Civil Society Forum at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Senator Coons. I know those of you in civil society know – and I suspect our African leaders gathered here on the stage and also gathered around this town know – that we have no better friend in the U.S. Congress, in the United States, than Chris Coons for the agenda that we share, which is an agenda born of a recognition of common humanity, common security – but fundamentally about unleashing the potential of African young people to change their world, to change our world.
And Chris Coons every day – he'll be leaving here at some point during our event to go try to hustle up resources – he's a diplomat in his own right. A development diplomat as well as somebody who is passionately dedicated to using his platform to resolve conflict in Africa, and beyond. And I just – again and again, you know – feel grateful every day in this job that Chris Coons is our partner up on Capitol Hill. We're so lucky, Chris, thank you. And we can give him a round of applause here as well.
So, I'm thrilled to be up here with the panel. Thank you all for bearing with us this morning. Obviously, there are a lot of leaders in town and traffic and everything is complicated. We've decided to bring the equivalent of the UN General Assembly to Washington. For the New Yorkers among you, you know what that means. But to have representatives here from Cabo Verde, from Zambia, and from The Gambia, individuals who are trying to pursue justice and improve services for their citizens, individuals who recognize that when you have a political reform agenda – as these individuals do, and as the Gambian President as well does – there has to be a dividend. There has to be an economic dividend, there have to be opportunities for citizens. And even though you have reformers up here – and we will hear from them and talk to them – you also have some pretty steep and severe economic headwinds right now. So, it's actually a hard time to be a reformer. It's very tempting, in a lot of places, to put the political reform and anti-corruption agenda, for example, to one side to focus just on the bare facts of managing inflation, fuel prices, food prices.
But what we have here gathered are people who are moving forward with reforms and who recognize – I think and this is what we're here to talk about – the centrality of civil society in securing that economic dividend, that political dividend. So, we have here Cabo Verde Prime Minister Correia e Silva. His government, just as one example, has worked with civil society to pass a gender parity law – this is in 2019 – that has borne significant fruit already in terms of changing the complexion of the Cape Verde legislature. This is a law that required a minimum of 40 percent of candidates on candidate lists to be female. And now that has brought about a sea change, again, in who is in the legislature, and I think it's fair to say as well, how that legislature is going to approach the passage of laws.
In The Gambia, after 23 years of dictatorship and repression, the current president, President Barrow, was chosen by voters in a peaceful election. He has passed laws to protect the judiciary from executive interference. And we have here President Barrow’s Foreign Minister Mamadou Tangara. And I just want to say a word about Mamadou.
Mamadou was my colleague when I was UN Ambassador under President Obama and [then] Vice President Biden. And when the previous dictator of 23 years was voted out of an election, where the brave people of Gambia stood up to have their voices heard and their votes counted – not altogether surprisingly, the previous president rejected the results of the election – a habit that is fairly widespread – and decided that he was going to try to cling to power.
Now, the easy way when something like that happens and you have a dictator who's running your country, and if you're a diplomat in the foreign service, and you're posted abroad, as Mamadou was at the UN, the thing you generally do is you go along, you get instructions from capital and those instructions – what are you going to do?
Well, Mamadou didn't take that approach. He, along with some number of colleagues, but not an overwhelming number of colleagues around the world, decided to use their platforms, and their voices, and reject this power grab – this attempt in turn to reject the results of the election. And the consequences could have been very serious for him, for his family. But this act of resistance was one I think that also helped embolden African leaders who stood up on behalf of the people's vote and the people's choice, and that is how we have President Barrow in place today.
So, Mamadou, you know, John F. Kennedy wrote the great book Profiles in Courage. If that book were written today, I hope they’d look at The Gambia story, and you, and your diplomatic colleagues, and the risks you took for democracy. Thank you.
And last but not least, we have the man known as HH. President Hichilema from Zambia, who already, having been arrested more than a dozen times as an opposition leader, having had all the odds stacked against him, and the young people who came out in mass on behalf of his candidacy.
Already, just in the relatively short time he has been in office has abolished public secondary school fees, reopened closed media outlets, prosecuted corrupt officials – and there are a lot to choose from – and pledged to repeal an existing law that criminalizes insulting the president.
So, I do want to say about all of the reforms that each of these individuals are a part of, trying to shepherd, you know, a lot of the kinds of reforms that are being put forward and implemented are reforms that were put forward in the first instance by civil society.
Government and civil society can be effective partners, just as often as civil society can be a constructive critic. Today, African civil society organizations are observing elections in Senegal, exposing government corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and fighting to restore civilian governance in Sudan.
There are countless examples of how civil society and government can team up. Members of civil society are among our most powerful change agents. They can be tough critics. I'm a former civil society advocate – as Senator Coons indicated – who now finds myself in government.
You know, seeing the press releases from civil society criticizing things that we are trying to do and it can be maddening – if only they understood, if only they understood all of the constraints. So, of course we chafe under that criticism, even if we would not be here without the activism of civil society, not least in things like voter registration, and protecting free and fair elections – even in this country.
The truth is we need civil society – as government actors and as government champions of reform, we actually can't know how the policies that we implement, or that you all legislate, are being lived in the real world. We actually – we may have the best of intentions – we just actually don't know often, exactly how those are being felt, and where the slippage occurs – because things don't always work in the real world the way that they are intended.
We often don't have the reach ourselves – notwithstanding our big media platforms in this media environment – we don't have the reach even to get the message out about COVID vaccination or about, you know, take-up of some of the reforms and initiatives that are being put out there.
And if we're honest, we also get additional motivation. We have our reform motivation, we hope, but we get additional motivation from being held accountable. There's no question. In a democracy when we are held accountable to the people and to civil society, there is no coasting – you cannot coast, you are always scrutinized and held to account.
So, we should strive to see critiques not as affronts, but as opportunities to strengthen and sharpen our responses to some of the world's most pressing issues. Incorporating these diverse voices and their perspectives into our policymaking processes can drive tangible change that is both inclusive and critically enduring, because that is what we're seeking. It’s not just change, but sustainable change, sustainable development, sustainable reform, and opportunity. So, thank you all. I can't wait to hear these leaders speak to what they are doing in their countries.
Thanks for having me.
Ms. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim: Thank you so much. Thank you for these additions. Samantha, you heard from all of them. Do you have a reaction? A quick one, and also if you can have a closing, please.
Administrator Samantha Power: Great. Thank you. Well, first of all this was a tremendous discussion. Tremendous to hear practically – again – how civil society has made a difference in advancing some of the reform agenda that each of the leaders up here have put forth.
I guess what we heard less about in detail was civil society in the pest role, you know – in the “oh, there they go again” role.
But we know that that is absolutely critical to all of this, and I guess I will just give a few examples from our experience as not a donor, but a partner. Which is, you know, to take work we're doing in a few of your countries, and other countries as well on more transparent procurement processes, right. So you pass the law, you get the procurement, the government contracts, you know, put up online. Well, how will that work? How will that help? If you don't have civil society actually going through all of the contracts, and then tipping off a reporter to tell the reporter that actually there's something amiss in this contract. I mean transparency alone – sunlight is the best disinfectant but it requires people who can see with the new light. They can actually see what's going on, and can bring it to a government leader’s attention, or give it to even an opposition politician’s attention.
So two, I look at, to your point about working with local organizations, and even to say local organizations – I don't like the word but it is fundamentally, the community organizations, the people who are closer to the challenges who have the know how. We at USAID haven't done that enough over the years. You mentioned the forms, the tyranny of forms, forms and processes have an equity dimension. We've talked about this, Mr. President – about sludge, about paperwork, and bureaucracy, and who that crowds out of engagement.
One of the things I loved about seeing your decentralization agenda up close – you mentioned Mamadou using marbles to vote in The Gambia – for what they do in the decentralization effort is that community leaders like you actually get to raise their hand, and say here's how we'd like to spend the resources that the government is now sending to the center. And they raise their hand, and they come up with a list of ten projects. Might be a new police checkpoint because crime is high, or desks for the school, or rebuilding part of a maternity ward, and you get a list of ten candidates for using this money that finally is coming from the center, you know, to the communities. And then that gets whittled down to three, and then they put on a poster board – they just write it out, what the name of the [project], they say it out loud for those who you know, can't necessarily read – and then they take rocks, and everybody walks around, and they place a rock on their first choice. And then at the end, they count up the rocks to decide where this money is going to go.
I mean, that is the awesome power of the community, and the other leaders among the community, just to organize something like this to get it going. But that is the power that is something that is lost when we get into a more confrontational mindset when we don't see civil society – not only as partners but as leaders. You know, helping those governments that have this political will actually ensure that it is actualized for the people themselves, because things do get lost in translation along the way.
And so, what we're trying to do at USAID – and here I’ll just just close – is make it to try to take more and more of the middlemen out of the way, and try to move in a direction where more of our resources go directly to the people who know best in the communities from whom we must learn. And you made that point very, very powerfully. It's easier said than done.
Others have talked about expectation management – I mean, this is going to be a long process. We've set targets of working with local organizations, at 25 percent of our resources going there – you might say 25 percent, that means 75 percent [are] not. If we get to 25 percent that will take some number of miracles, because there's so many forms and so much due diligence that we have to do in order to be faithful stewards, as well as the resources that we get from Senator Coons and others. So, we have their compliance requirements that are very hard. But what we know is that when those barriers are too high, it is going to crowd out the people who know the most, and that is not tenable – is not a recipe for sustainable development.
We may develop in the moment, but it's not going to be lasting because it's not going to be led fundamentally by community leaders like you. So, that's a shift that we need to take as your partners – and it's going to take some time – but hold us accountable. Keep us honest. Keep complaining when we're not delivering. We don't like it, but we need it. So, thank you.