Precisely as Africa is rising on the radar screens of investors and security types, it seems to be falling off the US foreign policy map. With the exception of Governor Romney’s mention of Mali (twice!) in the third debate, Africa hardly featured at all. That’s a shame, since Africa is both a growing opportunity and will become a greater threat if neglected. I’ve been deeply disappointed to see the United States reduce its engagement with the continent under the current administration, losing ground on the progress made under Presidents Clinton and Bush. Regardless of who wins on November 6, the scope for doing better—and more without more money—is obvious.
The following originally appeared on October 1 as “Missing in Africa” on ForeignAffairs.com.
Africa is more important than ever to the United States. The continent, home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, is booming. And democracy has become the African norm, rather than the exception. No less than 15 sub-Saharan countries held or are holding elections in 2012. Countries like Ghana and Botswana are successfully combining liberal politics with market economics to become the next target for frontier investors. Huge potential markets like Nigeria and Ethiopia are also showing that modest reforms can be leveraged into big economic opportunities. These trends all suggest a sea change in Africa’s relevance to the United States.
At the same time, danger zones across the continent are a growing security concern for Washington. Terrorist groups in Somalia and northern Mali are direct threats. Pockets of weakened governance in West Africa and in the Horn of Africa also allow cross-border problems like narco-trafficking or pandemics to spread. In short, the continent is increasingly a locus of terrorism and other transnational threats.
Over the last four years, this mix of thriving economies and alarming security developments should have thrust Africa higher up on the US foreign policy agenda. But instead, President Barack Obama has largely ignored Africa. While the President’s Kenyan heritage meant that early hopes for robust Africa policy were unreasonably high, the administration has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations. Even Obama’s most vocal supporters quietly admit that the president has done much less than his predecessors.
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has visited 15 African countries on four separate trips. But her presence has been overshadowed by Obama’s absence. The President has set foot on the continent just once, in July 2009 for a mere 20 hours in Ghana where he gave a speech on democracy that resulted in no substantial action.
Obama’s neglect appears all the more significant when you consider the Africa record of his predecessors. President Bill Clinton exuded enthusiasm for the continent while his Africa policy was defined by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which reduced barriers to trade for more than 1,800 products. Partly as a result of AGOA, trade between the United States and Africa has more than tripled since 2000 to over $90 billion. More importantly, AGOA approached Africa like a partner, not just a receiver of goodwill.
President George W. Bush went further. He launched the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the President’s Malaria Initiative, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. These programs all sparked long-term serious US engagement in Africa and have had a major lasting effect. The MCC has developed business-like compacts with well-governed countries, including 13 in Africa, to jointly implement projects to boost economic growth. The malaria effort targeted 15 African countries and contributed to steep declines in child mortality. PEPFAR has been game-changing in the fight against HIV/AIDS, directly saving the lives of 2.4 million people via treatment and preventing infection in millions more. And these aid programs did not emerge under Bush by accident, but rather because of high-level engagement and even the president’s personal commitment.
In contrast to his predecessors, most of Obama’s high-profile efforts have been washouts. The Global Health Initiative, launched in 2009, was supposed to broaden American health investments beyond single diseases to cover health systems. But it has largely been abandoned because of overreach and a distinct lack of political support. The Global Climate Change Initiative, which sought in part to expand renewable energy in Africa, was announced in 2010 but has little concrete to show. Small, lesser-known agencies such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank have boosted their project portfolios in Africa, but they have been toiling largely behind the scenes and on the margins of government attention.
The Obama administration does deserve credit for its work in Sudan, as it undertook vigorous diplomatic efforts to prevent a return to war and helped shepherd South Sudan’s independence. It also launched Feed the Future, a promising but still unproven agriculture program designed to help boost farm productivity in 12 African countries. But the president’s record on Africa largely ends there.
All this suggests that the White House has, at best, overlooked Africa’s significance or, at worst, consciously downgraded it on the list of priorities. Think about USAID’s assistant administrator for Africa. This is the most senior post in the entire federal workforce tasked with driving economic development on the continent. On Obama’s watch, the position was left unfilled for more than three years. Similarly, the USAID administrator, a position that deals heavily with Africa policy and was elevated to the rank of deputy secretary in the Bush administration, was left vacant for nearly a year after Obama took office and, when finally filled, was also demoted. This kind of inattention is part of a sluggish trend: the White House did not get around to releasing an official Africa strategy until June 2012. African leaders know an afterthought when they see one.
Worse, the administration has repeatedly highlighted marginal foreign policy issues that Africans and policy watchers can only interpret as patronizing. To mollify critics, a few months ago the White House released a list of its proudest accomplishments in Africa. Yet the top item was “Engaged Young African Leaders,” citing a series of forums for youth leaders, including one with the president and another with the first lady. But boasting of a public dialogue as the most prominent accomplishment toward a region speaks to the lack of real, substantive policy over the last four years. It is hard to imagine the administration citing a similar effort as the cornerstone of its Asian or Latin American policy.
The Obama approach has not been well-received by African leaders, especially compared with what is on offer from China. Beijing has invested heavily in roads, power, and business projects in nearly every African country. Secretary Clinton, in a veiled attack on Beijing’s activities in Africa, claimed that the United States brings “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it.” But instead of lecturing African countries to beware, the administration should instead reflect upon why China seems to be so attractive in a region that is gaining self-confidence. Today’s Africa does not want charity, but instead seeks more investment and a measure of respect. China bashing might be good political theater, but it makes for ineffective policy.
Even Democrats on Capitol Hill are getting frustrated. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced new legislation in March 2012 that attempts to force the administration to boost and coordinate its economic policy toward Africa. At the time, he justified the bill because: “Increasingly I am hearing: ‘the U.S. has given up on Africa as a market.’ While we’re building institutions [in Africa], China and others are building markets and we’re being left behind.”
Righting this neglect would begin by recognizing the tremendous economic opportunities in Africa and preparing the United States to engage. One small concrete step in that direction would be to bolster the Overseas Private Investment Corporation with new authorities, such as more flexibility and allowing equity investments. The administration could also consolidate private investment activities on the continent that are currently spread across multiple agencies and operating sub-optimally. For example, a White House effort on electricity or other infrastructure could bring together OPIC and Ex-Im Bank lending, technical assistance from USAID, feasibility studies from the US Trade and Development Agency, along with private capital and expertise. With 7 out of 10 Africans living without access to electricity, this kind of partnership would be in our interest, welcomed by African leadership and American business, and help to reorient US relations with the continent.
A reinvigorated Africa policy would also imply high-level engagement, including by the president when appropriate. It means building partnerships based on mutual and hard-headed security, economic, and political interests, not on third-tier soft issues that we do not prioritize anywhere else. And it demands, at a minimum, filling senior positions quickly.
Lastly, whoever occupies the White House for the next four years will have to resist knee-jerk efforts to counter Chinese influence in Africa. This is not a new Cold War. US and Chinese interests only rarely conflict, and both countries stand to benefit from a more prosperous and stable region. Where there is friction, such as over human rights in Zimbabwe or oil deals in Sudan, Washington can manage these as we do other foreign policy trade-offs, not through moralistic grandstanding.
Ultimately, the United States cannot afford to ignore Africa. But rather than viewing the continent as a problem to be solved, the next administration should do something radical: treat Africa just like any other region of the world.