Building Democracy, Economy, and Security Through Partnership:Five Minutes with David Gilmour on the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

David_Gilmour_8x10_200_1 David Gilmour, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, to discuss the U.S.’s commitment to Africa and what the upcoming inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which will be hosted August 4-6 by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, DC, holds for the futures of both the United States and Africa.

GJIA: In 2012, the White House released a new strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa that included strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development. Of these four pillars, the Obama administration has focused primarily on the first two. Why has the administration focused on strengthening democratic institutions and spurring economic growth first and foremost?

DG: We put such an emphasis on the first two because they are strongly interrelated. In order for Africa to have sustainable development, it needs both democratic institutions and economic growth in equal measures. It’s great that Africa is more democratic now than it was a few years ago. We’ve seen elections almost everywhere in Africa, but elections are only part of the first step. Strong democratic institutions, such as independent judiciaries, independent parliaments, a vibrant civil society, and free press—all those things are really important in order for a country to grow and develop. At the same time, Africa is beginning to grow economically at a very rapid pace. In order to have sustained growth and to encourage long-term investment, particularly by American and other foreign companies, there has to be a system of rule of law in place so that companies can come and invest their money. Companies need to know that they can repatriate their profits, and that they can settle disputes when they arise. Thus, all the fundamental institutions of democracy are essential for long-term sustainable economic growth as well.

GJIA: The Obama administration is also increasing its counterterrorism efforts in Africa. Has this increased focus on peace and security in the region affected the way the U.S. government deals with development and health issues in Africa?

DG: Terrorism is a growing problem in Africa, especially in the East Africa and Sahel regions. It is a threat to the United States and other countries, but above all it is a threat to African countries. This goes along with my first point about governance. We want to build strong, democratic institutions in these countries so that they can confront problems and challenges like terrorism, and so that they can look after their own security. We also speak with African governments a lot about collective security and about organizations like the African Union that can bring countries together to confront those challenges.

David Gilmour speaks with African exchange visitors during an event hosted in June by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State (© Ralph Blessing)

GJIA: What efforts, either internal or external, have helped drive sustainable development in Africa? In what areas—political, economic, or social—are African nations still most in need of assistance or infrastructure?

DG: There are a lot of needs across the board. What we try to emphasize in our development programs is policy reform. One of our programs in particular, the Millennium Challenge, has been quite successful. The idea there is we offer a large package of assistance to a country, but only if the country meets a certain baseline of measures in areas such as just and democratic governance, economic freedom, and investing in the people of the country. We look at studies that independent organizations, such as Freedom House, conduct that rank these countries according to certain standards. If a country is ranked at a certain level on the performance scale, then we will grant them a large package of assistance for a transformative economic development project or a project that is for the social good of the country. This is really important because it gives the African countries an incentive to raise their own game and their own performance in order to receive that assistance. It’s a win-win: it’s a win for us in encouraging better performance and it’s certainly a win for those countries.

GJIA: This year's inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is aimed at opening a new chapter in U.S.-Africa relations. What is President Obama hoping to achieve through this conference? 

DG: The summit is part of an effort stemming from President Obama’s trip to Africa last summer, where he announced the summit. The goal is to deepen our partnership with Africa, which President Obama certainly began working towards on that trip, and to share with the African leaders our four pillars and priorities for Africa, which are very high priorities for them as well.

GJIA: How does President Obama plan on engaging the large number of African heads of state to ensure that each leader’s voice is heard?

DG: The president will spend a significant amount of time with the leaders at the summit. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama will also host a dinner at the White House for the leaders and their delegations. August 6 will be a full day with the leaders here at the State Department in several sessions in a very interactive format, so the President will be spending a significant amount of time with the leaders when they come.

GJIA: What do you anticipate will be the greatest takeaway from the summit for both Africa and for the United States?

DG: I think it’s deepening the partnerships with the leaders of Africa, looking at those areas in which our priorities overlap, and seeing how we can work together to build democracy, encourage economic growth, and foster security on the continent. Our relationship with Africa is entering a new era. We talk very much about partnership with Africa, as opposed to an older model where we had a very much more of a donor-dependent partnership. It’s the idea of partnership and working together with the Africans on the problems and challenges for the future. We are also looking into how we can invest in leadership for tomorrow.

GJIA: What do you think has spurred this change in how the United States perceives Africa? Has the United States’ commitment to Africa changed in any way?

DG: We’ve been engaged with Africa for over fifty years. The United States has been a strong partner with the continent since African countries achieved their independence. The United States was a major advocate of decolonization. We’ve been there with Africa all along. Our commitment hasn’t changed—it’s always been there. What has changed is that we’ve moved more towards a partnership model. It’s also the recognition that Africa is an emerging area of the world. Africa has tremendous potential, and its populations and economies are growing very quickly. All this is just our recognition of Africa’s rising role in the world as an emerging region.


David Gilmour is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Previously, he served as the Director of Public Diplomacy for Bureau of African Affairs, and as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Malawi and Panama. His other overseas assignments include South Africa, Cameroon, Senegal, Costa Rica, Australia, and Switzerland.

Mr. Gilmour was interviewed by Elaine Li on 18 July 2014 in Washington, DC.