Africa: What Is the US Up to in Africa?

Brian T. Neubert, the director of the US State Department's Johannesburg-based Africa Regional Media Hub.
10 November 2018

DW's Asumpta Lattus spoke to Brian T. Neubert, the director of the US State Department's Johannesburg-based Africa Regional Media Hub about the state of US-Africa relations.

DW: Do you have a hard time selling US policy on Africa?

Brian Neubert: I think it's always a challenge. The United States has a pragmatic approach to Africa. We work very closely with the African Union, we are welcomed in partnerships with many many African countries, and we have great relationships with African people.

But there's quite a lot happening on the continent. There are crises in places like South Sudan; Mali is still working through the challenges it's had; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, of course there are migration and refugee and humanitarian challenges; here are challenges with violent extremism and other things and different opinions are expressed.

So, we want to participate in those stories, and that takes work -- it's not easy. We don't expect people to accept our message automatically. I have to get out and make a case and that's why the hub exists. Journalists can ask us tough questions, or can say "Well I want to ask questions of a senior official, whether it's Africa Command or a State Department official, a USAID official to explain what you're doing in health and why its been successful, or explain what you're doing about the refugee crisis." I think we should explain that -- if we're going to be credible, we have to be transparent.

Critics say the Trump administration hasn't really shown any interest in Africa.

We have a new assistant secretary at the State Department for Africa. His name is Tibor Nagy. He is just now in Africa and he has done some media engagements. He's very, very active. He was in New York at the (UN) General Assembly, meeting many, many counterparts.

All of the work in Africa has continued. It has bipartisan support in the US. Republicans and Democrats, for many years, have supported programs like PEPFAR, our AIDS programme, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Young African Leaders Initiative, Africa Command. All of these things go back a long time. They're very pragmatic approaches.

Nikki Haley at the UN visited Africa, she visited South Sudan and (DR) Congo, she also paid a visit to the African Union. Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer, the US trade representative, was in Togo for the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act Forum last year. Mark Green, the head of USAID, General (Thomas) Waldhauser of AFRICOM - and some very senior officials in the Trump administration have visited Africa and spent time in Africa.

I think there are many many things happening in the world, there are many things that are newsworthy. Certainly the Trump administration is focused on North Korea and the threat that it poses, on Iran and the threat that Iran poses. But the things the administration is doing in Africa are very pragmatic and, I think, having really good results. If you were to ask our African partners, whether they are people in civil society or our partners in government, I think you'll find in many countries that they welcome the cooperation we have.

China is not only sending officials to Africa, but investment too. Is the US worried about China's relationship with Africa?

Not at all. US businesses and US investors are very active in Africa. The US is a system of free enterprise, so the US government doesn't direct US companies to invest in any coutry. We facilitate those investments and we certainly advocate for those companies to be treated fairly but when a US company invests in a market it is because there's a true opportunity there. If the fundamentals are right, if the investment climate is good, if you can register your business and if the infrastructure is good and if the people have the skills, that will have a transformative effect on the economy.

So US investments in Ethiopia, in Kenya, in South Africa, will create jobs and will help change those economies -- and they are changing those economies. Those businesses are there because there's an opportunity there. They're not there because they've been directed to go there, and they're not a liability for the country. There's no debt or dependence associated with those US companies. Over time, more and more US companies will find opportunities in Africa, and when we engage with African leaders, it's to talk to them, not about how we are going to persuade a company to come there but how are you going to attract a company to come there.

Power Africa has been very successful. It is related to (US) legislation called Electrify Africa, which was passed a few years ago by partisan support in the Congress. It is partly a donor programme, with some money behind it, but it is mostly about facilitation and matchmaking between even third countries, but between US companies and Africa grid operators or energy companies or regulators or ministries of energy, helping them build up their infrastructure for energy so that there is electricity production. Power Africa's track record so far has been really remarkable so far. It has not been by pressure. It has been by making the right introductions, by helping African governments put the right framework in place so that these policies are bankable. It's private investment and its a private success story, which is always going to be more viable and more sustainable than what any of us might do in terms of loans or in terms of cooperation. Why aren't we satisfied? There are millions and millions of jobs that need to be created in Africa.

This is what China has been doing in Africa -- creating jobs.

I'm not convinced there's a lot of job creation there. I am aware of concerns that some projects like that bring in their own workers, which certainly will alienate local populations. Sometimes investors -- this can be American investors, European investors, investors from Asia -- will complain about the level of skills in a particular country. That means we need to invest more in training, invest in education.

Ambassador Nagy, since day one, has talked about exchanges. Every single ambassador in Africa knows the heads of excellent universities in African countries and we want to make sure if they don't already have a relationship with the universities in the US that we build one.

The Young African Leaders Initiative has sent thousands of young African leaders to the US to help give them some skills, but most importantly to give them a network. They go back home and start businesses, they start initiatives, they start NGOs. We're trying to water these plants so that they grow into very strong trees in these communities -- and they're already there. The few thousand that went to the US are hugely outnumbered by the network we maintain virtually - hundreds of thousands that want to know more about the US, that want information about energy, or engineering or legal or medical fields. We also have regional leadership centers where young Africans can come and have access to these resources. It's ultimately going to be African entrepreneurs that create those jobs. It may be an American or foreign investor that creates some of the impetus for it.

Is the media hub working both ways?

Absoutely. All of my counterparts at US embassies have relationships with journalists. We speak to journalists, we answer their questions, but we also listen to their concerns because we have to know what their audience cares about. If I want to do public affairs, I can't just deliver my message and close my ears. I can only explain US policy, I can't comment on anything and everything, but all of my colleagues at embassies to that.

In particular, my deputy and I will meet with publishers and editors and we maintain a dialogue about what they think about the state of media in Africa. We communicate this back because it's very important for Washington to understand this. So, what are they concerned about? Outsiders are telling Africa's story. So, I think Deutsche Welle does a wonderful job with its Africa coverage. Voice of America, BBC, RFI -- there are others -- do a very nice job. AP and Reuters, they're outsiders, serving some African audiences.

Much of the coverage, perceived as newsworthy, can be very negative. So, African editors and African publishers and African journalists think the outsiders have more resources and are telling their story and the story is much more negative than it should be. For the most part, African media outlets have very strained resouces. So we talk to them and one of the things I say as a spokesperson is if I come to you to offer you an interview, it is almost always something positive. What I want to talk about is the African partner, the Millennium Challenge compact, where Ivory Cost has a new compact or Senegal has a new energy project. We want to help. We can advance US interests, which of course is our job as diplomats.

What about President Trump's comments, or tweets? There's a particularly nasty one about Africa that everyone remembers

Certainly a reported comment like that is going to make people unhappy and that's certainly to be understood. But what we have said repeatedly and what has really been understood is that one supposed comment, or one tweet does not define our relationships or change the track record of our work. I think if you look at what the United States is actually doing on the ground, that's the proof of our commitment. In any free society criticism is welcome.

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