Remarks by U.S. Ambassador Natalie E. Brown on Investing in East African Youth at Rotaract District Luncheon
U.S. Embassy Kampala | April 23, 2021
(as prepared for delivery at Speke Munyonyo Resort and Conference Center, Kampala)
Rotary International President’s Personal Representative
District Governor, District 9211
District Rotaract Representative, District 9211
Distinguished Rotary Leaders and Partners in Service
All protocols observed
Kampala, Uganda — Good afternoon everyone. How are you all doing? I am so very honored to be with you this afternoon and I’d like to thank the leadership of Rotaract District 9211 for inviting me to join you today, and to thank all of you for the very warm welcome.
Over the course of my career, in many countries, I have had the good fortune to attend Rotary or Rotaract events, whether standing meetings or special events like this week’s district conference. In some places, I struggled with the language and couldn’t follow all of the discussions. But what was clear and what needed no translation was the commitment to the Rotaract mission of leadership, professional development, and community service. Based on the program and looking out at this room, it’s clear that mission also resonates in Tanzania and Uganda – and here today. And while I may not be a Rotarian, I share with you the same commitment, and the same underlying values.
Growing up in Nebraska, which is an agricultural state in the middle of the country, my family instilled in me the values of serving one’s country and giving back to the community. My father served in the United States military and then he served the community of Omaha, my hometown, for over 27 years as a police officer. My mother was a nurse. Dinner time discussion was what they saw on their jobs – the good and the bad followed by clear guidance to me and my sister of what to do or, more importantly, what not to do. These conversations led my sister to become a journalist, someone passionate about sharing information with the public, and these conversations inspired, in part, my career as a diplomat, which has been informed by these values. As the United States Ambassador here, it is my duty to ensure that everything the United States does in Uganda lives up to the values enshrined in the laws and constitution of the United States.
Today I want to share with you what putting these values into action means for the United States’ investments in Tanzania and Uganda; how these values inform and shape our engagement with East African youth in particular; and how this relates to our joint efforts to address the pressing challenges of the present day.
When we, the United States, speak about our activities, we often talk about numbers. As Tanzania’s largest bilateral donor, the United States has contributed over 7.5 billion dollars in assistance over the last 20 years. In Uganda today, the United States invests almost 1 billion dollars annually, including over 500 million dollars in the health sector alone. These numbers are significant, but they don’t tell the full story of what we are doing, why we are doing it, or the impact of our partnerships on ordinary people.
So let’s start with the “why”: Why does the United States invest billions of dollars in your countries? To put it simply, the United States invests in Tanzania and Uganda to help build vibrant, prosperous societies where every child, every woman, and every man has the opportunity to achieve their full potential and to pursue their dreams. We do this both because it is in our interests and because it is a reflection of American values.
It is true that growing prosperity in East Africa provides additional commercial opportunities for American companies and creates additional jobs for American workers. It is true that stable democratic countries are also more likely to be secure countries, reducing the likelihood of regional or global security threats emanating from their territory or the need for expensive, humanitarian response. And it is true that detecting, preventing, and treating emerging infectious diseases abroad helps keep Americans healthy at home and when they travel.
But national interest alone does not explain America’s foreign assistance programs. When former President Bush established the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — which you may know as PEPFAR — he did so because he saw the scope of human suffering caused by AIDS and knew that America could do something to end that suffering. When we implement programs designed to uplift underprivileged and marginalized communities, it is not because it is in America’s interests, but because we believe in the dignity of all human beings. So yes, foreign assistance is in America’s interests, but it is most effective when it reflects shared core values. Values like leadership, professional development, and community service.
Now let’s talk about the “how”: How does the United States invest in Uganda and Tanzania? First, we know the greatest resource that any country possesses is its people; that’s why the United States invests not in flashy buildings but rather in building human capital.
In Tanzania and Uganda today, 80 percent of the population is under the age of 35. So, when we speak about U.S. investments, let’s be clear: We are really talking about U.S. investments in Ugandan and Tanzanian youth.
We know that people cannot achieve their potential if they are sick, so the United States invests in maternal and child health and nutrition programs; in efforts to combat infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB and, more recently COVID-19; and in the capacity of health workers and medical researchers.
We also know that people cannot achieve their full potential without education. Like other parents around the world, my mom and dad drilled into me and my sister that education is the key to success. No one can take it away from you. As Ambassador, I am proud to say the United States government shares this perspective and is actively engaged in improving the literacy and reading skills of early grade students as the foundation for future education success. Just this morning I was at a primary school reading with young students in observation of “Drop Everything and Read Day.”
We also know that economic growth and job creation are challenges for countries around the world, and that a vibrant private sector is key to economic development. So, the United States works closely with the region’s farmers and entrepreneurs to provide them the tools they need to add value to their produce or products, and to create new jobs.
We also know that people can never be truly free to pursue their dreams if their rights are not secure and that democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry. Therefore, the United States actively supports civil society, programs to promote civic engagement, and efforts to strengthen the rule of law.
Finally, we know that electricity allows children to study at night, farmers to process their harvests, and medical clinics to operate equipment. The Power Africa initiative has helped create 2.4 million new off-grid connections in Tanzania and almost 900,000 electrical connections in Uganda.
I am proud that these U.S. investments are helping millions of Tanzanians and Ugandans live healthier lives, learn better, earn more, and participate more fully in their communities.
Because of COVID, I haven’t had the opportunity to travel around Uganda as much as I would like. But everywhere I have traveled, and every time I have met Ugandan youth, I have been impressed: You inspire me and you give me hope that together we can solve even the most daunting challenges facing society today.
This week, the challenge of climate change is particularly on my mind. As you know, yesterday the United States and countries around the world marked Earth Day. You might not be aware, however, that the first Earth Day events were organized in the United States in 1970 and brought together academics, civil society organizations, ordinary citizens, and politicians concerned about a range of issues, from industrial pollution to the loss of wilderness and the extinction of wildlife.
These events quickly galvanized support for environmental legislation and government action. By the end of 1970, former U.S. President Nixon established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Congress passed the Clean Air Act, followed two years later by the Clean Water Act. These actions have protected our environment while improving the health of millions of Americans.
Today, while local environmental challenges persist, they are compounded by the global challenge of climate change. Unfortunately, climate change denial and complacency have at times limited U.S. leadership on this issue. Today, however, President Biden has made clear that addressing climate change is a global policy priority for the United States. That’s why he announced the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on his first day in office. And that’s why yesterday he hosted 40 world leaders for a climate summit.
While this global engagement is critical, activism at the local level is no less important. The history of Earth Day in the United States demonstrates the power of a mobilized public to promote positive change and ensure government is responsive to its concerns.
Being here in East Africa, where the region’s biodiversity contributes significantly to tourism and economic growth, and where the agricultural sector provides livelihoods for a majority of citizens, it’s easy to see your national stake in this global movement.
During my short time in Uganda, I have heard again and again about the unpredictability of the rainy season and the devastation caused by drought and flooding. I have also seen the statistics: Uganda has lost 12 percent of its tree cover during the past 20 years and Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority says that if nothing is done to stop the problem, Uganda will lose all of its forest cover in 25 years. That’s a devastating thought for me, but the possible consequences for you and for your children are truly profound.
I am heartened, however, by the leadership that dynamic young people around the world have shown in demanding action and identifying solutions to combat climate change, from Greta Thunberg in Sweden to Vanessa Nakate here in Uganda. In a speech on climate change this week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the United States will “empower youth, not just because they will bear more of the consequences of climate change, but also because of the urgency, ingenuity, and leadership they’ve demonstrated in confronting this crisis.” I couldn’t agree more.
There is no limit to what a group of motivated young leaders can do, and I have witnessed that first-hand. This week I traveled in and around Murchison Falls National Park. There I saw young people volunteering as “community wildlife scouts.” The Latoro community wildlife scouts, working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, have come up with a foul-smelling organic elephant repellent to mitigate elephant-human conflict. Farmers spray the organic elephant repellent onto their crops and position it around their fields to keep the elephants out of their gardens and their crops. The United States is proud to support the scouts by providing training and equipment.
And earlier this week, I participated in the launch of a Young African Leaders Initiative—or YALI—alumni project that will plant trees in refugee communities across Uganda, spreading a message of conservation and replacing the trees cut to construct shelter and provide fuel for refugee settlements.
It is not only in the area of climate change, however, that youth have demonstrated their ingenuity and leadership and are making a difference. Individuals like yourselves are making a difference in a wide range of fields.
I think of those who rose to the challenge at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Two young innovators in Gulu—a Ugandan and an American alumna of the U.S. Fulbright exchange program—developed a prototype of a face shield made from recycled plastic through their social enterprise, Takataka Plastics. Their product quickly became in demand as doctors in Gulu reached out for help procuring personal protective equipment.
Again and again, we see that you and your peers are the ones steering us towards solutions to the challenges we face. The United States recognizes that the global challenges we face today require global cooperation, and that today’s emerging leaders must have a voice in addressing these challenges and developing innovative solutions.
The world needs vision, leadership, and motivated individuals to keep us moving forward and to address the global challenges we face. You, already leading and with unlimited potential, see the world differently than previous generations. You understand that nations are held back by cronyism and corruption. You recognize that debts taken on today will become burdens your generation will have to answer for tomorrow.
You value technology and understand how it can be harnessed in new ways to connect communities and solve problems. I saw this on my first trip outside of Kampala when I visited Mbarara. There I met with some members of the local Farmers Association. The lockdown meant they could not get their produce to market, resulting in rotting food, hunger, and economic hardship. The young founders behind ride app Ntuha proposed expanding the platform to transport not people, but produce. The farmers can transport their goods to market by calling a boda-boda, taxi, or truck. With U.S. support for this initiative, business is booming and Ntuha now facilitates affordable, convenient, and accessible transport to over 9,000 farmers and registered 459 new boda-boda riders and truck drivers in Southwest Uganda. This simple innovation by the younger generation embracing an existing technology in a new way revolutionized one of the oldest professions and is helping the farmers as well as the boda-boda drivers make a more money than before.
Your generation also values the free exchange of ideas. In the media space, we’ve supported young Ugandans with vision like Abaas Mpindi, who founded the Media Challenge Initiative, which runs training and mentoring programs for journalism students and aspiring journalists in Uganda. Last month, Media Challenge Initiative launched its “Media Hub” in Kampala — a collaborative studio workspace — to help develop the next generation of Ugandan journalists, storytellers, and leaders equipped to “create change in their communities.”
I applaud these initiatives and the work that all of you in the room are doing, reflecting your passion for service and your leadership example.
It was in this same spirit of service, professional development, and leadership that the Obama Administration created the Young African Leaders Initiative – YALI – in 2010 as the signature effort of the United States to partner with the emerging generation of African leaders. Let me see a show of hands: Do we have anyone in the room today who was a Mandela Washington Fellow, is an alum of the YALI Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi, or a member of the YALI Network?
If you are not familiar with the YALI program, I encourage you to visit yali.state.gov to learn more about the exchange programs, online courses, and opportunities for community engagement available through the YALI program.
And I hope that you will also look to the United States for opportunities and for partnership, whether through YALI or other initiatives. I further hope that you will reach out to us with your ideas and with your feedback, because true partnership is a two-way street. We know that we have just as much to gain from your knowledge and experience, if not more, as you have to gain from us.
Thank you again for allowing me to join you today, and thank you again for the inspiration that you and your peers continue to provide.