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A Report Card for the US-Africa Leaders Summit

President Obama at US-African Leaders Summit

President Obama closed the first ever US-Africa Leaders' Summit on August 7, 2014, by declaring it had been an "extraordinary event" and citing the accomplishments of the summit in terms of trade and investment, security cooperation, including a commitment to peacekeeping, and emphasizing the need to address corruption and bad governance on the continent. There is little doubt that the event was historic, with as many as 45 African Heads of State present, including some royalty. Never before has an American administration engaged such a senior Africa leadership group at such a high level. The question, though, is did the conference really break any new ground and accomplish concrete goals? On the surface, the answer seems to be a disappointing, "sort of." Let's examine some of the commitments that were announced, and what did and didn't happen.

Trade and Investment

On trade and investment, the summit resulted in some serious and significant commitments, but very little that was new from the US Government (USG) side. Most initiatives announced by Obama were updates of existing ones such as Power Africa, Feed the Future, Trade Africa, and Doing Business in Africa. The USG's new commitments to such initiatives, however, were unimpressive.

For instance, Obama announced that US$26 billion has been "mobilized" for Power Africa, but the USG is committing only US$300 million a year to that effort, with the rest coming from private sources. The USG added another US$7 billion to Feed the Future, the government's global hunger and food security initiative. A number of agencies like ExIm Bank, OPIC, Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US Trade and Development Agency, Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corporation and Department of State added another US$8 billion or so in credits and new financing for the program. However, the real impetus came from the private side. Obama announced that the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, Feed the Future's global network of stakeholders in sustainable agriculture, "mobilized" US$10 billion from the private sector and noted that new pledges of US$14 billion had been made at the separate US-Africa Business Forum. By my count, that comes to approximately US$50 billion from the business community and only US$15 billion from the government contributions.  While private sector engagement in economic development is welcomed, it does not represent a major change in policy direction or magnitude as far is government is concerned.

The most welcomed trend here is the realization by the American business and risk capital investment communities of the potential that Africa holds.  It is, after all, the private sector that will have to drive sustainable development.  Government, through aid or partnership, can only do so much.

Security and Peacekeeping

On the security and peacekeeping side, the analysis is much the same. Obama announced the Security Governance Initiative (SGI) and committed US$65 million to support it. It will include six select partner countries – Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia – and will focus on building institutions of good governance through increasing the capacities of their security sectors, including civilian ministries, police and military departments, depending on the needs of each country.  It mandates close consultation and cooperation with the host governments.

On peacekeeping, the President announced the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership (APRRP) and committed $110 million per year for 3-5 years to build the capacity of African militaries to rapidly deploy peacekeepers in response to emerging conflict. This effort will be in partnership with the following countries – Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. While this is a laudable effort true to the partnership commitment, both initiatives are somewhat limited in scope and the respective US$65 million for SGI and US$550 million for APRRP seem to be a pretty minimal investment if the USG is serious about addressing security issues in Africa.

Corruption and Governance

The final item that Obama emphasized as a success at the conference was, in fact, the least impressive.  Rightly underlining corruption and bad governance as key stumbling blocks to development and economic progress, there seems to be no headway made in that regard, at least not directly. The only commitment was a very vague one to convene "our experts and develop an action plan to promote the transparency that is essential to economic growth." This is where the choice to not meet head-to-head with problematic leaders was unwise. Obama's remarks in the session devoted to this issue were eloquent and incisive, points he repeated in his final remarks and press conference. However, they were as effective as the speech in Ghana during his first term, as far as changing the way in which leaders think about their perceived enemies, the constitutional frameworks in which they exist, or the imperatives of establishing reconciliation, trust and communication in a post-conflict context that must precede sustainable peace and successful democracy.

However, much of the value in a summit like this comes from the conversations held on the side, and those did happen.  Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House and the Head of the Africa Subcommittee, had very frank and useful private meetings with several Heads of State, including Kabila of the DRC and Salva Kiir of South Sudan, in which they pressed hard on ongoing conflict situations in those countries. They also saw Presidents Johnson of Nigeria and Zuma of South Africa to talk about their troubled situations. At the same time, the US Secretary of State had a private meeting with all the South Sudanese delegation for a frank and open discussion in which he pulled no punches as for the need to bring solution to this conflict.

So, what is the sum result and the way forward? 

While I have several disappointments, I don't want the reader to get lost in my criticism and forget how important it is that the US-Africa Leaders Summit was convened in the first place. Africans remain cynical about US motives and commitments, understandably so. The more recent focus of US policy on security, since the introduction of AFRICOM in 2007 and heightened since the growth of serious radical Islam across the Maghreb, has convinced many that the US is only looking for support in our "War on Terror," and are not really dedicated to Africa's progress and development. This undertaking and the huge turnout of senior officials and top business and civil society representatives, plus a ceremonial atmosphere at the White House dinner, goes a long way to underpinning relations and establishing bonds that will serve the US well in the future.

Maybe the most important outcome, one that I feared would not happen, is a commitment by the President to make this a regular consultation.  In his closing remarks, Obama said,

"Summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action.  So we agreed that the US-Africa Leaders Summit will be a recurring event to hold ourselves accountable for our commitments and to sustain our momentum.  And I'll strongly encourage my successor to carry on this work, because Africa must know that they will always have a strong and reliable partner in the United States of America." 

Key to this is the last point, to make sure his successor holds to this commitment.  An on-going consultation at the highest levels of US and African governments – as the Japanese, Chinese, EU, and India have been doing for years – will be the best way to address these issues and develop understanding and true cooperation.


Steve McDonald is a Public Policy Scholar and Former Director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

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