In April 2022, I was featured in The Africa Report’s special report on “African Voices in Washington D.C.” The report is a seven-part series that includes a background piece, entitled “Meet the Africans running programmes at influential U.S. think tanks” that explains how the D.C. think tank landscape is changing with the appointment of people of African origin to head the Africa programs of prominent think tanks. The series also includes an individual profile of six directors of the Africa programs at these organizations. I am one of the six directors who was featured.
The background piece is available here, with excerpts below.
In Washington DC, a city that takes pride in wonkish debates, a group of experts meeting up for drinks to discuss African politics may seem like nothing out of the ordinary.
The make-up of this recent gathering, however, was history making: In a field long dominated by older white men, here was a new generation of African-born leaders who are rethinking African development and US engagement with the continent at the country’s leading think tanks.
My profile is available here, with excerpts below.
Zainab Usman is emblematic of the new generation of African scholars making a name for themselves in Washington.Think tank: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Africa Programme.
Born in Nigeria and educated in England with an Oxford doctorate at the intersection of economics and politics, Usman joined Carnegie from the World Bank last year when America’s oldest international affairs think tank (founded in 1910) decided to remedy what she calls its “very conspicuous” coverage gap.
“It was clear that an Africa programme should be created, given the African continent itself was and still is changing,” says Usman. Africa “has become a very interesting place, on its own merits, but also an interesting place attracting the attention of various powerful countries around the world: from China to European countries, to Turkey, to the Gulf Arab countries”.
Rather than the traditional Washington focus on security and humanitarian concerns, Usman says her programme is more interested in socio-economic issues, including climate change, the energy transition, digital technologies, trade and investment, and how all of these intersect with politics.
“We’re trying to change the discourse away from Africa as a place with problems and challenges and poverty and disease that just needs to be managed and contained in terms of aid and support,” she says. “We try to understand their perspectives and their interests, and try to ensure that policymaking here generally reflects those perspectives and interests.”
Hailing from Africa or at least having strong familial ties to the continent “helps bring a very different perspective”, she says, most notably when it comes to seeing opportunities that foreigners – including well-meaning westerners – often miss. This includes challenging policymakers and other stakeholders to engage with diverse African actors beyond Western NGOs and the high-profile elites who usually make the rounds in Washington.