JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As a coveted Machel-Mandela intern at a foundation focused on economic growth in Africa, Madelynne Wager was recently honored as one of the most impactful young people on international affairs.
Wager, who graduated from Greenville High School in 2009, has spent the last five months in South Africa working with policy makers to form ideas to help encourage economic growth on the continent.
As an intern at the Brenthurst Foundation, which works to strengthen economic performance in Africa, Wager has presented ideas on trade reform to president of Malawi Joyce Banda and her cabinet, met with high ranking Latin and African officials to discuss inequality in Africa (a topic proposed by Wager), and works with government officials to tackle development challenges for African countries.
“A lot of what we do is connecting with government officials and academics and trying to come up with solutions to development challenges. How can they increase their exports or how can they set up a more stable infrastructure? Those are the kinds of things we focus on,” said Wager, speaking via Skype from her office in Johannesburg.
Her primary focus is urbanization and inequality, especially that of economic status.
“When it comes down to it, in an African context, you can measure it by disposable income because we’re talking about differences in living conditions, especially living in South Africa, it’s something I see every day. It’s the country with the highest inequality, or at least the highest Gini coefficient (which measures income inequality) in the whole world,” Wager said.
Wager — who graduated as an Angell Scholar from the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy last May and earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy with a minor in economics from U of M — is researching and collecting data on the topic of inequality, and putting together a report on potential solutions or ways to improve the disparity.
“Just this morning I walked out of my apartment and, with all the luxuries I would have at home, found somebody digging through my trash can. And then I walk into my office where I’m working for one of the wealthiest families in South Africa,” she said. “It’s something you are faced with everyday and that’s one of the things I like about living here. It’s not easy to become complacent because I’m consistently faced with the issues I care about and am inspired to do something about them.”
That comes as no surprise to Wager’s mom, Diane.
“I guess that’s who Maddy really is. She has a huge heart and is always looking to help others,” Diane Wager said. “Since elementary school, she’s always tried to help others better themselves.”
Due to her work thus far with Brenthurst, Madelynne Wager was recognized last month by Young People in International Affairs (YPIA) as one of the “Top 35 Under 35” foreigners making an impact in Africa. At age 22, Wager is the second youngest on the list.
This year’s Top 35, according to the YPIA website was to focus on a counter narrative to the story of social migration out of Africa toward Western society. Wager’s promotion of economic growth within Africa by addressing issues with African officials fit the mold.
“With such research interests it helps that she’s located in the largest urbanized and economically powerful city in South Africa,” her YPIA bio states. “As well as being a policy hawk, Madelynne is a social activist having been involved with grassroots campaigns such as One.org, Feed the Future and PEPFAR. Johannesburg is lucky to have her.”
At the same time, Wager said she feels lucky she’s able to do what she’s doing.
“I’m getting to do everything I love over here. It’s good to feel like you’re giving back,” she said.
And when her internship is done in December, Wager said she will make a short trip home before moving back to South Africa to take on a new gig. Last week she was given the job of chief executive officer for Brightest Young Minds, a youth-driven non profit organization, where she will work alongside young African leaders in improving African society and economics. Her focus will be implementing a small business incubator to help support business growth.
When Diane Wager heard her daughter would be moving back, it was bittersweet, but she knew it was something her young daughter was destined for.
“The more people she touches, the better off the world will be,” she said.
While she has dedicated at least the next couple years to her new role, Madelynne Wager said she still misses home, especially her family, including her grandmother, Roberta Wager.
“Sometimes it is really hard being away from home,” she said. “It is hard to not have those things, but I have to convince myself it’s worth opening a new chapter in my life.”