What Do Recent US Official Visits to Africa Mean for Africa-US Relations?

In March, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona led the US delegation to the Democracy Summit in Zambia, becoming the sixth high-level US official to visit to the continent this year. His visit came on the heels of Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit, which itself followed a visit by First Lady Jill Biden. The US ambassador to the United Nations and the secretaries of State and Treasury have already visited the continent this year. High-ranking White House officials have indicated that agencies and departments received guidance to organize substantive engagement with Africa, including visits from their various heads. For the first time in a very long time, the US government bureaucracy has instructions to expand its engagement with Africa. This has raised questions, especially in Africa, about whether these changes mark an inflection point in the relationship between the United States and its African partners.

This flurry of visits draws attention because it is historically unusual. In 1962, Rupert Emerson described US-Africa relations in terms that are still relevant today: “The United States is far freer from commitments in Africa south of the Sahara than in any other region of the world. Everywhere else American policy operates in a setting of old-established friendships and understandings… alliances such as those creating NATO, CENTO and SEATO…. In Africa to an unprecedented degree the United States is not bound by established positions or traditions, by fixed agreements or vested interests.” The lack of institutionalization of US engagement in Africa places the relationship disproportionately at the whim of whoever is the current occupant of the White House. US Africa relations can thus go from a president who openly mused about shutting down every American embassy on the continent to one who hosts over 50 African presidents and prime ministers at an official summit. That summit itself, however, came after an eight-year hiatus and neither side knows if any such gathering will occur again in this decade.

High-level visits have not been a regular component of US-Africa relations. In previous US administrations, visits by executive branch officials were dangled as rewards to “well-behaved” African governments. While US officials have gone to great lengths to avoid comparing their presence in Africa with their geopolitical rival China, that comparison is instructive here. For 33 years, Chinese foreign ministers have made Africa the first stop of their annual overseas travel. This policy has become standard and a part of the normal order of business, so much so that it gets no special media coverage.

There remains a seemingly immutable need to coax the United States into engaging with Africa, more so than  with any other region. Seeing no strategic interest in Africa, US policy largely engaged the continent through a prism of perceived risks and problems. Material American presence has thus historically been through Department of Defense deployments and security partnerships, and aid programs like PEPFAR, the President’s Malaria Initiative, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Commercial American presence was geographically concentrated in South Africa and in extractives elsewhere on the continent. When US officials did visit Africa, they never failed to lecture their hosts on perceived evils—especially corruption. So prevalent were these corruption lectures that Africa, more than any other region, became synonymous with corruption.

In practice, US foreign policy has not treated Africans as partners, unless, of course, in conflict with peer and near-peer competitors. The idea that Africa as a net recipient of American assistance cannot be a partner has permeated American foreign policy making. So, the Biden administration’s commitment of the United States as a partner with Africa is a notable and long overdue break from the past.  But any expectation that this recent improvement and these high-level visits will have a transformative impact in Africa is premature. This is, at best, a start—a good start to the normalization of relationship between the United States and the countries of Africa.

Four initial actions to strengthen US engagement with Africa

Outside of these visits, it will be the substance of American policy and the willingness of the US government to expend political capital that will indicate what this shift means. And on the issue of substance, these four policy recommendations are available:

1. Institutionalize the US-Africa Leaders Summit

In the short-term, a suitable departure point could be for the administration to work with Congress to institutionalize engagements in Africa—starting with the US-Africa Leaders summit. The fact that the Biden administration is incapable or unwilling to commit to the next summit is a telling sign of the staying power of these visits. Since 1993, a permanent fixture on the calendar of Japanese and African officials has been the triennial Tokyo International Conference on African Development. Similarly, since 2000 another triennial confab—the Forum on China Africa Cooperation—has been a fixture of the relationship between China and African countries. This is the same with the EU-Africa Union summit, which also occurs every three years. How is the United States the only major partner with haphazard engagement at this level? President Bident’s commitment, that the United States is “all in” on Africa’s future, should begin with institutionalizing the US-Africa Leaders Summit.

2. Build support for onward lending of SDRs to the AfDB

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the African Development Bank has convincingly argued for large countries without pressing need for their Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to onward lend them to multilateral institutions like the African Development Bank (AfDB). The AfDB notes that it can leverage SDRs three to four times and is initially seeking SDR 2.5 billion, which comes to about SDR 500 from five donors. Given the current composition of Congress, it will be next to impossible for the US Treasury to get approval for the US to contribute to this. Alternatively, the US can expend its incredible political capital to coral that support from allies. In a follow up to her visit to Africa, Secretary Yellen can lead the US effort to get support from the likes of Canada, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

3. Increase US presence in financing infrastructure in Africa

There is still a notable lacunae of US presence in the area of the continent’s greatest need: infrastructure. No number of high-level visits will elide this omission, since Africa lags the rest of the world on every measure of infrastructure coverage. When the US presence in Africa is compared with China’s, infrastructure financing is the measuring rod. It is therefore important for the US  to expand its presence in building infrastructure in Africa. Here again, onward lending of SDRs to the AfDB provides an opportunity. When the G20 first proposed recycling $100 billion of SDRs to vulnerable countries, the initial commitments included $21 billion from the United States. That commitment did not receive congressional approval and faced with other domestic policy imperatives, the Biden administration did not press the matter. True partnership with Africa requires willingness on to expend valuable political capital to advance policy actions even if they are difficult.

In a 2022 paper on public-private infrastructure in Africa, my CGD colleagues Nancy Lee and Mauricio Cardenas Gonzalez found that “among MDBs, the African Development Bank is the largest source of finance over the period [2007 – 2022], likely a surprise to some who would have expected the World Bank’s IFC or IDA to rank first.” The quality of the Bank’s project selection and procurement processes should answer the question of sustainable lending and white elephants. The AfDB provides the clearest mechanism for the US to finance critical infrastructure but through a process that ensures high quality project selection, preparation, and execution.

4. Leverage the African diaspora to build ties with the continent

Despite its significant African diaspora, the United States has not leveraged this asset in advancing ties with the continent. Again, the Biden administration has staked out a substantive position here. The Biden-Harris campaign proposed engagement with the African diaspora and is establishing an Advisory Council on diaspora engagement. This is a commendable step, but the administration could go further by doubling the resources of the US African Development Foundation (USADF) by taking its operating budget to $100 million. USADF’s $48.57 million operating budget for FY2022 was the largest in the agency’s 41-year history. This is a low-hanging fruit that can drive US-Africa relations by leveraging the diaspora to establish stronger people-to-people ties. This increase in the budget would be a boost of the USADF’s objective of “partnering with the African diaspora to spur entrepreneurship, knowledge transfer, and investment.”


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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