Africa: Do Africa Experts on Biden-Harris Transition Team Signal Policy Direction?

Africa experts have leading roles on incoming U.S. administration’s transition team; South Africa’s Ramaphosa among world leaders who have spoken with the President-Elect.

The United States president-elect, Joe Biden, who has been accepting congratulatory calls from a small number of foreign leaders since he was declared winner of the election last week, spoke on Tuesday with South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, who currently chairs the African Union.

In what could be seen as a pointer to Africa as an important region for the new administration in Washington, Biden told Ramaphosa he seeks to strengthen the partnership with South Africa and “with African institutions, governments, and citizens,” according to a readout by the Biden-Harris Transition office. “The president-elect underscored our shared interest in tackling corruption, containing COVID-19, laying the foundation for a sustainable global economic recovery, and addressing the threat of climate change.” A similar shared focus was signaled in the brief statement issued by the Presidency in Pretoria after the call with Biden, who visited South Africa as Senator and Vice President: “President Cyril Ramaphosa is hopeful of a strong partnership between the United States and the African continent in promoting peace and stability in international relations and advancing multilateralism.”

Although Africa was scarcely mentioned by either presidential candidate during the hard-fought campaign, Biden supporters believe his administration will revitalize U.S. ties with the African region and its 55 countries. “There will be regular travel by the President and senior administration officials to the continent,” as well as a push to send “appropriately skilled” ambassadors to embassies across Africa, Senator Chris Coons, told an online  campaign fundraiser in August  – the first such Africa-focused event held by any presidential campaign. Coons (Democrat-Delaware) is a close Biden advisor who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee, which he formerly chaired.

READ: What Would a President Biden Do About Africa?

African expertise is well-represented among those managing the Biden-Harris Transition, who number over 500 people working in 40 ‘Agency Review Teams‘. Three of the members of the Biden-Harris Covid-19 Advisory Board, a separate entity, also have significant Africa experience.

The team leader for the State Department transition is Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who was the top Africa policy official at State during President Obama’s second term and previously was U.S. Ambassador to Liberia. When she was tapped to be Assistant Secretary for Africa by Secretary John Kerry in May 2013, she was serving as Director General of the Foreign Service, overseeing human resources and personnel functions for the State Department’s 60,000-person workforce. So she knows the workings of the Department well and is widely respected in the career ranks.

Linda Etim, co-lead for International Development on the transition team, was in charge of Africa at the U.S. Agency for International Development until 2017, when she was became senior advisor for Africa Policy at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She also served as director for Africa at the National Security Council (NSC), which operates from the White House, from 2009 to 2013 and as senior security analyst for east Africa at the Pentagon from 2002 to 2007.

Richard Stengel heads the team managing the United States Agency for Global Media , which is responsible for Voice of America and other regional broadcast services controlled by the U.S. government. Stengel was Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and a key member of the Obama team. He directed the president’s Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) and led the department of state’s efforts to counter the global rise of disinformation. He served for seven years as editor of Time. Before that, while working as a Time correspondent, he assisted Nelson Mandela with the South African leader’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and later published an account of that collaboration, Mandela’s Way.

The Africa policy lead on the State Department team is Allison Lombardo, whose experience includes NSC Africa director during the Obama administration – managing the Sudan, South Sudan, African Union and Yali portfolios – and the State Department, mostly focusing on South Sudan. She also was senior advisor to USAID Administrator Gayle Smith – now head of One – and remained at USAID and State until joining Deloitte in May 2018 as a senior advisor at the management consulting firm.

The Defense Department team includes retired Admiral Michelle Howard, whose experience includes command of U.S. Naval Forces Africa (concurrently with U.S. Naval Forces Europe) – she was the first female four-star admiral to command operational forces and the first woman to become a four-star admiral. While leading Expeditionary Strike Group 2 when it was deployed off the coast of Africa in 2009, she was in charge of the rescue from Somali pirates of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, later portrayed in the popular film starring Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips.

The National Security Council team includes Jeohn Salone Favors, an attorney who worked at the State Department officer and CIA Clandestine Service and Counterterrorism Center and managed Middle East and North Africa policy at the NSC during the second Obama term.

Jeremy Konyndyk, who serves on the team managing the Department of Health and Human Services , is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. He directed USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) during the Obama administration, managing humanitarian responses to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, as well as emergencies in Nigeria, and South Sudan, among other places.

Public health and scientific experts on the 13-person COVID-19 Advisory Board include Dr. Celine Gounder, clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine , who is a medical journalist, infectious-disease physician and epidemiologist. She hosts the podcast American Diagnosis, on health and social justice, and the podcast Epidemic, on SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19. Conducting research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, she studied TB and HIV in southern Africa and Ethiopia, as well as in Brazil. While on the Hopkins faculty, she directed delivery for the Consortium to Respond Effectively to the AIDS/TB Epidemic, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Eric Goosby, professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), directs the Center for Global Health Delivery and Diplomacy, a collaboration between UCSF and the University of California, Berkeley. He worked on national Aids policy for the Clinton administration, served as U.S. Global Aids Coordinator in the Obama administration – a position now held by Dr. Deborah Birx – and was the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for TB. At Pangaea, an Africa-focused program, Goosby helped develop and implement national plans to scale-up HIV-Aids treatment in Rwanda, South Africa, China, and Ukraine.

Perhaps most deeply engaged in African realities among the Covid-19 advisors is Loyce Pace, President and Executive Director of the Global Health Council, the primary membership organization connecting and supporting a worldwide global health community. She has long been a leading voice in supporting access to essential medicines and to health care worldwide and has lived or worked in multiple sub-Saharan African countries. She has conducted global health programs for Catholic Relief Services, the American Cancer Society, the Livestrong Foundation and Physicians for Human Rights.

Another top Biden advisor during the campaign who has a long Africa-related resume is Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s UN ambassador and National Security Advisor  She was on the short list for vice president and is widely viewed as a potential pick for Secretary of State. She is a member of the Biden-Harris transition advisory board but is not on any of the Agency Review Teams managing transition details.

In recent days, Rice has made news criticizing Trump’s refusal to cooperate on the transition, and on Twitter she has joined in calls for the current administration to act on the escalating conflict involving Ethiopia and the Tigre region. “We need principled leadership on this @StateDept @AsstSecStateAF,” she said in a Tweet directed at the State Department and the Assistant Secretary for Africa – and eliciting a long chain of reactions. Some criticized her interactions with Ethiopia’s leadership when she was Assistant Secretary for Africa in the late 1990s, while others appreciated her attention to governance issues in the strategic Horn of Africa region, where Ethiopia is influential.

[In a statement this week, Senator Bob Menendez, the Ranking Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee, called for “urgent diplomatic action” to address the currently escalating conflict inside Ethiopia and between forces in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. His statement listed actions he urges the administration to take.]

The growing conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa is one of a lengthy list of urgent Africa issues facing the incoming foreign policy team. As Africa faces increasing challenges to democracy, the huge negative impact of Covid-19 and the climate crisis and security threats in many places, it is not clear how much attention the continent will receive amid exploding problems at home and in other regions.

Biden said very little about Africa during the campaign. The only campaign document of substance, the Biden-Harris Agenda for The African Diaspora, focuses on issues affecting Africans living in the United States.

Biden laid out a brief policy overview in his response to the one Africa-related question posed by the Council on Foreign Relations to Democratic candidates in a survey last year: how should the United States “adjust our policies” in response to Africa’s projected population growth?

“The United States cannot afford to miss this moment to engage with African youth and to offer them a window into the American model of democracy,” Biden said in his response.Working with African partners, he went on to say, the United States should prioritize economic growth by strengthening trading relationships; empower African women because we know that educated and empowered women are key to development; start an urbanization initiative, including partnerships with U.S. cities, to help African cities plan for their growth; and demonstrate the American model of democracy and economic development.

One issue on which there is general bipartisan support is promotion of trade and investment with Africa, but the extent to which that will be prioritized remains to be seen.

Reaction to the election outcome has been largely positive from the Africa policy community in the United States and Africa, but with reservations. “It is important to note that while the Trump administration has taken its nationalistic ‘America First’ foreign policy to unprecedented levels, these trends were present in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations as well,” Adotei Akwei, deputy director for advocacy and government relations for Amnesty International, told VICE World News.

“America’s relationship with Africa is fraught, to say the least, and littered with examples of destructive and neocolonial endeavors,” wrote Leah Feiger and Zecharias Zelalem, authors of the VICE article.

“The Trump years sort of threw into stark relief the missed opportunities, according to Michelle Gavin, who served as NSC senior director for Africa and Ambassador to Botswana under Obama. Gavin, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE she expects the Biden administration “will be engaging in a respectful manner with states throughout the continent, and in a more focused manner.”

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