In two years’ time, shortly after graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School, we will join the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service to begin serving as American diplomats. At that time, we will be presented with the same question that all diplomats must answer: where do we wish to serve?
Our answer to that question is unequivocally Africa.
We have been fortunate to experience Sub-Saharan Africa in a capacity that is unfamiliar to many. These experiences have revealed to us one enduring truth – Africa is a continent bursting with potential. Accordingly, we hope to make the case that the next generation of American diplomats should look towards Africa for fulfilling diplomatic service.
As it stands, however, Africa is given short shrift in diplomatic circles. It is often an afterthought for many American foreign policymakers. We have seen this trend even among other aspiring Foreign Service Officers. Many diplomats just do not envision themselves serving in Africa. Though this attitude is arguably a result of the minimal import policymakers place on African affairs.
To be sure, Africa has not gone completely without U.S. engagement in the post-Cold War era. The current attention and degree of investment received, however, wanes as one travels further south of the Sahara.
Sitting U.S. Presidents have visited Africa 52 times since President Roosevelt’s first trip in 1943. Nearly half of those visits took place in only three countries: Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. More than 70% of the countries in Africa have never received an official state visit, making Africa the least visited continent in American diplomatic history.
So it is not surprising that young diplomats do not aspire to serve in a part of the world that foreign policy experts have all but forgotten.
Global powers and American adversaries, like China and Russia, now crowd the continent alongside other competitors like India and Turkey. Since China launched its notorious Belt and Road Initiative, the “scramble for Africa” has accelerated, leaving the United States in the dust, with few young diplomats actively looking to serve on the continent to close this gap.
We both have each engaged with the continent in various ways throughout our careers.
For Sydney, East Africa became a point of engagement in high school when she spent a series of months volunteering in Kenya and Uganda. Sydney later returned to the region as an undergraduate student through government-sponsored exchange programs in both Rwanda and Tanzania. Returning again to engage with the region through non-profit work in the public health space.
Despite common notions of sub-Saharan Africa being wracked by tribalism and violent conflict, the realities experienced on the ground resulted in the shedding of such fallacies, for Sydney. Instead of returning stateside with the pictures of herself surrounding by bloated children, she instead returned with a Rolodex of African peers, colleagues, and mentors and the humbling realization that she has much more to learn from the people in sub-Saharan Africa than she has to teach or could ever give.
Erick’s path was similar.
After only a few months of studying the transnational issues plaguing the continent, Erick found himself immersed in the world of African politics while working as an interpreter for the African Union Mission in Washington, D.C. The challenges he researched in class seemed to come alive as he interacted with policymakers.
The experience offered a window into the African political sphere, allowing Erick to witness the discourse of African policymakers who envision a bright future for the continent. Later, while working for the Young African Leadership Initiative, Erick worked alongside some of the people who will lead Africa towards that bright future. As new generations of leaders rise to power, the U.S. can forge critical relationships.
Though we have cast our net continent-wide, each region presents unique opportunities and challenges for the future of US-Africa relations.
West African countries like Ghana and Senegal have long been stalwart examples of democratic governance on the continent. Their roles in promoting democratic values are of strategic importance to U.S. interests. West Africa is also expected to experience huge population booms in the coming years, with Nigeria alone set to overtake the U.S. by 2050. If economic growth runs parallel to the growth in population, Nigeria could play a more decisive economic role both in and out of Africa.
The East African Region has experienced mass digitization, industrialization, population growth, and tremendous reductions in poverty and tropical infectious diseases. Rwanda leads the world for women in politics, boasting 64% female representation in parliament. Rwanda, Tanzania, and Kenya have all achieved middle-income country status.
Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility for the future of Africa, and American diplomats have the opportunity to be at the forefront of bright new futures and the future of American diplomacy.
Erick Boone is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Howard University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. His professional experiences include supporting the Young African Leadership Initiative as a program assistant, working as a Teaching Assistant in France, and serving as a policy fellow for the U.S. Helsinki Commission. After graduation, Erick will be joining the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer through the Thomas R. Pickering fellowship program.
Sydney Kamen is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Sydney is also Truman Scholar, Boren Scholar, and will be joining the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer as Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellow. Her academic and professional work operates at the nexus of global health, humanitarianism, and security in resource-limited contexts, specifically, sub-Saharan Africa.
Olivia Chavez is currently the Graduate Fellow for the Public Diplomacy Council. Originally from San Diego, CA Olivia completed her undergraduate studies at San Diego State University. She is a Return Peace Corps Volunteer who served in St.Vincent and the Grenadines from 2017-2019. Olivia is a graduate student at American University pursuing an M.A in Political Communication as a Coverdell Fellow in the School of Public Affairs.