Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
July 27, 2021
MS. HAYDÉ ADAMS: Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, thank you so much for your time, and what an honor it is to have you here with me.
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you very much, and I am delighted to be here.
MS. ADAMS: Madam Ambassador, speaking on Africa Day 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?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you for that question. And let me start by saying, before COVID-19 hit, 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 develop 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 – 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. This new generation has a different outlook, they have a different approach to how they want to see their leadership. And we have an opportunity to mentor and support these young people as we’re doing through the Young African Leaders Initiative so that we can help them prepare for futures in government. And then I will add the participation of women. Women have been, more than most, victimized by Covid, but they also play a key role in how countries develop, and we have to make sure as countries are building back better that they incorporate the women’s perspective in their efforts.
MS. ADAMS: Madam Ambassador, many African nations are currently experiencing their worst surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths since this pandemic began. It is 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?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, 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. I will tell you that I was in Liberia in March of 2020 as the impact of the pandemic began to take hold, and when I arrived in Liberia on March 2nd, they were already at the airport taking temperatures and with hand sanitizer. And that’s before we actually realized what we were going to have to deal with a few weeks later. Liberia was already prepared. And so many countries made some early decisions that I think helped them deal with the early stages of the pandemic. 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 healthcare 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 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 to get as many vaccines out to the continent of Africa as possible, as well as through bilateral donations of vaccines. GAVI announced just this past week on Friday the U.S. donation of 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to enhance coverage across the continent of Africa. 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. So, it’s important that we get these vaccines out as quickly as possible.
MS. ADAMS: And I just want to take a quick look, sorry, at the numbers around those vaccines that you mentioned. Of course, the Biden Administration has committed around $4 billion to help fund the COVAX vaccine sharing program, and the latest news, of course, is, now that you mention it, we are hearing now the administration will donate 25 million vaccines to 49 African countries coming in the next few weeks. 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?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, it’s clear what we are prepared to do, and we’re doing it through our actions, and that is getting the COVID vaccine out to the continent of Africa so we can start putting those vaccines in arms. But we’re also working with countries to help them build back their economies better. 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, but also through DFC, through our engagements with the World Bank, and the IMF to ensure that these countries get the injections into their economies that they need to jump start these economies, to start to build their countries back, and to develop a future for their people.
MS. ADAMS: International institutions and civil society organizations are sounding the alarm that our 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 have encountered now can be overcome in our lifetime?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me start with the last question first. Those setbacks have to be. They cannot be lasting. 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 is 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. And so 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 in school, sexual exploitation of girls in school – because they’re not in school – school age girls – because they are not in school, that those numbers have gone up significantly. That people are taking advantage of women and girls in these circumstances. So we have to focus a tremendous amount of our attention on the impact the pandemic has had on women and girls. We have seen that COVID-19 does seem to be reversing decades of hard-won gains for girls, including access to education. I saw a UNICEF exhibition at the United Nations where they showed – the exhibition had chairs with backpacks – the millions of children who are out of school. And a significant number, more than 50 percent, are girls. 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. The United States knows that peace programs are being impacted because girls, women, and civil society expand the scope of negotiations, and now they are not being included in some of those negotiations. And we have to make sure that they are brought back to the table and that they are incorporated in any programs that we’re doing across the continent of Africa.
MS. ADAMS: Yes, indeed Madam Ambassador. The safety of women and education of girls – probably among the most heartbreaking consequences and heartbreaking stories of 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 other countries in the West, or any other sort of benefits to help mitigate this devastating impact 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, Madam, if they don’t?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, we know what they lose if they don’t, because we’ve seen what they have lost because they haven’t. And I think countries are now – leaders are now – more conscious of the importance of having women engaged 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 into their families, they invest in their communities, and they invest in their countries. And in many of these countries, they represent 50 percent of the population. You cannot ignore 50 percent of your population 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, 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 have also seen that they have been impacted by the virus much more significantly than other parts of the population. And we need, for that reason, make sure we give them more attention than we might have otherwise given women as we start to build these economies back.
MS. ADAMS: Madam Ambassador, I am sure you will agree that if one thing COVID-19 has left us with many, many, many lessons for the future. You are a long-time champion of gender equality, as it’s part of your life’s work focusing on the rights of women and girls. 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 we make today that would prepare them and build resilience for whatever crisis might come next?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, 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 Obama administration did, on supporting young people across the continent of Africa. The Young African Leaders Initiative 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. If we don’t support this younger generation, there will be nothing left of our future. They are our future. And because of what I’ve seen in the thousands of young people that we have supported over the course – I think we started this program in 2010. I was ambassador in Liberia when we sent our first little, small cohort of, I think, three YALI leaders to the United States to meet with President Obama – and then seeing where those three are right now. And we’ve sent more across the continent every year – somewhere between 500 and 1,000 young people coming to the United States just for a few weeks – and it’s a life changer for them because they get to see their power. They get to see what they can do with their skills, and they get to go back to their countries and make a difference. And we’re not trying to make them presidents. Initially, African leaders were like, ‘I’m the leader, I don’t need you to tell me who’s going to be our next leader.’ We’re not trying to make presidents. Although, I know, I can’t wait until I see the first YALI who becomes president of a country in Africa. So, there’s one out there I know. But we want them to be leaders in their community. We want them to be leaders in their businesses. We want them 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, and that’s what gives me total confidence and faith in Africa for the future. As long as we continue to support young people and encourage activities that build their leadership skills, this continent – we haven’t seen what Africa has to give to the world until we see what these young people are able to do.
MS. ADAMS: When I was young, I was always told, ‘If you can see it, you can be it,’ and I love what you said: We want them to see their power. Great thoughts, great insights, great ideas. 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.
AMBASSADOR 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.
MS. ADAMS: Couldn’t agree with you more. Thank you so much, Madam.