Africa's women can change a continent: Will Ivanka give them her full support?

Africa's women can change a continent: Will Ivanka give them her full support?
© Getty Images

Last week, Ivanka Trump, the first daughter of the United States and adviser to the president made a four-day trip to Africa, first landing in the East African nation of Ethiopia, then flying 2,942 miles west to Côte d'Ivoire.

While some wrote off the trip as self-promotion, just “Ivanka, Ivanka-ing,” and others called it “Hypocrisy without Borders,” Ms. Trump deserves credit for focusing the U.S. government on support for women empowerment around the world, and particularly in Africa.

The purpose of Ivanka’s Africa mission was to promote the White House-led Women’s Global Development Prosperity Initiative (W-GDP), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which seeks to empower 50 million women in the developing world through employment and economic opportunity by 2025. W-GDP was rolled out at a White House conference in February.


Ms. Trump was accompanied by Mark Green, USAID administrator and David Bohigian, the acting president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which in March 2018, formed its own partnership with the first daughter, OPIC 2X, which catalyzes $1 billion to invest in women in developing countries, with $350 million directed toward Africa.

Ivanka’s trip included project deliverables for women entrepreneurs in both countries, along with engagements with multilateral and regional partners. In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Ms. Trump signed a joint communique with the African Union (AU) in support of women’s empowerment, and in Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, she spoke at the World Bank’s first regional summit of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (WeFi).

Nothing was left out, including a bi-partisan Congressional component, with Trump coordinating the second leg of her trip to link up with a congressional delegation, or CODEL, led by Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Argentum - All eyes on Florida as daily COVID-19 cases hit 15K Democrats see immigration reform as topping Biden agenda Graham says he will call Mueller to testify before Senate panel about Russia probe MORE (R-S.C.) and including Sens. Chris Coon (D-Del.), John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears MORE (R-Wyo.) and Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMeadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads Chamber of Commerce endorses Cornyn for reelection MORE (R-Neb.) and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas). These members led the effort to pass the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 which directs USAID to improve access to finance, reduce gender disparities, eliminate gender-based violence, support women’s property and land rights, and improve education, among other things — and it was Ivanka’s last-minute intervention which assured the passage of the bill.

Ivanka’s trip was flawlessly choreographed. She stayed in her designated White House W-GDP lane, and kept to her script — women entrepreneurship/women empowerment.

But sometimes in life, it is the unplanned events that test who you are, like a thunderstorm washing out the single road to your African village destination (this did not happen to Ivanka), or a citizens’ revolution unfolding in real-time next door (this did).  

While Ivanka was attending a traditional coffee ceremony in Addis, a popular rebellion in neighboring Sudan, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, toppled a dictator in power for three decades. And days later, these peaceful citizen-warriors remained in command of the streets, insisting that the temporary military council cede power to a civilian-led transitional government. Women make up two-thirds of the protesters.  

Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architectural student, has emerged as the iconic symbol of the people’s rebellion, immortalized by a local photographer, standing atop a car outside the presidential compound in Khartoum, wrapped in layers of white fabric, prominent gold circle earrings, with her index finger raised defiantly to the sky.


The Sudanese revolution is part of the rise of an activist generation, a youth movement in Africa, driven by a growing sense that democracy can be something more expansive and inclusive. It is a phenomenon many argue is the most important thing to happen to African politics in the last two decades.

But the U.S. government has been slow to get behind this activist generation and the foundation from which it is built: civil society.

The U.S. has been emphatic that there must be a transition to civilian rule in Sudan. So too has the African Union, which has threatened to suspend Sudan's membership by the end of the month if the military council fails to hand over power to civilians. But we have seen such words (and international solidarity) ring hollow before, as when the Democratic Republic of the Congo opted for a peaceful (albeit manipulated) transfer of power over electoral justice. Hints of a regional power-play are now emerging in Sudan, with the Saudi government and the United Arab Emirates deciding to prop-up the military council with $3 billion dollars in emergency assistance, tipping the scale towards continued dictatorship.

This brings me back to Ivanka, who in her closing interview with the Associated Press stated: “Our commitment to Africa is clear… I’ve been deeply, deeply inspired by my trip here.”

It’s up to all of us, those who advocate for Africa and for women’s rights on the continent, to challenge the first daughter to put meaning to those words — not just for the Ivorian cocoa farmers and the Ethiopian textile makers whom she met, but for the women of Sudan, the women of Africa, who are looking for transformative change.

In that vein, here is my plea to the First Daughter:

Thank you for coming to Africa, you did a great job! But when it comes to standing up for women on the continent, you can’t just put your toe in the water, test the temperature, then decide how much further you go in: You need to dive in, head first — you need to be all in. You are empowered through your visit to Africa, you have a leadership platform, you have the power to help protect the demands of the Sudanese protestors, most of whom are women, so that they do not get snuffed out by the military leadership, emboldened by authoritarian states.

Will you stand with Alaa Salah? Will you stand up for the women of Africa?

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Alaa Salah's name.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson