Remarks by Ambassador Cretz

Young African Leadership Initiative

Mandela Washington Fellowship West Africa Regional Conference

Honorable Deputy Minister of Education,

West Africa YALI Advisory Board members,

Washington Mandela Fellows, Friends in the media,

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to welcome you to the first Young African Leadership Initiative / Mandela Washington Fellowship Conference for West Africa.  I am truly impressed by the number of fellows who have come for this event and by the quality of participants coming from such diverse sectors: government, the private sector and non-governmental organizations. This shows the great importance we all attach to the YALI program.

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to IREX for their diligence in organizing this conference and for all of their work in support of the YALI program.

I also want to express gratitude to the West Africa YALI Advisory Board members for your time and dedication to make this conference an outstanding success. We all recognize that such positions require sacrifices, and we are grateful for your commitment to serving the YALI program and the other Fellows.

Dear West Africa Mandela Washington Fellows:

Although your Fellowships have ended, I’m here to advise that the U.S. Government will continue to support events such as this to bring you together for a number of reasons.  We want to foster your continued networking, to promote opportunities for your ongoing professional development, to encourage your continued involvement in community services, and finally, to enable you to remind one another of the crucial role you committed yourselves to through the YALI program—the role of change agents and leaders.

In fact, you and your predecessors have been so successful, that as Fellow Dr. Laud Boateng recently tweeted, You “have cousins.”  Just last month in Jamaica, President Obama launched the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative for emerging entrepreneurs and civil society activists. Six months ago the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative was launched to focus on entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, environment and natural resources management, and civic engagement.  I believe what our social media team would say is, “You are trending.”

The common thread you’ll find with all these youth initiatives is the recognition of the importance of entrepreneurship.  We recognize that entrepreneurs and small business owners make up the backbone of free, open market economies.  This fact is true in my country just as it is in each of yours.  We have a common goal with your countries in that we want strong trade partners.  You see U.S. government enthusiasm about entrepreneurship at all levels.  You may have noted the recent announcement that President Obama’s upcoming travel to Kenya to attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit this Summer.

We recognize, however, that it takes civil society, academia, and the private sector working together to create the enabling environment that young entrepreneurs need.  We are very appreciative for partners, like the Tony Elumelu Foundation and their initiative to identify and help grow start-ups over the next decade. We are grateful that they are with us today.

This conference is an opportunity for you to connect with your peers, other leaders and experts, to listen to stories about their successes and their failures, and to discover what has helped them to learn and move forward.

This conference is also an opportunity to engage with each other and join efforts to achieve the vision of the YALI program—a vision that rests on the belief that young African leaders can create value and positive change through their talents, creativity and insights, not just for themselves, but for their communities and for the rest of the world.

And this conference is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to inspire others with your dedication and enthusiasm; for you to exemplify, in your own unique ways, the passion and excitement that YALI Mandela Fellows have for the future.

In designing your own agenda, you have decided to address very relevant and timely issues, such as the role of women in development, sustainable development in West Africa, good governance and security, energy, Ebola.  These are not easy issues.  But, leaders are people who refuse to give up in the face of challenges or obstacles that would prevent others from achieving what they know their communities need, or what will help their communities to improve.

Together you can translate the lessons you will learn at this conference into bold priorities and targeted actions. You, as young African leaders, will first and foremost need to define a forward looking work program that will embody YALI’s three broad fields of action: leadership, change making and community engagement.

Two West Africa Regional Leadership Centers will soon be open, one in Accra, the other in Dakar.  The U.S. Government will support them, together with local and international private sector and civil society partners.  The centers will provide top class leadership training that will promote mutual understanding and the pooling of best practices from all development fields.  In so doing, the centers aim to create in every young West African a sense of belonging to the regional community, while also facilitating the scaling-up of small local initiatives.  The contributions of Mandela Washington Fellows Alumni to this new initiative are vital.

I hope that the enthusiasm that has fueled your contributions to this important conference will remain with you in your work throughout the years to come.

Let me conclude by wishing you success in this first YALI Regional Conference and in all the challenging tasks that lie ahead of you.  Although I am not able to stay with you for these next two days, I look forward to learning how you will be promoting change after this conference.  Thank you.