Fund sharing and fragility in spotlight at Africa policy congressional hearing

Policemen walk near the Independent National Electoral Commission headquarters in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: REUTERS / Baz Ratner

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee held a wide-ranging hearing Thursday focused on how the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense can coordinate on Africa policy.

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“One of our biggest policy challenges in sub-Saharan Africa is figuring out how to help stabilize fragile states and reduce violence. Over the past 20 years, we’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, we know that it requires strategic vision, it takes adequate long term funding, and it takes coordination across the United States government,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York and the chairman of the committee.  

The government officials testifying —Tibor Nagy Jr., assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department, Michelle Lenihan, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs, and Ramsey Day, senior deputy assistant administrator of USAID’s Africa Bureau — said that they meet regularly to coordinate on a number of issues.

Day pointed to recent coordination between USAID and the Department of Defense in response to Cyclone Idai in Southern Africa, where Africa Command flew more than 70 flights to deliver aid to affected communities.

Officials at the hearing touched on Ebola, instability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Cameroon, and discussed opportunity in Ethiopia and how agencies might best work together.

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With the Global Fragility Act set to get a vote in the House of Representatives next week, the committee’s ranking member and a co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mike McCaul, a Republican from Texas, raised the issue of the legislation with the witnesses and asked them how they think the legislation would work in action.

“From our point of view we are absolutely delighted with the cooperation that we have between the three of us, we work very closely together, we meet constantly discussing policies. Of course, at times we see things differently, but overall we always have the same goal,” Nagy said.

He pointed to the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a multiyear U.S. government program aimed at defeating terrorist organizations, which will meet next week, as an example of that cooperation. There are so many players involved and the problems in the region are so complex that the U.S. needs a single voice to fight terrorism and help countries develop, Nagy said.

USAID has proven that its programs can be effective, but it needs access to communities to implement them. Coordinating with other agencies “gives us the space to operate,” Day said.

Lenihan said fragility is a serious concern and that “any attempts to address underlying issues and causes certainly will have spillover effects on improving security and reducing the need for it.”

Sharing funds

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 includes a provision that empowers the Secretary of Defense to transfer up to $75 million to USAID or the State Department for conflict mitigation, good governance, or peace-building programs that address the root causes of violence and instability. Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked Lenihan whether the Department of Defense had ever used that authority.

While the Department of Defense appreciates the greater flexibility the provision allows and has explored possibilities, it does not have any programs associated with that provision, Lenihan said. The department has considered using it for a program in the Sahel, but there are legal complications that remain unresolved: “We are intent on creating a program in order to execute that authority,” she said.

Phillips responded that Congress had allocated the money for a reason and would “like to see it deployed.”

Supporting American business

A common refrain from the administration officials testifying was that the private sector, and especially the engagement of U.S. businesses, was critical to development. Nagy stressed that American businesses are telling him they want to work in Africa, and he’s telling African leaders to improve business environments so they can. Day said USAID is working to implement its new private sector policy and that Prosper Africa is an “umbrella effort to support American businesses” that will help some of the agency’s efforts get to scale.

When asked, both Nagy and Day said the new Development Finance Corporation is an important tool for engaging the private sector and will be very important in efforts to engage with Africa.

Rep. Joaquin Castro questioned the focus on supporting American businesses and asked the officials testifying what they are doing to help African businesses build their own capacity.

USAID launches new private sector engagement policy

In a policy released late last year, USAID said it is committing to transforming the way it works to focus more on the private sector and finding more market-based approaches to development challenges.

USAID is focusing on helping local private sector actors prepare to export goods and take advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Day said. Nagy added that the U.S. is also supporting the continental free trade agreement and would like to establish free trade agreements with sub-Saharan African countries.

Russian influence

Several members of Congress raised the issue of the growing risk of Russian disinformation campaigns in African countries and asked what was being done to push back against Russia’s influence.

Day said the U.S. government is working with African partners to ensure there are awareness and risks about disinformation. Nagy added that embassies are ramping up communications to counter Russia’s messages, as well as tapping Young African Leaders Initiative members to help fight misinformation.

China competition

The issue of competition with China permeated many of the questions and responses, with McCaul saying that it seemed that U.S. businesses aren’t competing and that the U.S. is absent.

“Up to now maybe not,” Nagy said, “but oh my gosh we are getting ready to fire back at full force.”

“We’re weaponizing our embassies” to push back against China and to support U.S. businesses, he said. Embassies have set up “deal teams” to work with U.S. companies and with country governments to help them improve the business environment and develop specific country strategies.

Ebola and security

Rep. Ami Bera, a Democrat from California, said it is difficult for U.S. health workers who are responding to the Ebola epidemic to address the crisis without being at the epicenter. While he doesn’t want people in harm’s way, he asked what more the government can do to help them access the area and prevent the crisis from getting out of control.

The U.S. is deeply concerned about the Ebola epidemic because it is not contained and the political and development layers of the pandemic create a complex situation, Day said. The U.S. is working on a “reset plan” because of the increase in deaths and infections in the last month, he said.

Day added that USAID has been able to get staff into the hotspots for short-term visits to do assessments, but that the “environment is not conducive to long-term” U.S. presence.

Other organizations the U.S. partners with, including NGOs and the World Health Organization, have a different risk tolerance and are active in those areas, Nagy said.

Democratic Republic of the Congo 

Rep. Eliot Engel questioned the U.S. decision to recognize Félix Tshisekedi as the president of DRC after “fraudulent election results” and asked what happens when the U.S. refuses to stand up for democracy.

Nagy said DRC is in a better position than it was six months ago and that Tshisekedi has said he wants to improve governance and fight corruption. He also knows that he will need to do so and create a level playing field in order to attract U.S. business, Nagy added.


There were several questions about U.S. aid and cooperation with Ethiopia, and Nagy, who previously served as ambassador to the country, fielded most of those questions. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is making dramatic reforms and the U.S. is working to support his efforts to build institutions and move the country forward, Nagy said.

This week, the State Department hosted the Ethiopia Partnerships Forum, and it has sent experts to work with Ethiopian ministries, but Nagy acknowledged that it is a challenge because the country and Abiy have many priorities and the U.S. cannot fill all the gaps.

“What he needs more than anything else, and quickly, is jobs,” Nagy said, adding that U.S. businesses can play a key role.


Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has expressed interest in wanting to engage with the U.S. and attract U.S. business, but he has done little more than talk when it comes to meeting U.S. requirements for engagement, Nagy said. Zimbabwe has cracked down on human rights and there are two pieces of legislation — one preventing freedom of assembly and the other preventing freedom of expression — that need to be removed before the US. will trade with the country, he said.

“We won’t engage until we see positive action,” Nagy said.


The U.S. will put everything on the table to work to bring the crisis in Cameroon to an end because the conflict between separatists and the government threatens to create another Boko Haram situation, Nagy said. The U.S. views the integrity of Cameroon and he doesn’t believe that a permanent separation is a possibility, he said.


The U.S. government is concerned about the political environment in Tanzania — both its rhetoric on human rights and the impacts on business in the country, Day said. The U.S. continues to work in the country but has shifted its programming away from supporting the government and is now focused on civil society and independent media, he said. Nagy added that the embassy is engaged with local organizations that promote democracy and said the situation in Tanzania is especially sad because it was once an example of democracy.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.