Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
July 26, 2021
DR. VERA SONGWE: (In progress) listening to us today to “It’s Your Turn: Africa’s Talk Series on Recovery.” In this series, we’re going to be asking our guests what will they do to drive prosperity on the continent, and first of all, what’s their definition for prosperity?
I am honored, delighted, and excited to have as the pioneers and the first launchers of this series of ours, of course, two African women – I will call them, yes, African women – because their hearts are in Africa: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whom you all know, who is at the pinnacle of her career, head of the WTO, used to run the World Bank, and has a long slew of other accolades, which I am not going to give. I’ll just give the first ones because you all know everything about them. And of course, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield was nominated by President Joseph Biden to be the representative of the United Nations – of the United States of America to the United Nations. She has a long and distinguished career, has worked on the continent and across the continent, in Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya, and many other parts of the continent. So she also has – I was listening to your interview with the press club, and you said Africa has been in your heart for decades now. So hence, I call you an African woman.
Thank you so much for being here with us. It is for us an honor to have you because again, as I said, you are at the top of your career. You are leading international multilateral discussions on issues of growth, issues of prosperity, issues of recovery. Many parts of the world have gone through the COVID crisis and are beginning to think about a reset and a recovery. Africa is also in those conversations. But there is some trepidation on the continent because we are wondering, is the COVID-19 going to – are we going to see a fourth wave, or is this the last wave we are going to see?
Despite that, and be that as it may, there is still a lot of innovation and a lot of technological progress coming out of the continent. And this series is really for you to talk back to Africans, particularly young women Africans, young Africans who are trying to say, yes, there is COVID, but I know that there is a better future. There is – there can be prosperity on the continent. What is the definition for it?
So I am going to start first with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. Again, congratulations. This is the first time my listeners (inaudible) to Africa that we are having you. No, we have had you before. But still, congratulations as being the head of WTO. The pandemic has been driving our – what we are calling dynamic divergence, which essentially is we’re listening today to the United States about the pass a $3.5 trillion budget, with a $1.1 trillion infrastructure stimulus package, really to see how they can continue to grow. And we’re talking about is there going to be inflation? The Fed is going to meet tomorrow. The hawks and the doves, and what should we do?
But in Africa, we’re still asking for $100 billion to just see how we get out of the recovery. Huge inequities in this process. But we’ve also seen tremendous innovation because of these inequities on the continent. So going forward to you, what do you see as the levers for growth for Africa? What is your vision for prosperity on the continent, and how can we achieve that?
DR. NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, thank you, Vera, and congratulations on launching this series on Africa’s recovery. I think it’s really timely. And I’m absolutely delighted to be with my sister, Linda, on this program. That’s a treat.
So the levers for Africa’s recovery – as you said, Africa was doing relatively well before the pandemic, went into the first recession in 25 years during the pandemic. The pandemic has really hit the continent very hard, and as you said, if you look at the recovery path, we have a K-shaped recovery in the world where North America, Europe, and many parts of Asia are recovering much faster than Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, so a two-track recovery.
And so my vision, to start talking about vision for prosperity and how we come back, we have to solve one of the key problems that makes – that we need to bring us back on that sustainable path, and that’s the vaccine inequity of access that we have in the world today. Both ourselves here at the WTO and the IMF have traced the two-track recovery, or the K-shaped recovery, to a lack of access to vaccines. So those parts of the world that have access are recovering much faster because their economies can open up faster. And if you couple that with the fiscal stimulus that they are giving – you’ve just referred to the trillions of dollars – the developed countries have actually, many of them, given fiscal stimulus of up to 25 percent of GDP.
Then you come to Africa. We have – access to vaccines is very, very – is very limited, and everybody knows these numbers. It’s really abysmal that even though last month we had an increase of 1.1 billion doses of vaccines in the world, 45 percent more than in May, most of those ended up in developed countries in the arms of people. So until we solve that problem – so we need to find a way to get adequate access to vaccines to our countries. And we couple that with trying to implement some more fiscal stimulus, or to mention that we have very little fiscal space to be able to do it. So let’s just focus on getting the vaccines in now, so that’s the first thing to get us back on sustainable – on the path of sustainable recovery.
I think, after that, we have to look at some of the things we’ve seen during this pandemic on the continent. And I want to mention four factors that I think are levers. The first is that, look, this we – the continent performed rather well in this pandemic with respect to regional governance. I won’t stop saying it. I’ve been very proud to see our leaders, our presidents come together under the leadership of, first, President Ramaphosa, to look at an all-Africa response to the pandemic. We showed we could act as one. Many innovations were put in place – the Africa Vaccine Task Force, the Medical Supplies Platform; they appointed envoys to try and mobilize financing. I was one of them. The Africa CDC was put in place and strengthened. And all of this gave us, I think, the kind of leverage we needed to be able to dialogue with the rest of the world. And I think it will result in more vaccines coming in in the next few months.
So that kind of continental governance, I am dreaming if we can use it to help propel the continent after the pandemic. Can you imagine if we had an all-Africa approach to, let’s say, improving, adding value to our products on the continent, to investment on the continent? What if we said we want to develop a pharmaceutical industry from an Africa point of view, some countries manufacturing inputs, others finishing up the product? So a continental approach is the first thing.
The second one is youth and digital. Our youth are a resource, and more than 40 percent of them are on the internet. They are doing amazing things, and starting amazing businesses. So I’m very hopeful that if we can encourage our youth and we can improve our digital infrastructure, digitize our trade even, that would help.
The other is women and micro, medium, and small enterprises. Inclusion. If we can empower our women and if we can get liquidity to our micro, medium, and small enterprises, and both working in tandem, because over 50 percent of these enterprises in many of our countries are owned by women, I think that can help us propel a recovery.
And then let me talk of one thing that could add resources and liquidity. And this is what you have started, Vera, with UNECA. You’re trying to put in place a liquidity and sustainability facility. You’re trying to get this to start a repo, a repurchase market on the continent, which we don’t have, so that we have a way of increasing the demand for our sovereign bonds, bringing down the price, making liquidity more available on the continent. Can you imagine if we had that? That would put additional resources into the pockets and the revenues of our governments, and that could help us drive prosperity.
So four very concrete things that we can pursue. Thank you.
DR. SONGWE: Thank you. Thank you very much, of course, Ngozi, for those. And we’ll come back to that all-Africa approach to driving prosperity on the continent. I hope everybody’s listening to that all-Africa approach and see how we get there.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, again, thank you so much for being with us. You are sitting in what we call the “House of Multilateralism,” the center of it all, where big decisions are supposed to be made for the benefit of the continent. We’ve just heard Ngozi talk about the fact that the rest of the world is being vaccinated. I think in the United States now there is concern, but there’s 57 percent of the population has had two vaccines; whereas on the continent, 4.8 percent of the continent have been vaccinated. So 55 percent and still concerned, and everybody’s worried about are we going to have a lockdown. On the continent, 4.8 percent.
A lot of vaccine nationalism has surfaced. We have seen the United States last week begin to send vaccines to the continent, the first 15 million vaccines that are going to come onto the continent. And then we had some – France has also promised some vaccines. There’s been a lot of promises. But can we move? And what is your vision of an Africa, and a prosperous Africa, where we bring the multilateral architecture to deliver for Africa? How do you – what do you think the UN can do, and the United States that you represent at the UN, to ensure that a stronger multilateralism, as Ngozi said, brings first vaccines before we talk about a collective continental approach?
AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Songwe. And Dr. Ngozi, it’s so wonderful to be on the screen with you as well. Both of you are huge contributors to making sure that Africa stays as a priority on all of our agendas, but also are great supporters of the role of women. And let me just start by saying ditto to everything Dr. Ngozi said here. If I could have written my own talking points, they would be exactly the priorities that you lay out. And I think there’s no disagreement on that.
I will also start by saying that Africa is a priority for the Biden administration, and we have engaged with African countries as partners in pursuing our shared interests and our shared values that include security, global health, climate, freedom, democracy, and shared prosperity. And for me, the issue of prosperity means – it equals a future, and it equals hope for Africa. The United States has been – we see this as an essential step in achieving all of our goals, that if there’s a prosperous Africa, we’re all successful. And that means ensuring a successful multilateral vaccine response to the pandemic.
The United States is committed to bringing the same urgency to international vaccination efforts that we have demonstrated at home, and you’ve heard President Biden say that. And we were very, very pleased to announce that in coming days we will see nearly a million doses, a million doses of Johnson & Johnson, which is a one-dose vaccine, delivered in Burkina Faso, in Djibouti, in Ethiopia, and in fact, the first deliveries of USG-donated COVID-19 vaccines in Africa have already arrived in Djibouti and Ethiopia. And these are the first of many shipments of vaccine doses to Africa following close collaboration between the African Union, the Africa CDC, COVAX, and the U.S. Government.
AU member states will receive approximately 25 million COVID-19 vaccines to enhance coverage across the continent, contributing to the AU target of vaccinating at least 60 percent of the African population. And the shipment of these donated doses follow from a pledge made by President Biden to share 80 million doses globally. Starting in August, President Biden’s commitment announced at the G7: the United States will seek to donate an additional 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses globally, and these deliveries will also be delivered through COVAX. And these doses are in addition to funding we have provided directly to COVAX starting currently with $2 billion.
We know that this pandemic is global, and you cannot deal with a global pandemic by just focusing internally. So while the President focused internally initially, we immediately started to work on how we can address this much more globally. And just to reaffirm the points that Dr. Ngozi made early on, we have to focus on women and we have to focus on youth. And they are Africa’s biggest resource. With more than 50 percent of the population women and then with the median age of the African continent at 19, if we don’t focus on young people, who will have that entrepreneurial spirit that you mentioned, Vera, we’re going to lose the continent.
So we seek to magnify the entrepreneurial spirit and dynamism of women and youth across Africa to help create jobs and opportunities that we know will allow for them to invest in their countries and their futures. According to some of our experts, annual global GDP could increase by as much as $7.7 trillion if countries implement legal reforms, increase women’s ability to access institutions, for them to build credit, for them to own and manage property, travel freely, and work in the same jobs and sectors as men. A more resilient recovery requires that women have the power to fulfill their true potential.
And we must also collectively work with women and youth to face the devastating impact of climate change. So as we’re dealing with the pandemic, we also have issues of climate change. We have broader issues of poverty that we have to address on the continent. I’ll stop there.
DR. SONGWE: Thank you. Thank you so much, Ambassador. I think you brought that home very well in terms of the vaccines and the United States. Yes, charity starts at home and one has to do something at home first, first test it and then bring it out. I think we’re very, very pleased to see the vaccines coming to the continent. The African Vaccines Acquisition Task Team that is led by Strive Masiyiwa (inaudible), also working with COVAX, has been working very closely with the USG, the United States Government, to ensure that these vaccines come, and come in time. Sixty percent is our target; 4.8 percent is where we are today. We cannot do it alone, and the multilateral UN will be able to deliver that.
But you touched on something which is very important, and I’m coming back to you, Dr. Ngozi. It’s the question of jobs. We have seen, as part of this crisis, this innovation that has come on the continent, but also the desire for Africa that used to depend 95 percent for its health commodities from imports. And we talk about health security. We know that health security cannot be sustainable if we are importing all of our health commodities.
So you have been leading the drive for better manufacturing, for more manufacturing of health commodities on the continent with, of course, the TRIPS conversation being at the center of it. A lot of Africans are talking about this. Can you tell us where you are with it and how prosperity comes through better improved TRIPS coordination, and what the UN, if at all, can do to help support that drive?
DR. OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, thank you. The TRIPS, the argument on intellectual property waiver at the WTO, started even before I got here. I think as soon as the pandemic started, a group of our members, mainly developing countries, over 100 of them, felt that one of our agreements, the intellectual property agreement, that if we could find a way to waive that provision, that that would give access to developing countries to be able to manufacture more vaccines. Now, this has been going on for quite some time. Other members feel that waiving IP will not necessarily lead to increasing the availability of vaccines.
So that’s what’s going on. So let me backtrack a bit and say, what is the objective we are trying to achieve? The whole debate started because we want to – there is a supply scarcity in the world and we want to increase access to vaccines, like we talked about. Now, let me say that I think there are three things that we need to do. We’ll come back to IP waiver in a moment. But – and I’ll tell you – and I’ll tell you where we are. But I don’t want people to forget that there are other things we have to do in addition to IP and knowhow.
I think the first is to ask ourselves whether we have the capacity to manufacture the vaccines. And in looking at this, I have written an article where I talked about this issue of looking at capacity. You see on our continent that we have very little. There are a handful of countries – maybe in Tunisia, Morocco to some extent, Senegal, South Africa – where we have some capacity. But that’s why we are important 99 percent of our vaccines. So if we get IP today, we won’t be able to do anything with it because we don’t have investment, we don’t have the manufacturing capacity.
So that was one of the things I thought we should focus on, and that’s a very necessary thing if you want to manufacture. So that’s the first part.
I think the second part is working with manufacturers to make sure supply chains are open, and that’s what we do at the WTO. It’s our members who put in export restrictions and prohibitions, stopping supplies for manufacturing vaccines moving from one country to the other, one continent to the other. You recall that to manufacture the Pfizer vaccine, they said they have 280 components being manufactured at 86 sites in 19 countries. For J&J, it’s 180 components being manufactured, I think, at 60-something sites in 12 countries. So if any member puts a restriction, that’s a problem.
So you need free-flowing supply chains. A corollary of that is working with the manufacturers to ensure that the raw materials and supplies they need, where there are bottlenecks with customs or bureaucracy or regulatory issues – we also help them to clear that. Then you come to the actual technology transfer, knowhow and IP. That’s the third set of things that you need. And where we are, the WTO now, is that we’ve moved from debate into text-based negotiations. So the proponents, those who are wanting the waiver, have put forward a text to be negotiated so there’ll be an agreement, and that is supposed to be going on. But I have to tell you that it is moving very slowly, and that’s what we are trying to push. How can we come to a pragmatic, sensible agreement that allows developing countries access to technology knowhow and find a pragmatic solution on IP that doesn’t also disincentivize research and innovation.
That’s where we are. We are trying to do the negotiations. It’s not moving as fast as one would like, and we’re trying to push that. But we need a combination of all three on our continent if we really want to be serious about manufacturing vaccines.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you.
DR. OKONJO-IWEALA: Let me just say, Vera – sorry – that things are actually moving now. Last week, Wednesday, we had a conference here at the WTO, the second one, that brought vaccine manufacturers together and all the CEOs were there: Pfizer’s CEO, Moderna, AstraZeneca, J&J, Sputnik – and you can see I’m excited – and Sinopharm. We had them all here at the WTO convened to tell us where they are investing, and it turns out there is movement now. J&J is going to invest more in South Africa. I think the U.S. Government is also supporting that, and the EU. They are going to – there is investment from Pfizer that was just announced in South Africa. Investment is going into Senegal, Rwanda. And so it’s exciting, things are happening, and we need to push on this.
DR. SONGWE: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s your turn, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield. I was going to come to you to something – moving away from the vaccines. We watched, I think with amazement, two weeks in a row, rich millionaires go to space and come back, and we thought the power of innovation and the power to reimagine a different world, especially with the conversations we’ve having both in the United States but also here in Africa in places like Mozambique on climate change. It brings together these questions of innovation, technology, jobs, and wealth, and how we can see that together. What do you see as a priority for U.S. and Africa working together to deliver more inclusive growth, more inclusive recovery? In the U.S. you’re talking about 6 million jobs lost, and have you stopped – should we start thinking about research? Here we have 100 million jobs. How can the U.S. and Africa work together in a green space, in an innovative space, maybe not yet going to space – we can’t afford those engines – but what should we do? Over to you.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you so much for that question. And we were all watching that, those space launches, with tremendous awe but also seeing the innovation that went into that, knowing that it’s extraordinarily costly. And what I would hope to see, and I think the United States would hope to see, is that we see across the continent of Africa more efforts to draw on the wealth of the continent, and we know the continent is wealthy; to draw on their wealth, their dynamism, particularly among women and youth; to create jobs and opportunities that we think will allow them to continue to invest again in their country. And we’re working through institutions such as the DFC, which there’s – to provide loans of up to $250 million to the Africa Finance Corporation to continue serving borrowers across the continent as a low-cost source of financing. Another example is an initiative that has helped the Ghanaian – a Ghanaian company producing handcrafted products for export preserve 250 jobs during COVID-19. And we hope by 2022 to look at creating more jobs on the continent of Africa.
We have to look for opportunities to invest in the continent, and we have, through our institutions, worked to do that. So to give you another example through the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development, we’ve provided roughly $541 million to health and humanitarian and economic support assistance to more than 40 countries across the continent to help them to continue during this pandemic. But I think as we move forward, as we start to work on addressing issues, as I mentioned, of climate change, to address issues of poverty and to empower those who have the wherewithal to help the continent move forward, in four years we’re going to see Africa come out of this pandemic stronger. And we’ve seen the innovation on the continent. As Dr. Ngozi mentioned, looking at some of the activities related to COVID and in South Africa, in Senegal, we’ve seen innovation step up on the continent. And I think there’s a sense across the (inaudible) Africa has to step up its game, and it has to start pushing its own priorities and initiatives and bring the rest of us along in support of those initiatives. And I think that’s a positive thing that has come out during this period of the pandemic.
DR. OKONJO-IWEALA: Could I add to what Linda has just said? With respect to jobs on the continent, creating prosperity and investment, just to say that this pandemic, of course, has resulted in a crash in new investment on the continent. I think green-field projects, investment in green-field projects fell by 62 percent, I think, according to UNCTAD, compared to 19 percent in developed countries – 62 on the continent. So that means we need to think of how we recover investment and what we can do to add value.
So we have – I think the biggest reflection we need, apart from setting up a pharmaceutical industry, is to reflect on our products that we already have, and how to add more value to that and how to attract investment into adding value to agricultural and other products. So I think this is really key.
We are negotiating an investment facilitation agreement here at the WTO, and I hope – there are more than 100 countries that are members, most of them from – many of them from Africa. If we conclude this, this will help investment facilitation very much, and that will make it easier for both outsiders to invest but also Africans. Africa-to-Africa investment is becoming more important, and we also need to make the continent hospitable to our own businesspeople to invest. So we need to think of that: how do we make investment friendly? How do we add value to our products so that we can keep jobs on the continent? And mark you, we have a big market. With the African continental free trade agreement, which – on which you were instrumental in trying to move along there at UNECA, we have 1.3 billion people; if we open our borders, can you imagine what that would mean in terms of a market? If we were to add value, we could sell different things to each other. Instead of exporting the same thing, we can export different things and we can make jobs for our youth. So that’s my dream.
DR. SONGWE: Fantastic. No, thank you. Thank you so much. I am just – I know that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield has to leave, but thank you for staying for one last question. And I was going to try to make it – I know that you love arts and culture, and I want to ask you a question on the arts and culture, so taking us a little bit away from COVID and hoping and praying that our borders will soon be open. You have traveled across the continent. You know the continent well. You’ve seen our – the potential in tourism. I just wanted you to give us a sense. There’s tons of young kids, youth, out there looking at that segment of our economy and saying: what more can I do? We saw Ghana attract almost a billion dollars by bringing in African Americans into Ghana for a summer season. How do you see this kind of African American-to-African coordination delivering prosperity for both sides of the continent?
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you. That’s a wonderful question, and I do think it’s a question we need to consider. And Dr. Ngozi, you’re – you didn’t prime me for this, but I just had a wonderful visit to the Africa Center in New York last weekend. And Dr. Ngozi knows why I’m pointing her out on this, because –
DR. OKONJO-IWEALA: Nothing to do with my son.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yes. Someone she knows well and favorably runs that center.
DR. OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes.
AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And that center is such an important element of integrating the African American community with Africa, and seeing the cultural connections that we have that so many African Americans don’t actually have a sense of if you’ve never traveled to the continent. The pandemic has stopped tourism in a way that, I think, has affected the economies of so many countries in Africa. So this is really related to the pandemic as well. But we need to figure out, as we’ve had this break, how we can enhance the connections between the African Americans in America and the entire diaspora around the world to the continent of Africa, because there’s so much more that can be done that will contribute to the economies of these countries, but also contribute to our own understanding of where we go next and how we can work together as two communities to improve Africa’s prosperity and to improve the future for all of our people across the diaspora.
And I think that is something we all have a responsibility to contribute to, whether we are working in Geneva, at the WTO, or we’re working at the UN here in New York, or we’re working on the continent of Africa. There is a synergy there that we have to take advantage of and encourage and support as we move forward in the future.
DR. SONGWE: Fantastic, fantastic. To drive prosperity in Africa, we do need the diaspora. We do need African Americans to come together with us. I think a really, really great answer.