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January's Last Word


By Steve McDonald

There has been palpable excitement in Washington, DC since the November election that reached a crescendo as we approached the second inauguration of President Obama, which took place just yesterday, as I write this.  Of course, the question on the minds of all Africans and Africa watchers is, "What does this mean for our continent?" Well, President Obama's eloquent inauguration address didn't give any hints.  He dwelled on domestic issues, constitutional construction, and policy deadlock, as he urged all Americans to come together in expanding the economic recovery, putting in place national health care policies, and addressing gun violence.   His only real reference to foreign affairs was to say that a "decade of war" was coming to an end.  Africa did not cross his lips.

Is this good news or bad?  What does it augur for the coming four years?

As we have said in these pages, both in this column and through the words of contributors like Drs. Mzukizi Qobo and Ibrahima Hathie, Africa seems poised and ready to move forward in dramatic ways, particularly on the economic front.  Stability is essential and challenges to that stability persist in the form of on-going conflicts – some old, some new – like Mali and the Sahel or the Eastern DRC.  But just as many conflicts are coming to a close, such as Somalia and, in recent years, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Burundi, just to name a few.  The achievement of socio-economic, health, and educational goals remains spotty, but their attainment becomes more and more a reality, as economic growth reaches record levels in many countries and direct foreign investment, including infrastructural development and addressing of trade barriers, both tariff and non-tariff, takes hold.  Governance remains an issue in many places, but patience for the old "big men" of Africa is gone, both from the continent's vibrant civil society and the international community that is no longer caught up in its Cold War state clientism mentality.

The founding African Union (AU) Chair in 2003, South African President Thabo Mbeki, saw the potential emergence of an "African renaissance" within the new AU framework.  We are not there yet, but the hand of the AU has been strengthened through the past decade with recognition of its centrality and an outpouring of international involvement, through security assistance, increasing trade and investment, and more targeted development assistance.  It will take enlightened leadership, which seems to have emerged in the person of Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as Commission Chair. It will also need the continued support from the "friends" of Africa, whether it is the European Union, United States, China, Turkey, India or whoever.

The Wilson Center was honored to host the out-going Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, just a week ago on January 16.  In his tour d'horizon of the continent over the last four years, he struck a very optimistic note for the future.  He expressed it this way, "despite Africa's uneven progress, I remained deeply and profoundly optimistic about Africa's future.  This optimism is grounded in expanding democracy, improved security, rapid economic growth, and greater "opportunities that exist for all of Africa's people."  Throughout his presentation, Secretary Carson provided a review of accomplishments under his stewardship as Assistant Secretary, such as socio-economic and educational advances, burgeoning trade and investment opportunities, rising public health standards, development successes, the cessation of certain conflicts and deepening democratic governance.  He closed his prepared remarks by stating, "The 21st century will belong to Africa and the African continent" (See the full transcript of his remarks HERE).

We do not now know if Secretary of State John Kerry will have the same commitment to Africa that his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, did.  We do not know who will replace Assistant Secretary Carson or what his successor will define as priorities.  However, if the tone that Secretary Carson set holds, then the news for Africa may be good.  He certainly focused on the need to drive stronger economic relations.  In response to a question about next steps, Carson focused on the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). He argued that this "will provide certainty to investors and reassurance to African businesses and workers across the continent that the economic opportunities opened up by AGOA over the last 15 years will remain strong and steady."  He cautioned that any notion that AGOA is likely to go away is going to serve as a disincentive for new investment on the continent in the near future and have an adverse effect on companies ordering large numbers of products because they know that the price will go up as a result of the duties.  Assistant Secretary Carson looked toward the future of AGOA and Africa when he stated,

"It's equally important to think beyond the current provisions of AGOA and look for new and innovative initiatives that will help to bring Africa increasingly into the global economic community.  And just as AGOA was an innovation 12 years ago, I think there are innovations that can be brought to bear in expanding AGOA and making it even more relevant."

I think the most important point that one could take away from his remarks is the last one, the need to find "new and innovative initiatives" to help bring Africa into the global economic community.  The Wilson Center is currently leading an effort to support this, in partnership with a Washington-based consulting firm specializing in international trade and investment issues, Manchester Trade. This effort will bring together a vast array of stakeholders in U.S./Africa trade and investment with the goal of strategically formulating a new, comprehensive and coordinated economic policy towards Africa.  Those stakeholders include federal government agency representatives from Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Commerce, National Security Council, U.S. Trade Office, Overseas Private Insurance Corporation, and Export-Import Bank; the U.S. Congress; private sector companies including the Chamber of Commerce; non-governmental organizations like the Corporate Council on Africa, the Whitaker Group,  Brookings Institute's African Growth Initiative, and Manchester Trade; the African diplomatic corps; and African entrepreneurs.

Much is already being done, or thought about, by each of these entities.  The U.S. Trade Representative is negotiating Bilateral Investment Treaties [BITs], while the National Security Council is coordinating efforts to deepen ties to the African Union and East African Community as a pilot for relations with the other Regional Economic Communities. USAID has founded a Private Capital Group for Africa Partners Forum, which will serve as "a platform to facilitate greater investment [to] support key development objectives in Africa."  The Department of Commerce has launched its "Doing Business in Africa" initiative.  The Export Import Bank and OPIC continue to utilize their current funding levels to aggressively benefit those keen on investing in the region.  On the private sector front, while policy ideas come from various sources, Corporate Council on Africa is undertaking a review of U.S. - Africa economic policies to be published shortly.  Congress has passed the "Increasing American Jobs Through Greater Exports to Africa Act," and is already discussing ways to renew and/or enhance AGOA before it lapses in 2015.

What is greatly needed is synergy of all this efforts, the need to work together to have a focused, comprehensive policy direction that is informed by all legitimate stakeholders and represents a common vision.  It needs to be anchored in a legislative base and not to be piecemeal.  To do this, we believe, strong Presidential leadership is needed.  The Wilson Center and Manchester Trade are suggesting just that.  In June 2013, a series of AGOA-related events in Ethiopia could present the U.S. with just the unparalleled opportunity it needs.  In Addis, America and Africa could seal a mutually-beneficial trade and investment deal that could impact generations.  The key to achieving this lofty goal may lie in the U.S. President's physical presence at the 2013 AGOA Forum.  If the U.S. Government and Addis were to coordinate invitation of key heads of state, the African Union chairperson, and also secretaries general of regional bodies, President Barack Obama would have an almost tailor-made platform from which to launch a New Deal for Africa that incorporates a new economic policy.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more