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Janet Yellen Pledges to Deepen Africa Ties as U.S. Wards Off Russian, Chinese Influence

DAKAR, Senegal—Treasury Secretary

Janet Yellen

pledged further U.S. investment in and trade with Africa as she began a three-country tour of the continent, where the Biden administration is trying to deepen ties in the face of Chinese and Russian influence.

Speaking at an entrepreneurship center for young people and women in Dakar, Ms. Yellen said that a young, rapidly expanding and urbanizing population in Africa could propel economic growth in the coming decades. She said the U.S. would aim to help African officials translate those demographic changes into economic growth—and not societal unrest.

“This is Africa’s most daunting and most promising task: to provide broad and inclusive opportunity to the next generation of Africans. I believe it is a challenge with enormous consequences for the world as well,” she said.

Ms. Yellen’s trip to sub-Saharan Africa, where she is visiting Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, is part of a broader Biden administration charm offensive to repair ties that frayed under former President

Donald Trump.

President Biden, who hosted African leaders in Washington last month, is also planning to visit the African continent this year.

“Our engagement is not transactional, for show, or for the short-term,” Ms. Yellen said. “We are here to work with you as friends and partners for the long haul.”

Ms. Yellen has the delicate task of calling out China and Russia while trying to avoid casting U.S. outreach as part of a great power competition in Africa. Russia has cultivated close political and military ties in parts of the continent, and many African nations have sought to stay neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China, for its part, has become the continent’s biggest trading partner and a major financier of infrastructure. 


How can the U.S. work to improve its relationship with African countries? Join the conversation below.

Trade between the U.S. and Africa has dropped by more than half since 2008, largely due to U.S. shale oil substituting crude imports from the continent. 

While in Senegal, Ms. Yellen will meet with Senegalese President

Macky Sall,

the current chairman of the African Union who last year said that Western sanctions on Russia were complicating Africa’s ability to buy food. Many countries on the continent are struggling with rising inflation, weakening local currencies and higher borrowing costs due to the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hikes.

In her speech, Ms. Yellen said the U.S. was establishing a food security partnership with Africa and blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for slowing economic growth on the continent.

“Russia’s war and weaponization of food has exacerbated food insecurity and caused untold suffering,” she said.

The Treasury Department has exempted Russian food and fertilizer from its sanctions, though financial sanctions and companies’ broader wariness about buying Russian goods have contributed to higher prices, analysts say.

“There is some veracity to the sanctions having an impact despite the fact that there are carve outs for agriculture,” said

Caitlin Welsh,

the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Ms. Yellen also called out China, now the biggest government creditor to the developing world. Her next stop, Zambia, has struggled to secure debt relief from China and foreign bondholders.

“We believe that the international community, including China, needs to provide meaningful debt relief to help countries regain their footing,” Ms. Yellen said.

While Ms. Yellen touted U.S. investments on the continent, African officials say perceptions that projects on the continent come with too many risks often make financing too expensive.

“The risk appetite of U.S. entities is not like the Chinese risk appetite,” said

Aloysius Uche Ordu,

the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Instead of crying unfair competition, we should contribute the conditions necessary for…our private sector entities to compete effectively.”

Treasury officials said the department has been looking at ways to make African projects more attractive for U.S. investors, including by offering loan guarantees or setting up a facility to help hedge exchange-rate movements.

Ms. Yellen said the U.S. would continue to ask African governments to make their institutions more transparent and accountable and in some cases require specific overhauls before investing. “While our approach may be exacting, we believe it delivers lasting results,” she said.

Write to Andrew Duehren at andrew.duehren@wsj.com

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