Almost every recent U.S. President has inaugurated a signature program to support Africa and Africans. The First Lady's upcoming visit to Africa this October is an excellent opportunity for President Trump to establish his own.
President Kennedy established the Peace Corps, which continues today with programs in Africa supporting development at the village level. President Nixon enacted the “Basic Human Needs” agenda, bringing schools, maternal and child health, and small farmer projects directly to rural Africans. President George H.W. Bush instituted programs to support democracy and good governance in Africa through the National Endowment for Democracy.
President Clinton signed the law establishing the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), providing duty-free US entry for most items produced in Africa. President George W. Bush established PEPFAR, the health program which has saved tens of millions of lives and greatly reduced the prevalence of HIV/AIDS across the continent. And President Obama started Power Africa, a program accelerating the spread of electric power to African homes, and the Feed the Future initiative to improve food security.
Mrs. Trump has expressed a special interest in the health and welfare of children, both in the United States and abroad. I recommend that, during her upcoming visit to Africa, the First Lady explore the possibility of establishing a special project to promote education for African girls. It could be called “The Melania and Donald Trump Project for Girls' Education in Africa.”
Why focus on education for girls, as opposed to education for African children generally?
Unlike in the United States, in virtually every African country public education is not free. Tuition goes towards teacher pay and school buildings, which local governments cannot afford on their own. This poses a significant financial burden for African families, especially since the average family has between five and eight children. Thus, not every child in a typical African household can expect to receive an education through the end of secondary school; parents have to select which children will be educated, and traditionally, boys get priority. As a result, a large proportion of African girls remain undereducated.
The great need for educated African women is matched by their desire to learn. During my visits to rural areas as an American diplomat, I saw many literacy programs filled with African women, babies on their backs, hungry to learn how to read and write. Even in facing the day-to-day challenges of underprivileged African life, these women and girls are determined to build their knowledge and skills. Their resolve to work towards improvement no matter the circumstances is a quite American attitude indeed, and one which should inspire our full support.
Educational opportunity for women benefits African countries from the community to the national level. That educated women have fewer and healthier children is oft-cited, but the benefits for prosperity are more sophisticated. These women will be crucial if African economies are to grow and evolve while reducing their reliance on oil and commodities.
U.S. relations with Africa would also benefit. The Trump administration has been criticized for minimizing the role of "soft power" in its foreign policy. Supporting a generation of women and girls with an education will expand American influence across the continent in a lasting way.
With this program, the Trump administration has an opportunity to demonstrate the resonant power of American leadership on education, as George W. Bush did in health policy with the hugely consequential PEPFAR initiative. I am sure that Congress will not hesitate to provide long term funding for such a unique American project that will have a profound positive impact for Africa.