Young African Leadership Initiative: A tricky soft power tool in Africa?

Young African Leadership Initiative: A tricky soft power tool in Africa?
Source: Christian Elongué | christianelongue@hotmail.com
Date: 17-04-2019 Time: 11:04:39:am
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Across Africa, millions of youth are continuously excited, dreaming or preparing their application for the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), a US leadership program initiated by Barack Obama to strengthen democratic institutions, deepen trade and hone the leadership skills of young African professionals.  In this analysis, I explored the use of soft power, the pending threat of this enduring legacy program over Africa’s future.

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Soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion. As previously demonstrated, it arises from the attractiveness of a US’ culture, political ideals, and policies. Joseph Nye who has extensively written on this topic stated that: “Soft power has always been a key element of leadership. Skilful leaders have always understood that attractiveness stems from credibility and legitimacy.” 

Through the YALI program, the US has been allowed to increase its attraction over Africans, but what makes it worrying is that they are not just targeting the broader public but African “elites”, those who are influencing – or will influence – Africa’s development in the immediate and distant future. 

Through such programs, they are legitimising their leadership, and this would prepare the ground for hard power to thrive and be accepted.

However, I’m not denying the positive impact of the YALI programme whose fellows are currently creating change across Africa. In fact, YALI is certainly one of the Obama administration’s most innovative programmes. Over the course of five years, YALI has created a network of more than 400,000 of the continent’s best and brightest and involved more than 50 U.S. universities and hundreds of partners from the private sector, civic organizations, and state and local governments across Africa. 

African states and government need to understand that YALI, as a soft power tool, is another neo-colonialist agenda. Remaining silent and observing is therefore unacceptable. It’s time to think critically and act. Africans may share the same sun with the US, but not their homes. Here are 3 key factors why YALI is a potential threat over African’s future.

At the economic level: Money is sharper than a sword.


The average cost of a fellow coming to the U.S. is $24,000 and the YALI program cost /hundreds of millions of dollars.  The US has more pressing internal issues that require a lot of money to be resolved. But they are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this program. Why didn’t US politicians utilise all these monies to change the internal economic challenges for the benefit of its citizenry? We should also note that the financing of YALI was not just President Obama’s sole decision. As a “democratic” nation, this was approved by several US institutions. It demonstrates that YALI serves US national interest.

At the geopolitical level: YALI is a long-term investment

 YALI is a long-term investment plan where the Fellows once established in their positions of influence (public, private and civil society sectors), will always have a preference to the US even after the Obama administration. When Trump came to power in 2016, he literally tried to unplug the Obama legacy in Africa (Power Africa, YALI). Trump even warned via Twitter soon after the launch of the programme in December 2013 that “every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen — corruption is rampant!”

One would secretly hope that he would also interrupt the YALI funding. But he didn’t. He has just reduced it and it leads to the reduction of the number of participants from 1000 to 800. However, it’s still a huge investment for the US government. This further demonstrates that Trump values and recognises the benefits he can gain from the “shit hole countries” through the YALI Program. To be truthful and realistic, there is no aid or charity in international relations, it’s just a matter of interests. Self-interest has always defined global relations. Even Mother Theresa wasn’t selfless.

At a cultural level: The power of Cultural diplomacy.

Power is a matter of resources and context. There are usually three ways for a nation to exercise power: coercion, inducements with payments or attraction with co-opting. If the first two are more confrontational, the latter is more based on cultural diplomacy and that’s what characterised the YALI Program.

For the MWF, all the fellows are spending three months in the US, working with US institutions, universities and companies, including Coca-Cola, IBM, the MasterCard Foundation, AECOM, Microsoft, Intel, McKinsey & Company, GE, and Procter & Gamble, who have made grants or in-kind contributions to the fellowships. 

Let’s note that the Pew Centre revealed  that, “consistently, those individuals who have travelled to the U.S. have more favourable views of the country than those who do not.” And they recommended that US soft power programs such as YALI will have to continue. But I strongly disagree and believe African states or governments should immediately find a way of monitoring such initiatives that threaten our development. African leaders need to invest locally for the training and grooming of our leaders so that they would be more independent and loyal. “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you," according to an African proverb.

For those attending the training at the Regional Leadership Centre, most of the learning content is designed within an American framework and very little is said about African approaches and priorities to development. Even though local expertise is solicited during the implementation phase, one would wish Africans to be more involved at the design stage. A deep understanding of local context and engagement with local expertise is the basis for successful impact-driven initiatives.

The influence of US cultural diplomacy on participants is quite visible and obvious when observing their behaviours and attitudes. On social media, I know many MW Fellows who have changed their university from the local to the US on Facebook, even though they had just spent a few weeks there. Some are even changing their university name before or while being there. On LinkedIn and other mainstream media platforms, it is very difficult to miss an MWF alumnus, most – if not all – are proudly adding the “MWF” mention on their profile. YALI is now more than just a program, it’s a brand. Such as Nike or Coca-Cola, YALI is increasingly becoming a leadership certification authority on the continent, imposing respect, admiration and sometimes reverence. Being a YALI Alumni usually implies that you have certain leadership experience and achievements. However, there is often a differentiation between YALI RLC Alumni and MW Fellows.

Mandela Washington Fellows usually perceive themselves as the Big Brother or Sister, with more leadership accomplishment and maturity than those from the Regional Leadership Centre. This impression leads sometimes to arrogance, pride and leadership conflicts within the YALI Network. When developing joint national or regional initiative, MWF tends to seek higher positions and power and it often led to internal division in the community. This is just a minor effect of the YALI’s cultural diplomatic impact on the YALI Community.

An African’s call to duty

The idea of writing this piece came up from personal experience. I attended several high-level programs across Africa and Europe, the common factor I noticed is that YALI Fellows were highly represented at those events; no matter the sector: public, private or civil society sector nor the thematic: entrepreneurship, health, politics… etc.  Usually, they represent 25 to 30% of the participants. It seems low. So where is the problem would you asked me?

So, let’s imagine there are 20 participants to a program, this means there will possibly be 4 to 5 participants who have benefited from the MWF or any US related programs. For the MWF, it has only been launched five years ago but each cohort comprises a minimum of 800 fellows. Around 5000 young vibrant and dynamics, African men and women have benefited from it after a highly selective recruitment process to ensure that the most talented and resilient young leaders are being identified and groomed.

If things continue like this, in 10 years, most of the top African leaders would have been trained or equipped by the US Funds. This is a serious threat to Africa’s development because many of them will be leading Africa in economics, politics, agriculture, health, Education… Since the US has contributed to their leadership journey, it would be difficult for them to categorically refuse any privilege to the US government. More than simply ‘influence’ or ‘persuasion,’ US soft power will be made visible through their ability to attract Africans without having to use hard power threats or enticements. 

“Power lasts ten years; influence not more than a hundred” according to a Korean proverb. Thus, through YALI influence, they are getting Africans to achieve the outcomes they want. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do. Therefore, Africa would have figurative leaders or marionettes that will be more obedient and accountable to foreign interests (or masters) than to their local constituencies. It won’t be different than the current invisible but eloquent system currently visible in Africa: neo-colonialism. The major difference is that there would be a slight shift from the “classical masters” from Europe: France, England, Spain, Portugal etc. to new ones from Asia (China, India) and North America: the USA and Canada.

The author, Christian Elongué, describes himself as an Afropolitan blogger and change maker: www.lafropolitain.mondoblog.org, www.twitter.com/lafropolitain.


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