U.S-Africa Leaders Summit: Investing in First Ladies 

First spouses gather at the U.S-Africa Leaders' Summit.

First spouses gather at the U.S-Africa Leaders’ Summit.

Last month, heads of state and government of over 30 African countries gathered in Washington, DC for a U.S.-Africa leaders summit, hosted by President Obama and joined by former U.S. presidents and nonprofit and industry leaders. One of the events during the leaders’ summit was a first spouses’ forum, “Investing in Our Future,” co-hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush. Although coverage of this forum included the usual commentary on first ladies’ fashion and hairstyles, much attention was given to the engaging joint interview by veteran journalist Cokie Roberts with Laura Bush and Michelle Obama. The spouses’ event was more than a conversation and photo opportunity: it generated millions of dollars in investments in health and education programs for Africa.

Over the last five years there has been growing recognition of the influence of the spouses of world leaders. This gathering of African first spouses evolved out of the 2009 African First Ladies Health Summit in Los Angeles, CA and the subsequent RAND Corporation-sponsored African First Ladies Initiative. Building upon the RAND model, The George W. Bush institute launched its First Ladies Initiative in 2013.  All of these initiatives share a common purpose: finding ways to capitalize on one of the most valuable resources available to the spouses of world leaders: their unique power to convene individuals and institutions on behalf of causes that benefit their countries.

At last month’s summit, this power translated into over $200 million dollars in investments for programs that specifically target women and children,

Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Cokie Roberts

Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Cokie Roberts

including AIDS treatment; resources for women entrepreneurs; increased access to the internet; high school and college education assistance; training for farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia; and nearly $3 million to support the expansion into Namibia and Ethiopia of Pink Ribbon-Red Ribbon, an initiative developed in 2011 by the George W. Bush Institute that uses the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) platform and extends it to support breast and cervical cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.

“The stars aligned”

At pre-summit coffee with former U.S. First Lady Laura W. Bush

Anita McBride was chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush (at the pre-summit coffee)

According to AU Executive-in-Residence Anita McBride, who co-founded the RAND African First Ladies Initiative and is former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush, “the stars aligned” this year to yield especially generous financial commitments from public, private, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organizations. Two of the biggest stars, of course, were Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush. They came together last summer as well in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when the Bush Institute launched its First Ladies Initiative at the 2013 African First Ladies Summit. A highlight of the summit was a joint interview with Cokie Roberts between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Bush. It was one of the most highly anticipated features of this year’s event as well. The relationship forged by the two women and their staffs helped make it possible for the already-planned White House African leaders’ summit to be combined with a gathering for the spouses.

Ultimately the results of past investments in Africa are what drive present and future financial commitments from both domestic and international sources. According to McBride, the “undeniable success” of PEPFAR, begun in 2003 by President George W. Bush and continued by President Obama, has paved the way for additional programs in health, education and economic development. Over the past eleven years, the work PEPFAR has accomplished in Africa has led to a more informed populace and a robust infrastructure providing greater access to lifesaving services, both of which are essential for carrying out aid and development programs of all kinds. PEPFAR’s success—measured in millions of lives saved—gives potential investors confidence that money directed to Africa will yield continued benefits to Africans and the partners in their prosperity.

At a training session for first ladies' senior staff members.

At a training session for first ladies’ senior staff members.

Finally, it is the ingenuity and commitment of the first ladies themselves that makes the ongoing success of the initiative possible. For example, Namibia’s first lady, Penehupifo Pohamba, is a trained nurse midwife who participated in the inaugural First Ladies Health Summit in 2009. She credits the African First Ladies Initiative with helping her to convince her country’s government to establish an official First Lady’s Office and thus provide the resources to administer the programs she champions, including maternal and children’s health and HIV/AIDS prevention services.
by Lisa Moscatiello

NEXT: Part II – A history of the African First Ladies Initiative