Melania Trump is keen to make a difference in the lives of children around the world and noted as much during a speech at the 73rd U.N. General Assembly. In her remarks, she made direct mention of the good work being led by fellow first ladies H.E. Rebecca Akufo-Addo, H.E. Margaret Kenyatta and H.E. Gertrude Mutharika.
First ladies, community activists and changemakers of all ages are moving the needle on important issues at local, national and regional levels. This work cannot be overlooked as Mrs. Trump travels to Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Egypt.
Mrs. Trump cited a desire to replicate U.S. programs “that are doing great things for children.” But to make a lasting difference, she should also consider the success that is already happening in Africa. Though the world often narrows in on the obstacles, opportunity and optimism are in abundant supply.
For example, Vivian Onano of Kenya, who fought for her right to an education, works to improve outcomes for women and young people across the continent. A youth representative for UNESCO’s Global Youth Monitoring Report among numerous other affiliations, Vivian is dedicated to creating a more inclusive future.
Ghana’s Fred Swaniker was concerned by the lack of leadership training and quality education available to young Africans. While at graduate school, he envisioned “a world-class academic institution where the most outstanding young students can develop into leaders who are passionate about the continent and eager to make an impact.” Joining forces with other like-minded individuals, the African Leadership Academy was born. This year marks ALA’s 10th anniversary.
Amid widespread sexual harassment in Egypt, Reem Fawzi launched Pink Taxi to ensure girls and women had access to safe and reliable transportation, while at the same time providing jobs for women in a male dominated industry.
These are three stories, and there are countless others that underscore the leadership, innovation and hope occurring across the continent.
As H.E. Monica Geingos, first lady of Namibia stressed in a 2017 interview:
“The Africa that you used to read about, and the stereotypes we’ve become associated with, is different from the Africa that we know. The Africa that we know is still not perfect. The Africa we know still makes itself guilty of certain stereotypes. But the Africa that we know is also developing at a much faster rate than it ever has. There is stronger leadership. And the Africa that we currently know has a youth population that is keeping leadership accountable.”
Moreover, though there are some parallels in the challenges facing children and young people in the United States, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Egypt, there are also notable differences. And this is an important distinction.
Africa is home to the largest youth population in the world. By 2030, the under-18 population across the continent is expected to grow to 750 million. And by 2050, 40 percent of the world’s population under the age of 18 will live in Africa.
One of the greatest resources first ladies have at their disposal is the ability to build bridges between diverse stakeholders. This includes their engagement with peers and predecessors. As we see across the work of the George W. Bush Institute’s First Ladies Initiative, sharing best practices and experiences is an important lifeline for first ladies. Communication and outreach with contemporaries provide an unparalleled chance to learn from those who are in similar positions of influence.
First lady Gertrude Mutharika of Malawi has focused on health and hygiene and the empowerment of adolescent girls. Ghana’s first lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo is improving child health and access to education. In Kenya, first lady Margaret Kenyatta launched Beyond Zero to address maternal and infant mortality and inadequate access to health services. And this year, the Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA) and the African Union launched the Free to Shine campaign, a continent-wide effort that aims to “reinforce the political commitment of African nations to end childhood AIDS and keep mothers healthy.”
This perspective is important. Context and collaboration matter. To be successful in “combating … the issues that children face today,” consideration of local needs and leadership are vital to Mrs. Trump’s goal of sharing Be Best abroad. From Africa to North America, the most influential first spouses are those who keep this fact front of mind.