The Doorstep: Opportunities for a New U.S. Policy Toward African Nations, with Ambassador Charles A. Ray

Dec 4, 2020

In this week's Doorstep, hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev are joined by Charles A. Ray, current chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Africa Program and former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. They discuss a Biden-Harris reset of U.S. foreign policy and narratives towards the diverse and dynamic nations of Africa, and opportunities for American companies to invest in tech and consumer markets, especially the growing youth populations across the region.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to The Doorstep. It's December 2020, and we have lots going on in the United States and the world, and today we welcome former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe, Ambassador Charles Ray.

Thank you so much for being with us. You are here to speak with us today about Africa, the continent that sometimes does not get as much attention as it should.

We here at The Doorstep are bringing you the news that you need to know and why it's important to you, the everyday American in our everyday look at the world.

Thank you so much for joining us. I want to say one thing about your bio that I am excited to speak about, perhaps offline, is that you are a prolific writer with more than 150 titles.

CHARLES RAY: Actually it's over 200 now because I work for two publishers who want a book a month.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Oh, my goodness. Well, congratulations.

CHARLES RAY: I write westerns. It's not exactly great literature.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Well, I think it's fun literature and another fascinating look at your incredibly talented career. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLES RAY: My pleasure.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I would like to kick off today, if you wouldn't mind, because one of the things that I think people do not realize about Africa when they lump it all together is that it is a continent of 54 nations, nine territories, two independent states, and a very diverse population ethnically and religiously. Sometimes we do tend to clump it together, and today I would like to parse out some of the important things going on on a macro level but also to talk about individual countries and their importance to the United States, particularly with respect to African migration, immigrants, and the African diaspora in the United States, which is so important, and which the incoming administration of Biden-Harris have addressed on their campaign platform.

I study youth movements around the world and their impact on foreign policy, and I think one of the things that I need to highlight today is the fact that 60 percent of the population of Africa today is under the age of 25. I think that leads to a lot of opportunity in looking at the use of technology to promote economies, global connections as a result of use of social media, the fact that Black Lives Matter is so important there and so important here, and I think that is because of these youth movements from Nigeria to Ghana. There is so much going on on that level.

Can you speak to us a little bit about how you see the youth and foreign policy reflected coming out of countries in Africa?

CHARLES RAY: It's interesting that you bring that up because that was the main thing on my mind in terms of why Africa matters to the rest of the world. Because you are right, it is the youngest continent on the planet. It is the continent that has probably the highest if not the second-highest growth rate, so in addition to having this large and largely young population you have a large growing young population.

There are pluses and minuses to that. On the plus side, this is a huge potential market for all kinds of goods and services. On the minus side, if we don't help these countries develop their economies so that they can provide gainful employment, you are leaving a large population of disaffected people who then can be potentially part of extremist movements. There is that.

But you talk about technology. That is one of my favorite subjects because when I was ambassador to Zimbabwe, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state and of course one of her key policies was outreach to youth. American ambassadors all over the world were charged to reach out to the young people in these countries, which I tried to do in Zimbabwe.

Our relations at that time were a little tense. When I arrived in Zimbabwe in 2009 there were people in that government that we had not had a dialogue with in a decade. We literally were not talking to them. We talked to the opposition; we ignored the party with the power. I started right away trying to change that because I felt that my job wasn't to go there and take sides, my job was to go there and advance U.S. policy, take care of American citizens, and maintain a dialogue so that we could get things done.

At the same time I started reaching out to the young people. You were in a country where you had a government that did not particularly like the American government, they didn't particularly trust us, and they liked to maintain control over everything. On my third or fourth youth outreach event, when word got back to the minister of youth that I was getting a bigger audience than he got, they started to crack down. When I would schedule an event I would follow the rules, notify the government in advance, and they would go and shut the venue down and intimidate people not to come. A couple of times we would have just a tent meeting in a nearby hotel or park, but I didn't want to put people in danger.

So we came up with this idea. My public diplomacy officer said: "Let's have Facebook meetings." Now of course, you have this live Facebook chat. This was before they actually put that utility on Facebook. The first one we held had over 250 young Zimbabweans from all over the country online chatting with me back and forth because the one thing that neither the government nor I think actually even people back here in Washington understood was that while very few people in Zimbabwe had a landline telephone, every kid over the age of 15 had a cellphone, and they used South African satellite Internet connections. They were on Twitter, they were on YouTube, they were on Facebook. The government couldn't control it. They literally would have to round up every kid in the country and confiscate their phones in order to do it.

We started this outreach program to young people in Zimbabwe completely bypassing their standard communication system. We did it on Facebook, we did it on Twitter, we did it on YouTube, we did text messages back and forth. In a sense the young people of Africa have completely bypassed the analog age and gone directly into digital, and it is a market for not just goods and services but ideas that is really growing.

The issue, or if you will, the negative side of that, is that these young people, while they are equipped to live in the 21st century and to be prosperous, they are living in countries being run by people who are barely capable of coping with the 20th century. The average age of most leaders in Africa I think is 61. You have capable, talented, energetic young people being held back by a bunch of old fogies, to put it bluntly. That is a point of friction that has to be dealt with.

Sorry to go on, but you are talking about an issue that I think is key to why the world outside Africa needs to pay more attention. You have all of these possibilities there, but like anything there are two sides to it. They are possibilities that if we fail to take advantage of them, they are going to become problems.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I thought it was interesting if I could just follow up on that because you mentioned Twitter. Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO, on his tour of Africa in 2019—pre-COVID-19—said that he wanted to spend six months in Africa because he is so convinced that that is the next great market, especially for e-commerce. He also has Square, and that is why he is going to go there. Of course, this year has created a huge upheaval, but to that point I think there are social media companies and tech companies—Microsoft and Google—looking at talented developers in Africa as a source of the next generation and potential.

I wanted to mention that because I thought that was so interesting and not talked about, the fact that Jack Dorsey was over there pre-COVID-19 playing up Africa and its potential for growth, and also because of its urbanization.


TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is also a huge opportunity. The fact that you have more people living together and—to your point—sharing ideas I think is going to be a huge game-changer for the continent.

CHARLES RAY: No doubt about it. It has been estimated that by 2030 there will be 17 cities on the African continent with populations over 5 million. Africa as a continent by 2050 will have more people than China because the Chinese are actually seeing a decrease in population. They are starting to gray, like the West. So you are right.

In 2009, when I went to Zimbabwe, you had elderly ladies living in the countryside, farmers, who had electronic bank accounts, who were banking by phone. So you are right. This is something I don't think people back here in the United States appreciate or even realize: You have tea farmers in Kenya who are e-banking; you have 14-year-olds in Zimbabwe who are on YouTube.

One of the other initiatives, if you will, that we did when I was in Zimbabwe—because as I said there were those in the government who weren't quite onboard with me being a traditional diplomat that they could talk to, and they were taught propaganda techniques by the Chinese during the liberation struggle. When I arrived there they were constantly coming up with propaganda ploys that we had to react to.

One of the things that they apparently neglected to check when my bio was sent there for agrément was that I spent 20 years in the army, and one of my army specialties was psychological operations. So I was determined to reverse that. They were always spinning whatever the American ambassador said at a public meeting. It would be on their TV or in their newspapers, and the embassy would have to go out with a correction: "No, the ambassador didn't say that."

What we did was I had my public diplomacy officer and one of our local national employees with a video camera go with me whenever I made a public appearance. My public diplomacy officer would be sitting with his tablet live-Tweeting my remarks in real time. The local employee would be videotaping, and 20 minutes after the event was over we would have a video on YouTube. The government went totally ape because they were having then to respond to us.

This is Africa 2010. Ten years later, one only has to imagine if these types of things were being done in 2009 and 2010, what must be happening now that the outside world doesn't see and put their eyes on? I have only been back once since I left in 2012. I made a trip to Cameroon in 2013. A Canadian magazine sent me out to do coverage of the simian study facility in Cameroon. In just a year's time the changes were amazing. I can only imagine eight or nine years later what kinds of changes must be taking place, and what eyes do we have on it? What kind of participation do we have in it? I fear that we probably don't have much.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That leads me to, if I can then, Ambassador—I loved your analogy that many countries in Africa are leapfrogging the analog age directly into the digital, but the question is: Can our State Department and national security system do the same? Your ambassadorial colleague, Mike McFaul, recently said that we're still dealing with "your grandfather's or grandmother's State Department." That was his line, that individuals like yourself are moving forward, but the institutions are not, or that they are still somewhat ossified, both in terms of technology but also in taking advantage.

I'm thinking of how much time we spend still overly focused on the part of the world that I look at, the Eurasian space, and all of these opportunities in Africa that the United States seems to almost be ceding to China or to India. You think of all of these areas—e-commerce, the diaspora connections, people moving back and forth, and small businesses—where we could be creating those dense networks, and yet there almost seems to be some sort of block in Washington that the ideas get proposed, they're embraced rhetorically, and then they seem to lose their salience.

CHARLES RAY: You're right. The State Department and its reluctance to come into the 20th century—let's stop talking about the 21st—is a subject that is near and dear to me, but it is more than just that. It is not just the State Department, although we are the tip of that spear.

There are basically two views of Africa in the minds of most Americans: (1) It is this mythical fatherland/motherland; and (2) it's this unipolar continent of problems of famine, violence, and dislocation. That's the picture that I think many Americans have.

That is beginning to change a little in that you have had so much immigration from the continent to the United States that you truly have an African diaspora in the United States, and these are people—I upset some people when I say this—but people like me whose ancestors came over several hundred years ago; our connection with Africa is really tenuous.

I remember when I first went to Sierra Leone back in 1993, and someone says: "You're going back to your homeland." I don't know that. I had no idea where my ancestors came from until AncestryDNA did my DNA profile and found 46 percent from Nigeria and 43 percent from Scotland. If you have ever been to Africa, you can imagine that when I set foot on the continent I do not look like I belong because I don't look like any person of any tribe there. That takes care of the motherland/fatherland.

As far as it being a basket of nothing but problems, yes, there are problems. Look around the United States: We have a few of those problems here.

There are bright spots. You have countries like Botswana that have been stable since independence, not super-wealthy, but not super-poor either. You have Ghana, which is considered one of the more lucrative places to do business in Africa because they have a legal system that works, and they have a stable political climate.

We are beginning slowly to get that kind of information into the blood flow of Americans because now you have African Americans whose ancestors had a remote connection with Africa, but we can't identify with any specific part of the continent. But now you have people who are from Ghana, from Sierra Leone, from Ethiopia, and they don't think of themselves as African Americans; they are Ethiopian-Americans; they are Nigerian-Americans. And when they talk about the continent, they are not talking about some mythical motherland. They are talking about a place they just left a few years ago. Of course, now you have a couple of them in Congress.

So you are beginning to get a different information flow into the mix. Of course, that takes time. Changing the minds of a society is like turning an aircraft carrier—you could spin the wheel for a long time and take a nap before the thing starts to actually turn. But I think we will start to get there as these people have more of an impact.

One of the things I'm hoping that the Foreign Policy Research Institute's (FPRI) Africa Program will be able to do is accelerate that and make people understand that while Africa will never be the number-one strategic priority to the United States—because, thank god, they don't have nukes—it still is a place that can have a huge commercial, social, and even security impact on the United States, positive if we manage it properly, but negative if we ignore it or mishandle it.

The place is brimming with possibilities. It is just getting people to realize that it is not what they think it is. It is not the Africa of the Tarzan movies, which by the way, was Mexico. It's a place that has an astonishing diversity. It's complex. As you said, 54 independent countries and hundreds of languages. Like the United States it has one of every religion on the planet practically, except maybe Navajo "Windtalkers," but it has all of the major religions.

I remember when I went to Sierra Leone in 1993. There was a war going on, but large parts of the country were accessible. You could go out into the countryside. I remember driving through a part of Sierra Leone northwest of Freetown that looked so much like parts of rural Florida that I had to pinch myself to realize, I've been in a place like this before, and it wasn't far from my house. Or my first trip to South Africa in 1994, right after they dismantled apartheid, and driving in a taxi from the airport into town was like driving through parts of Western Maryland. It is a different place, and it is a place that Americans I think need to be aware of, more so than they are now.

TATIANA SERAFIN: When you look at the Biden-Harris platform and their program for Africa, what do you think of how they may change what has happened over the last four years, where the continent has not gotten any attention except negative?

CHARLES RAY: I have not had a chance to study it. One of the things—and we are having a book talk with former Ambassador Herman Cohen on the 7th, and he will probably mention this—even in the intense hyper-partisan splits that exist in Washington, that there has always been bipartisanship on Africa. Our Africa policy from administration to administration, regardless of whether it has been Republican or Democrat, has been fairly consistent. True, in this past administration there has been more negative rhetoric and insults, but that negative rhetoric and insults did not change any of the other policies. The programs that the previous administration put in place were left in place.

What I hope the Biden-Harris administration will do is first of all approach Africa as a partner and not as a patron, to go in to work with them and not to tell them what to do, and to try to look at establishing a true commercial relationship with countries in Africa.

We have the African Growth and Opportunity Act and it was supposed to give African entrepreneurs a leg up in the U.S. market, but what they need is influx of investment and technology, and you don't have that many American companies that have the knowledge, patience, or desire to do what's necessary to get things going in Africa.

There are a few. Coca-Cola has been there for a long time. In fact, I think Coca-Cola has been in Africa since the late 1800s.

So has Ford, believe it or not. In Zimbabwe they had an operating model of one of the early funny-shaped boxy Ford cars that you crank with a hand crank that was sold in Zimbabwe back when it was Rhodesia in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

But there needs to be a view to getting American companies invested in the right places—you have Ivory Coast, you have Ghana, Senegal is improving—getting businesses to look at possible investments there. You mentioned young people and technology. I think there is now a European company or a French company that is having a chip manufacturing facility built in Tanzania or someplace, I don't remember.

Also computer help centers. Right now a lot of our computer help centers are based in India, which is a 12-hour time zone difference. Africa is five to eight hours. It would make sense to have a lot of these [in Africa]. And there are places where people have the skills to do it and it could be done. It just takes a company going in and establishing the contacts and networks to do it.

I would hope that the Biden-Harris administration would look at having an honest to goodness country-to-country relationship. Maybe it's a matter of where we say, "Have an Africa policy." We need to have Africa policies. We need to have policies that are tailored to the individual countries because not ever country there can we have a normal, healthy commercial relationship with. Zimbabwe is a good example. I love that country, but it's a mess right now. It's going to be a while.

Ghana we could have a good relationship with, Kenya, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Botswana. We could have relationships that are profitable both for them and for us, but we need to think of those relationships not in terms of us as the patron—"We're going to go in and show these poor savages how to do things"—but as partnerships, go in and give to them while we learn from them at the same time. I think if this administration coming in does nothing beyond that, they will have made a huge amount of progress. Change the attitude of how we approach Africa.

I am of an age where I tell stories. Old people do that. But one of the things I had to fight for and I finally got in Zimbabwe—we had all kinds of aid programs there working on HIV/AIDS, working on maternal and child health. I said: "There are these areas in the countryside where people are poor, but all they need is a little jumpstarting and a little guidance, and they could actually make themselves wealthier, not give them money."

I had a hard time getting the U.S. Agency for International Development and the people back here in Washington to agree. I finally got a pilot program running. Just to give you an example of what I mean about attitudes, this was in the Obama administration.

All I wanted was enough money to run a training program to teach rural women how to create—I don't remember the term they used, but it was something I learned when I was in Korea. These rural women pool their money and make a sort of credit union, and they loan money to each other, to the members, to start moneymaking enterprises, and then when they make the money they pay it back with a little interest, and it just keeps growing.

I said: "This is easy to teach. Just give me the money for the per diem and the pay for a couple of teachers to come out and walk them through it."

We finally got it after a year of intense bureaucratic infighting. Two instructors came out. They went out, and we did this over a six-month period in I think three villages. The total cost of the project was $55,000 or $60,000 for six months. In governmentese, that is a misplaced comma in a paragraph. By the end of that six months, in one of the villages the ladies were reporting an increase in their income of 45 to 50 percent.

I took one of the government ministers out, and we visited a village, and the ladies were briefing. The women had taken over. The men were basically told to sit in the audience and shut up. These ladies briefed and explained their project. "We started out," she said, "people couldn't afford but one dollar each per month." But that's what they did. They put in a dollar.

At the end of six months they had started generating enough income among themselves that the women had themselves decided that they would now put in $25 each per month. Every house had an air conditioner in that village. Every family had a motorbike, color TV, and a refrigerator. A couple of the guys had bought new pickups to get their crops to market.

The minister that I took out with me sat there with his jaw on his chin. He couldn't believe it because the government had nothing to do with it. When he made a comment about what was the government's role, a woman looked at him and said, "Nothing."

My point is that if you take the view that if you work with people, find out what they need, and help them achieve self-sufficiency on their terms, you can get more done than if you go in and try to tell them what to do: "I'm the smart American. I know it all, so just listen. I'll tell you what to do." I'm a duck out of water when it comes to an African village. I couldn't grow cassava, and if I could, I wouldn't know what to do with it once it was grown.

Be a partner, not a patron, and most of all be a listener and not a preacher. That's what I would tell the administration: "Go in with an open mind and a closed mouth."

TATIANA SERAFIN: I do want to get one question in about China because China has invested so much in Africa. Do you think there is still time for us to go back in there and be a partner?

CHARLES RAY: Yes, yes. I do. And here's why I think there is. First of all—this is the other thing I would tell them—we are always going to be competing with China. We are going to be competing with China all over the world. But here's a thing we should not do: We should not approach African countries with: "You have to be with China or with us." There's room enough in the tent for both.

The Chinese think that a lot of things they do are not necessarily that productive in the long run, but you know what? If a country chooses to cut a deal with China that is not to their advantage, that's their business and not ours. They have their reasons for doing it, and for us to go in and say, "Well, you shouldn't do that," they are going to say: "But we need that road" or "We need that port. Are you going to build it?"

We know what our answer is: "No, we don't do infrastructure." So we shouldn't be part of the conversation.

If we work with the Chinese and we work with the governments more or less on a "let's look at what we're all trying to get out of this" basis—because not all the deals that the Chinese do are bad. Some are. They look out for their interests too. Not all of what they do is bad. When I was in Zimbabwe I worked very closely with the Chinese. We actually had some very small local joint projects going.

It should not be a them-or-us situation. It should be: We have certain things that we can bring to the table that they can't. They have certain things that they bring to the table that we won't. Then let's try to find ways that those things reinforce and support each other. The competition then is that the country looks and decides: "Whose do we like better, the Chinese or the Americans?" Fine. Let them decide that. Let us focus on developing a relationship with that country based on their needs, not based on getting them to not be friendly with China.

We did that during the Cold War, and that messed Africa up, and they are still trying to work their way out of some of the problems that caused. Of course, the Russians are not very liked on the African continent because of it, and we're not liked in some places because of it. Let's not repeat that same thing with China. The Chinese are there. We are not going to make them not be there, so why shoot ourselves in the foot by turning it into a fight when it doesn't have to be? Let's do what we do best, and let them do what they do, and let's let our focus be on the country in Africa and not on the Chinese.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I certainly hope that Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan will be listening to what is coming out of the Africa program at FPRI because this is very sound and useful advice as they begin to structure what American policy in the 2020s will be.

I think we could keep talking to you for hours and hours, but we know that your time is precious, and it is good that you are in demand, so we thank you for spending this time with us here at the Carnegie Council's Doorstep podcast. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you in the months ahead.

CHARLES RAY: Thanks for having me. It has been a pleasure.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much.

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