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US: 10 things to know about British Robinson, the new head of Prosper Africa

By Julian Pecquet, in Gaborone, Botswana

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Posted on July 12, 2023 12:45

 © British Robinson, the new head of US program Prosper Africa (Photo: supplied)
British Robinson, the new head of US program Prosper Africa (Photo: supplied)

The Joe Biden administration took another step towards deepening commercial relations with Africa on 12 July by choosing social impact champion British Robinson as the permanent head of the multi-agency effort to promote two-way trade and investment. 

Robinson is Biden’s first political appointee to take over as coordinator of Prosper Africa. Her nomination was announced by Judd Devermont, the senior direct for African Affairs at the White House.

Robinson is a well-known social activist working at the intersection of the government, corporate and nonprofit worlds in Washington. She is tasked with “work[ing] with businesses, investors, and government leaders to forge a true 21st-century partnership that creates jobs, diversifies global supply chains, and tackles challenges like climate change and energy transition,” according to a bio from the US government.

Launched at the 2019 summit in Mozambique in 2019, the flagship Africa initiative of the Donald Trump administration has been without a dedicated leader since Trump’s pick, Adam Boehler, stepped down.

The initiative, which mobilises 17 US agencies and departments to help identify and facilitate trade and investment opportunities, has been credited with helping close 1,236 deals across 49 African countries for an estimated total value of $70.8bn since 2019.

Here are 10 things to know about the woman tasked with spearheading US commercial engagement with Africa:

1. Life of service

Rather than a career in government or any specific area of expertise, Robinson stands out for her decades of leadership across a broad swath of social fields: from global health to education, to women’s issues. For the past five years she has been the president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, the late first lady’s public charity dedicated to expanding access to education for the 130 million low-literate US adults.

“Robinson is a visionary leader and social impact champion, with decades of experience leveraging corporate engagement to spearhead initiatives in international and domestic health, education, corporate social responsibility, government relations, advocacy and policy,” the Biden administration said in a statement touting her nomination.

2. Recognised talent

Throughout her three-decade career, Robinson has impressed public and private sector leaders alike with her ability to unite disparate stakeholders behind a shared mission – an invaluable skill for someone tasked with helming Prosper Africa.

Last year she made Forbes magazine’s 50 Over 50 list of women recognised for their impact alongside the likes of US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown-Jackson, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and tennis champion Billie Jean King. The list celebrates “changemakers leaving the world a little better than they found it”.

3. God’s work

Now in her mid-50s, Robinson credits a religious calling three decades ago for setting the course of her professional life. After working for a couple of years in retail banking with Citibank straight after graduating from college, she quit to become a social worker with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a lay Catholic charity in Mobile, Alabama.

Serving the people of God

Working with “some of the poorest of the poor” in the US “changed [her] life” by realising that her calling was “serving the people of God”, Robinson told Catholic publisher America Media in a 2019 interview. She would go on to work for more than a decade at the US Jesuit Conference (now the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States) in Washington, DC, rising to the position of national director of the Office of Social and International Ministries.

4. Focus on Africa

Robinson became familiar with Africa when she joined the State Department in 2006 to work with President George W. Bush’s fledgling US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history.

As PEPFAR’s deputy coordinator and director of private-sector engagement for six years, she developed and managed the programme’s public-private partnerships and maintained relationships with the private sector and US government agencies. These include the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (now the US International Development Finance Corporation) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – all three of which are partner agencies of Prosper Africa.

5. Women’s issues

While at the State Department, Robinson also briefly ran the Office of Global Women’s Issues under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who helped revitalise the initiative by tapping its first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, Melanne Verveer. As the office’s director in 2010-2011, Robinson developed and managed alliances including the Africa-focused Nduna Foundation and the MAC AIDS small grants programme in South Africa.

6. Nonprofit leader

From the State Department, she went on to become a leader in the women’s nonprofit sector. In 2012-2013 she served as vice president for international programmes and strategies at Susan G. Komen for the Cure, where she developed the first global strategy for the breast cancer advocacy charity.

The following year she joined Women for Women International as its Senior Vice President for Innovation and Strategic Initiatives. The 30-year-old nonprofit humanitarian organisation supports female survivors of war and conflict around the world, including in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and the DRC.

7. Entrepreneur

In addition to her leadership and organisation skills, Robinson has been lauded by the Biden administration as a “true innovator”. She is the founding CEO of the Women’s Heart Alliance, a collaboration between two celebrity philanthropists – singer Barbra Streisand and dealmaker Ronald O. Perelman – and the eponymous heart centers they underwrite at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles and the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

8. Racial justice

Much of Robinson’s work in public health has benefitted Africans and black Americans. Last year she joined the newly formed Racial Equity Alliance, a coalition aimed explicitly at “creating more equitable solutions to dismantle institutional and systemic structures of racial inequities in the US”. The alliance is the brainchild of the X PRIZE Foundation, a California non-profit that looks to harness technological development to benefit humanity.

9. Community volunteer

In addition to her high-profile jobs, Robinson has long been a prolific volunteer at multiple organisations benefitting health, social justice and the arts. In addition to her membership on the X PRIZE Racial Equity Alliance Brain Trust, she serves as a senior adviser for the Concordia social impact partnership; on the boards of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, and Leadership Roundtable; on the advisory council of the Inter-American Foundation; and on the advisory boards of Arlington Partners International and Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens.

10. Washington education

Robinson is a graduate of two prestigious private universities in the nation’s capital. She holds a bachelor’s degree in public policy and business administration from George Washington University and a postgraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University, a Baltimore-based school whose master’s degree in government is taught in Washington.

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