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Americans Stand Abroad

Mar 28, 2018 10:16AM ● By Chris Schirm

The sweat had long since soaked through my shirt and was now leaking through my suit.  Nearly 1,000 people lined the dusty sand lot in front of the cultural center.  My team and I had waited for more than two hours in the African sun’s 100-degree heat. 

The speakers crackled to life and the program’s director stepped to the middle of the field, “I have to thank the U.S. Embassy for their daily support for peace, integration, and their aid to the development of our country.”   Men, women, small children - a huge and expectant crowd all looked at me.

As his words reverberated through the scratchy speakers, I thought back to my very first day on stage at Wayzata High School.  I remembered feeling that nervous excitement of hoping beyond hope that I would not forget my lines or the steps of the musical number.  I remember the rush of emotions I felt when the crowd stood, applauding at the closing number.

Shortly after his final words, over 20 troops of kids aged four to 15 danced, shouted, and sang their way through the dust; all in the name of peace and cultural preservation.  As the groups streamed by, I stood to greet them while clapping along to the rhythm.  Even the local community leaders in attendance rose and clapped along to the frenzied drumbeats and whistles emanating from each group. 

I stood until the last of the dancers had whirled by because I represented America.  I stood because I wanted to show respect to the months of work these kids had put into preparing for this performance.  I stood because diplomacy is not a spectator sport.

My presence that day in the heat of the African sun in 2016 was in the Muslim -majority city of Djougou in the small West-African nation of Benin. We were there to honor the work that a local organization had completed thanks to a small grant from the U.S. State Department’s Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP).  The grant funded teaching over 400 kids from 30 villages their tribal customs through dance – helping to pass the baton of cultural memory from one generation to the next.  The goal of the AFCP is to help preserve culture and historical landmarks throughout the world in recognition of the fact that cultural preservation strengthens societies and contributes to peace and tolerance.

It is natural that the question for you, the reader, is: so what?  Why are our taxpayer dollars going to help fund a cultural program in the far reaches of Africa?  The answer is to help create a world that can meet the challenges of not only today, but also those of 2100.

The United States’ focus in Africa is three-fold.  First, we focus on short- and long-term economic growth and trade opportunities that benefit both Americans and Africans.  By 2050, Africa is projected to have more than 1.38 billion people.  Current manufacturing output is estimated to double from the current $500 billion to over $1 trillion.  That type of growth is not an opportunity that we can afford to miss.  As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted at a ministerial meeting with 37 African leaders in November 2017 in Washington, DC, “Trade and investment between the United States and African countries is growing.” U.S exports to Sub-Saharan Africa grew from $17 billion in 2010 to more than $25 billion in 2014.  In 2017, U.S. direct investment in Africa grew to more than $57.5 billion - the highest level to date.

However, more importantly, by 2050, 25% of the world’s labor force is projected to be African, of which over 70% will be under the age of 30.  We must ask ourselves if there will be enough jobs and economic development to be able to provide for this population bulge.  This becomes not only an economic issue, but also a security and developmental issue affecting both the United States and Africa.  State Department programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative, the African Growth and Opportunities Act, and the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program are all designed to help young African leaders in the business, civil society, and public administration sectors generate enough jobs and businesses for the next generation of Africans. 

Our second focus in Africa is the promotion of democracy and governance.  And here Africa has made significant progress.  Acting Assistant Secretary of African Affairs Donald Yamamoto, the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for African Affairs, recently said at George Washington University, “In 1990 you had only three democracies in Africa, now you have 24.” 

Our third priority in Africa is peace and security.  Not only is the Continent now more democratic, it is also safer than it was in decades prior.  According to the World Health Organization, there was a 95% decline in African conflict deaths from 2000 to 2012.  Africa remains afflicted by more conflict than many other parts of the world and the resulting suffering is tragic.  Nevertheless, a greater proportion of Africans live free of war today than in the any other time in the post-independence period.  However, conflict, both real and threatened, is still real. Everyday throughout Africa, State Department employees work with our colleagues from the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, USAID, and countless other U.S. government agencies to support African nations to prevent, mitigate, and recover from conflict. This is not just unilateral support; we work closely with our African partners and the international community to offer support and training specific to the needs of each African country.  Currently, 65% of all United Nations’ peacekeeping operations are in Africa.  Seventy percent of the soldiers in these operations are Africans themselves.  These are African soldiers helping to make African countries safer.  The work of our international partners and the countries themselves has made Africa safer and more democratic now than it ever has been in the past

Tomorrow morning thousands of American diplomats, soldiers, police officers, public health specialists, teachers and development workers in Africa will wake up and head to work.  They will work with their local partners, governments, and businesses to make Africa and the United States more prosperous, safe, and democratic and to help Africans find African solutions to the challenges they face.  The question as to what is the return on our investment in all of these areas is a fair question: we know that an essential part of our work is to ensure that we are spending tax dollars to the maximum benefit of the American people.  

Whether my presence in the heat of the African sun that day will directly lead to more jobs and a healthier and safer Minnesota remains to be seen.  But, I do know that for long after I left that sun-scorched sand lot, the kids and parents involved in the program will remember – with thanks - that America stood and danced with them.   


Chris Schirm is a Press Officer for the Africa Bureau of the State Department.  Since joining the Department in 2011, he has served in Vietnam and Benin.  Prior to joining the State Department, Chris was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan.  He graduated from Wayzata High School in 1999 and speaks Spanish, Turkmen, Russian, Vietnamese, and French.  

Lead Bureau:  AF

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