Remarks by Ambassador Matt Harrington – Young African Leaders Initiative Press Conference

Khotsong bo-‘m’e le bo-ntate and welcome.

Thank you for being here this today as we introduce this year’s 15 YALI Mandela Washington Fellows.

Before we proceed, I would like to pay my respects to:

His Majesty King Letsie III,
The Right Honorable the Prime Minister,
2016 Mandela Washington Fellows
Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for joining us today to meet the 15 Basotho selected for this year’s prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

Let me start by giving you a bit of background about this program. President Barack Obama launched the Young African Leaders Initiative – better known as “YALI” – in 2010 to support young Africans as they work toward a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic continent. Through YALI, the United States is investing in the next generation of African leaders by building leadership skills, bolstering entrepreneurship, and connecting young Africans with one another, the United States, and the American people.

YALI includes a fellowship component in the United States, known as the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The Fellowship is followed by a year of continuing professional development opportunities once the participants return home. The first year of the Fellowship was 2014. For each of the first two years, 500 young people from across the continent have had the opportunity to study in the United States and develop their skills in one of three tracks: civil society, business or government.

This year, the third year of the program, President Obama doubled the number of Mandela Fellows to 1,000 and the response was enormous. Washington received more than 40,000 applications from across Africa. Here in Lesotho more than 330 Basotho applied from all corners of the Mountain Kingdom. What was impressive was not just the number of Basotho applicants but the quality.

I reviewed some of the applications myself and, I must say, it was a very impressive group. The selection process was rigorous. It began with each candidate applying individually online, after which the Embassy received from Washington a ranked list of all the candidates and copies of their applications. Our Embassy in Maseru then reviewed the applications, interviewed 39 finalists, and made our recommendations to Washington. In the end, we believe strongly that the 15 Basotho who made the final cut represent some of the brightest, most talented young minds in this country.

So, what happens next? The Basotho Fellows will each participate in a six-week academic residency at a U.S. university. Their program will include leadership seminars, mentoring and networking sessions, community service opportunities and cultural outings.

After the academic component, Fellows will gather in Washington, D.C. for a Presidential Summit, where they will have a chance to meet President Obama and other senior leaders from government, business, and civil society. After the summit, 13 Fellows will return home, while two will stay behind for a 6-week professional internship.

While this time in the United States is an important element of the program, this Fellowship is not just about going to the U.S. Fellows are chosen because they are poised to make a real difference back home.

When they return, Fellows are provided support to do just that, including internships, professional mentorships, travel grants to speak at high-level conferences, and funding assistance for project ideas. Here in Lesotho they have the added benefit of access to our YALI Leadership Innovation Hub at the State Library. This space, which is part of the Embassy’s American Corner and which we just dedicated last week, is a place for YALI alumni and YALI Network members to continue developing themselves professionally. It is also a place where they can meet and interact with other up-and-coming Basotho leaders. This space provides high-speed internet and video-conferencing capability, as well as a physical platform to give presentations, lead discussions, and conduct workshops. I hope everyone here will have a chance to visit the YALI Innovation Leadership Hub, which is a dynamic operation.

We are proud of the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellows and of their eleven compatriots who participated in the first two years of the program. Members of the latter group are already making a difference here in Lesotho. Let me give you some examples:

  • four former Washington Fellows secured funding to conduct an upcoming weeklong bootcamp for 30 Basotho entrepreneurs.
  • another Fellow established an income-generating native plant nursery at a primary school;
  • while another alumnus of the program has built his NGO into a powerful voice for the LGBTI community in Lesotho.

Experts say that by 2050, Africa’s population will double to two billion people and many of them will be under 18 years old. This is why we want to ensure that African youth are invested in their future and why YALI is so important now and for generations to come.

Our hope is that when these YALI Fellows have all gone on to be ministers in government, or leaders in business, or pioneers of social change, that they will still be connecting with each other, that they will still be learning from each other, and that together, they will be reaching back and helping the next generation. That they will not only be making a difference in their own countries, but they will be the foundation of a new generation of global leadership, a generation that’s going to be working together across borders to make the world safer and more prosperous and more peaceful and more just.

I hope we can all work together to support and encourage this next generation of promising African leaders.