The U.S.’s Young African Leadership Initiative, a tricky soft power tool in Africa?

April 21, 2019 at 06:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Christian Elongué

Christian Elongué | Contributor

April 21, 2019 at 06:00 pm | Opinions & Features

President Barack Obama addresses the Young African Leaders Initiative in Washington, Wednesday, August 3, 2016. President Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders in hope of strengthening democratic governance and encouraging peace and security across Africa.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions shared in this article are mine only and shouldn’t be attached to any organisation I’m working with.

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. 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 U.S. culture, political ideals, and policies.

Joseph Nye who has extensively written on this topic stated[1] 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 is increasing 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. Is it not going to prepare the ground for hard power to thrive and be accepted?

However, I’m not denying the positive impact of the YALI program whose fellows are currently creating change across Africa. In fact, YALI is certainly one of the Obama administration’s most innovative programs. 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.

But African governments need to understand that YALI, as a soft power tool, maybe 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 U.S., but not their homes.

In this first part of the article, I’m presenting 3 key factors why YALI could become a potential threat over African’s future. In the second part, I will share perspectives on the need for African philanthropists and regional bodies to invest more strategically in youth leadership development.

1. 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 costs hundreds of millions of dollars.  The U.S. 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 U.S. politicians utilize all these monies to change the internal economic challenges for the benefit of its citizenry? One 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 U.S. institutions. Could it be that YALI also serves U.S. national interest?

2. 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 probably have a preference to the U.S. government 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. It has just been reduced and it led to the reduction of the number of participants from 1000 to 800. However, it’s still a huge investment for the U.S. 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[2].

3. 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[3] 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 one believes African governments should find a way of monitoring such diplomatic initiatives that may potentially threaten our development tomorrow. African leaders and philanthropists need to invest locally for the training and grooming of indigenous 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, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. schools 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 a 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 initiatives, 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.

4. An African call to duty

The idea of writing this piece came up from a 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 if you ask 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 comprise a minimum of 800 fellows. Around 5000 young vibrant and dynamic 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. One could consider this as a potential 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 may 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[4]. 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.

So what are we doing to ensure that the US Diplomacy agenda through YALI and other educational exchange programs is more aligned with our national priorities and realities? As an Alumni, would you be able to categorically and effectively refuse any favour to a US entity once you occupy an influential leadership position? Why do our leaders rather prefer saving billions of dollars when there is a critical need to invest in the leadership grooming of the next generation? How can we better support existing indigenous initiatives such as the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Program?


[1] Joseph S. Nye Jr., The Benefits of Soft Power (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School, 2 June 2004), p 4.

[2] The controversy surrounding Mother Teresa is far from new. Her saintly reputation was gained for aiding Kolkata’s poorest of the poor, yet it was undercut by persistent allegations of misuse of funds, poor medical treatments and religious evangelism in the institutions she founded. You can read more here.

[3] The Pew Global Attitudes Project, Global Unease with Major World Powers, p. 18

[4] Neo-colonialism is the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.

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