US think tanks: Rama Yade, the politician

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s voice in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 11:36, updated on Tuesday, 13 September 2022 16:47

France's Rama Yade in Paris, November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
France's Rama Yade in Paris, November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Over at the Atlantic Council, Senegalese-French politician Rama Yade draws on her global culture and senior government experience to help the think tank’s Africa Center stand out.

This is part 3 of a 7-part series

  • Think tank: Atlantic Council, Africa Center
  • Title: Senior director (since March 2021)
  • Programme inception: 2009
  • Country of origin: Senegal/France
  • African languages: Wolof

Yade’s father, Djibril Yade, was a special assistant to Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and moved the family to France when he was named to the Senegalese embassy.

At the age of 30, Rama Yade was appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Human Rights under right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, and later Secretary of State for Sports and ambassador to UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Yade moved to the US in 2007 and took over the Africa programme in March 2021. Since then she’s hosted top officials from both the United States and Africa, including US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and senior White House director for Africa Dana Banks but also Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi after she emerged as a top critic of the 25 October 2021 coup.

‘I believe in an African soft power’

“For African leaders, it’s important that they see that they can be connected to the US administration,” she says. “I can be helpful in raising their voices in Washington since it is one of the missions I have for the Center.”

One way she’s doing that is by adding a new focus on culture and creative industries as well as strengthening Africa’s voice in multilateral organisations, notably at the UN Security Council. And just this month the Center launched an Inclusive African Climate Working Group to help develop an African vision for a just energy transition.

“I believe in an African soft power,” Yade says. “I think that through fashion, movies, sports, music, arts, you can promote an African leadership on the international stage and develop an economic market on a continent that has so many needs in terms of job creation.”

The new generation of diaspora

She says the new generation of diaspora think tank leaders share a common experience shaped by lives spent navigating between Africa, Europe and the US.

“I think the others would also say that they are also global citizens,” she says. “That is our common point, I think. We are not 100% Africans. It’s important to have a large point of view.”

“(Credit rating) agencies … don’t appreciate truly the African economies, they don’t have the real tools to measure their performances,” she says. “And that explains why the level of debt to the interest is so high when it comes to Africa.”

That broad experience, she says, helps bring into focus the myriad of ways in which Africa is misunderstood and unfairly treated. She argues that high-interest payments on African debt compared to more indebted European nations are a prime example.

“(Credit rating) agencies … don’t appreciate truly the African economies, they don’t have the real tools to measure their performances,” she says. “And that explains why the level of debt to the interest is so high when it comes to Africa.”

‘Africa as a continent’

Another key challenge for policymakers is to see “Africa as a continent,” she says, beyond the bilateral relationships that Washington often prioritises.

Otherwise, the US risks missing key long-term trends, notably Africa’s rising demographic power and its emergence as a key innovator and consumer of digital technology. “It’s in Africa where I learned to pay with my mobile phone,” Yade points out. “Not in Paris. Not in Washington, DC.”

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