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What Janet Yellen hopes to accomplish during her trip to Africa


Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is planning a visit to three African countries next week, her trip to Senegal, Zambia and South Africa coming just weeks after the Biden administration hosted most of the continent's top leaders for a summit here in Washington, D.C. The secretary's trip comes at a critical time as the world contends with high inflation and energy costs and food insecurity following Russia's attack on Ukraine and those challenges hitting some countries harder than others. Her visit also comes as Russia, along with China and others, try to exert their influence and build relationships with these countries, which has some of the world's fastest-growing populations and economies. I spoke with Secretary Yellen earlier in the week to ask her about her trip and her goals for it.

Madam Secretary, welcome. Nice to speak with you once again.

JANET YELLEN: My pleasure. Thanks so much for the invitation.

MARTIN: So you're not the first secretary of the Treasury to make this kind of high-profile official visit to Africa. But you are one of the few. So why are you taking this trip now? And what would you say is your primary goal for the visit?

YELLEN: Well, really, my main goal is to deepen U.S.-Africa economic ties. These ties are already strong. We had, just before Christmas, a summit in which President Biden and others in the administration met with many African leaders. And we expressed a very strong desire to be part of what is going to be a rapidly growing African economy, a very dynamic part of the world. We want to expand trade and investment with Africa. And we really see Africa as a key driver of global growth in coming decades. It will be important to Africa and to the world to make sure that rapidly growing cadre of young people are able to find work, high-quality jobs. Many companies are already investing and help create those jobs for a growing middle class. And there will also be new markets and customers for American firms.

MARTIN: You said that the ties between the U.S. and the continent are already strong. Are they? I mean, in the case of China, they're the continent's largest trading partner, far ahead of the U.S., despite the fact that the U.S. has had, say, specific arrangements, particularly with sub-Saharan Africa, for some years now. First of all, how did the U.S. let China get so far ahead?

YELLEN: Well, China has played a leading role in lending in Africa and trading with Africa. But the United States has had a long-standing commitment to work with Africa, trade and investment in Africa. We've invested considerably, the United States government, and then our work through the multilateral development banks in Africa. And I think a lot of the energy came out of President Biden's interactions with African leaders at the recent summit. It's clear that they want to expand trade and investment with many parts of the world and see the United States as a critical partner in that growth. And that's something that's important to us as well.

MARTIN: So we know that the war in Ukraine has affected global energy prices, and global demand for Russian oil has gone down largely because Western nations are refusing to buy it. But what do you say to leaders in Africa who are tempted to purchase Russian oil and gas to fuel their development goals, especially when their resources - I mean, they haven't - many of these economies haven't recovered from the, you know, pandemic-induced recession and are already kind of limping along.

YELLEN: We are certainly not trying to urge these countries not to buy Russian oil as long as buyers in Africa observe the price cap, in the sense that they make sure that they don't pay more than the price caps that's been established. They can maintain or increase their purchases of Russian oil.

MARTIN: Well, you know, just zooming out again here, the World Bank has just released its forecast for the year. They're predicting a slowdown in growth for 2023, specifically for the sub-Saharan region, which is where you're going to be going. They're predicting growth in per capita income to just 1.2%, which is obviously a rate that could cause poverty to increase. How worried are you about this?

YELLEN: Well, I am concerned about the slowdown in the global economy. And I think the single best thing that we could do to help the global economy would be to end Russia's war on Ukraine. I think that invasion and the brutality and the economic spillovers from it are a very important factor that is responsible for diminished global growth at a time when we just beginning to encouragingly recover from the pandemic, and the high food prices and energy prices that it's caused are being felt particularly in Africa. But we're seeing inflation around the world. And of course, that's prompting also responses in developed and other countries to address that. And it's all part of the picture that's slowing global growth, and it is a tremendous concern.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, the outlook - as we said earlier, the outlook for the global economy in 2023 isn't that great, whether we're talking about the U.S. or whether we're talking about sub-Saharan Africa. What's going to be your metric of success for the year?

YELLEN: Well, I think for the United States, my priorities would be to see inflation come down to much lower levels. That will make Americans feel much more secure about their financial situation in future. We're seeing a renaissance of manufacturing in the clean energy sector, in semiconductors, infrastructure jobs. You know, President Biden likes to say that his objective is to see growth from the bottom up and the middle out. And I believe that these longer-term investments that we're making in our people and our economy will achieve that. And over the medium term, that's going to be the most important metric to assess U.S. economic performance.

MARTIN: That was U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. We're speaking to her in advance of a major trip to the African continent next week to three countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Madam Secretary, thanks so much for joining us and sharing these insights with us and our best wishes for a successful trip.

YELLEN: Thank you so much. Thanks for the invitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.