U.S. first lady Melania Trump is set to begin her first solo international trip since her husband took office on Monday, visiting four African countries to promote the message of her “Be Best” child-welfare initiative.
“Each of us hails from a country with its own unique challenges,” Mrs. Trump told a reception in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly Wednesday, “but I know in my heart we are united by our commitment to raising the next generation to be happy, healthy and morally responsible adults.”
The White House said Mrs. Trump will make stops in Ghana, Malawi, Kenya and Egypt.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is helping to coordinate the trip, and noted Mrs. Trump’s stops will focus on health care for mothers and newborns, nutrition for women and children, early childhood education, wildlife conservation, HIV prevention, tourism and conservation. The first lady is also expected to highlight the role the United States plays in helping each country.
Mrs. Trump unveiled her “Be Best” campaign in May.
According to the White House, the mission of Be Best is to encourage children to “be best in their individual paths, while also teaching them the importance of social, emotional and physical health.”
The Be Best platform consists of three main initiatives; well-being, social media use, and opioid abuse.
Previous first ladies have had similar policy initiatives geared to youth, such as Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity and Nancy Reagan’s “Say No to Drugs.”
Good public relations
Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation sees Mrs. Trump’s first solo overseas trip as sending “a good message to African countries that the U.S. values its engagement with them.”
Meservey added that the countries were chosen based on their good cooperation with the U.S. and will be a chance to “tout the support the U.S. gives those countries particularly for child well-being issues.”
However, when Mrs. Trump first announced her Africa trip, on Aug. 20, some on social media were quick to point out she will be visiting nations that her husband in January reportedly referred to as “s---hole countries.” President Trump has denied making the comment.
Trump also drew criticism when during a luncheon on the sidelines of the September 2017 U.N. General Assembly in New York, he congratulated a group of African leaders on the level of investments going into their nations, saying that he has “so many friends” who are “going to your countries trying to get rich.” His remarks were met with silence from the audience.
Absent negative tweets from the president, the first lady’s visit is likely to be good PR, said John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The United States remains popular in Africa, and the first lady is likely to be seen foremost as a representative of the nation, rather than the president,” he said.
Since he came into office in 2017, President Donald Trump has not visited the continent. Several African leaders have visited Trump in the White House, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in 2017, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in April 2018 and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta last month.
US aid to Africa
John Campbell added that under Trump there has been little change in the administration’s policy toward Africa from the bipartisan consensus that dates from the 1960s, “in part because of White House lack of interest.”
In fiscal 2015, USAID and the U.S. Department of State provided more than $8 billion in assistance to 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
USAID programs in Africa were slated for significant cuts in the Trump administration’s proposed budget but have been blocked by Congress.
Previous first ladies tours
African countries have been popular destinations for U.S. first ladies on goodwill tours.
In March 1997, Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea journeyed to sub-Saharan Africa to highlight U.S. support for African progress towards democracy. They met with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, who gave them a personal tour of the Robben Island prison cell where he served part of his 27-year sentence.
Laura Bush traveled with her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, to South Africa, Tanzania and Rwanda in 2005. Her visit highlighted U.S. support for AIDS projects, in line with the Bush administration’s billion-dollar global AIDS initiatives.
Michele Obama visited South Africa and Botswana in 2011 with her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and her daughters, Sasha and Malia. Obama promoted youth leadership, education, health and wellness.