Changing discourse

US think tanks: Zainab Usman, the newcomer

in depth

This article is part of the dossier:

Africa’s voice in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on April 20, 2022 15:51

Zainab Usman, Director of Carnegie Africa Program
Zainab Usman, Director of Carnegie Africa Program

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.

This is part 4 of a 7-part series

  • Title: Director (since February 2021)
  • Programme inception: February 2021
  • Country of origin: Nigeria
  • African languages: Hausa

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”.

We’re trying to change the discourse away from Africa as a place with problems and challenges and poverty and disease…

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.

“One thing I always say in meetings is, we talk about supporting civil society and engaging civil society,” Usman says. “But [what about] small business associations, market associations in Africa, which tend to have millions of members in every country? They mobilise people around elections, they wield a lot of political influence.”

“There are people there on the ground that know better than I do,” she says. “[I’m] trying to make sure that people like that are included in conversations and decisions (and challenging) people here to engage with other groups, other constituencies, other communities in Africa.”

Usman says the emergence of so many new African voices in Washington presents both opportunities and challenges as she and her colleagues figure out their role as conduits for connecting Africa and the US.

“We sit at this very interesting intersection where, of course, we have African origins. We have relationships and in fact, we leverage those relationships to make things happen here, but at the same time, we’re also not spokespersons for those countries,” she says.

“This is also new for everyone. For people like me, for those governments over there, but also for the policymakers here. Everyone is kind of trying to navigate this new terrain, and the fact that suddenly you have a new set of actors engaging here.”

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