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One Outcome of the US-Africa Summit is Essential

Us-Africca Kerry

There is uncertainty surrounding the "product" that will emerge from the on-going African Leaders Summit being hosted by President Obama.  Through the planning sessions leading up to the Summit, in which this author took some role, there was broad consultation throughout all executive government agencies, Congress, and a wide range of civil society and business interests.  Many ideas were laid on the table about logistics, format, agenda, substance, invitees (whether or not to exclude certain Heads of State), extracurricular activities, and roles of host officials and the President.  Controversial issues such as whether the President could have one-on-one bi-laterals with select or all heads of state were thoroughly examined and decisions were made.

How will the summit end?

It is now a fait accompli as to all of these questions, and the Summit is in full steam.  Only today is left.  The burning question now is how it will end?  It was decided that there would be no final, formal "communique," Memorandum of Understanding, or "Action Agenda," going forward.  There will be a summary of deliberations and commitments made, and a verbatim record of presentations. As with any such high level meeting, much of the value will have been in the networking, private "hallway" discussions, and individual follow-ups that will occur.  In that regard alone, the Summit will have been an invaluable contribution to US-Africa policy dialogue and understanding.  Feedback that I am receiving from Africans around the continent is firm regarding the value of this historic event in this context.

Continued Commitment

The "but" however, is in the continuity going forward and the sustainability of that American commitment.  Grave concern exists that this ongoing commitment is not being addressed.  One way to address it is to provide a mechanism within the bureaucracy for that purpose.  A special office was established in the State Department's Africa Bureau, led by the experienced and capable Mike Battle, former Ambassador to the Africa Union, to handle exactly these questions of logistics, agenda, and substance cited above.  It is essential that this office be made permanent for the purpose of planning and implementing an American- African Leaders' Summit every three to four years.

Japan, China, the EU and India have been conducting similar summits with African leaders every three years or so, with Japan doing so since 1993.  When the first Japanese "Tokyo International Conference on Africa Development" (TICAD) took place that year, it was ground breaking, and resulted in a major, if mostly unnoticed, increased presence of Japan in Africa.  Japan is now the fifth largest bilateral official development assistance (ODA) donor to Africa after the US, France, the UK and Germany, amounting to an average of $1.8 billion per year from 2008-2012.  The TICAD is the vehicle through which all of this has been coordinated.  It is a permanent office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed by a senior Ambassador with Ministerial rank, Yoshifumi Okamura, who most recently served as Ambassador to Ivory Coast.  In a recent meeting with Ambassador Okamura, he stressed to me the need for continuity and repeated consultations throughout the interim periods between summits if they are to be successful.

Going Beyond 2016

This is the essential element that must emerge from our current Africa Leaders' Summit.  This must not be a one-off event that serves as an Obama "legacy," but the beginning of a process that brings ongoing understanding, insight, strategy, and debate to the highest levels of US and African governance.   As one source told me this morning, speaking from Addis Ababa, "Africans just don't understand America."  We must make sure that we have a forum in which we are committed to permanently address issues of understanding and partnership.  The commitment must not just be that of President Obama, but of the United States, and we need to lock in our government bureaucracy to meet that commitment beyond 2016.


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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The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-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 U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more