and girls in these circumstances. … We’ve seen that COVID-19 does seem to be reversing decades of hard-won gains for girls, including access to education. … And so that is something that we have to work to address, to not only get vaccines out but to get girls back into the classroom.
VOA: The safety of women and education of girls probably (are) among the most heartbreaking consequences and heartbreaking stories of the groups that have been affected by this pandemic. The United Nations policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women says across the globe, women earn less, they save less, they hold less-secure jobs, and are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. And in some African countries, there are no fiscal relief packages or social safety nets like we see in the United States and in other countries in the West or any other sort of benefits to help mitigate the devastating impacts of this pandemic on women’s lives and their livelihoods. In your view what do African governments stand to gain by including women in their economic recovery strategies, and what do they stand to lose if they don’t?
Thomas-Greenfield: I think countries are now, leaders are now more conscious of the importance of having women engage in their country’s development plan. Because again, and I say this over and over and over again, when we invest in women they invest back in their families, they invest in their communities, and they invest in their countries. And in many of these countries, they represent 50% of the population. You cannot ignore 50% of your nation and think that your country is going to grow. So these countries are losing significantly if they don’t include women in their development plans, if they don’t include women in their investment efforts. They’re losing out on what these women might contribute to their countries. We’ve seen all across the continent of Africa, successful, women-run businesses. And we see the success that women have had in building their communities through civil society activity. But we’ve also seen that they’ve been impacted by the virus much more than other parts of the population and we need, for that reason, to make sure we give them more attention than we might have otherwise given women, as we start to build these economies.
VOA: You’re a longtime champion of gender equality. … There’s a generation in Africa of well-educated but unemployed youth. They’re struggling through unprecedented and uncertain times. They’ve been called the “Pandemic Generation.” What immediate investments can governments, business and the international community at large make in Africa’s youth, especially its girls? What kind of investments can be made today that will prepare them and build resilience for whatever crisis might come next?
Thomas-Greenfield: When you consider the fact that the median age on the continent of Africa is 19, we started with that. And then you have countries like Niger, where the median age is 15. If we don’t focus on young people, we’re ignoring a country. Half of the population under the age of 19, so it was for that reason I am most proud of the work that I did, and the (U.S. President Barack) Obama administration did on supporting young people across the continent of Africa.
The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) will be paying dividends on the continent of Africa long after I’m gone from here. And it is something that we all have to make sure that we continue to invest in. Invest in mentoring young people, encouraging young people, supporting the leadership of young people in government, in business, in civil society, in education. … We want them to be leaders in their community. We want them to be leaders in their businesses. We want to be leaders in their churches, in their schools. And they will start building the next generation of leaders on the continent. And that’s where Africa’s future is.
VOA: Madam Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, thank you so much for your time and for being here with me I really, really do appreciate it.
Thomas-Greenfield: Well thank you very much. And again, I know Africa’s future is bright because I know that there are so many young people out there who are building that future one brick at a time. And we’re going to see the results of their work in the future.