In 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was signed into law to boost America’s economic relationships with African nations. Since its inception, the level of trade between the United States and African countries has grown significantly, but most of that increase has been in the extractive industries. Broadening the benefits of AGOA and opening the door to more than oil and minerals is a shared goal.

During last year’s AGOA Civil Society Forum in Nairobi, the AGOA trade process was compared to a sporting event. African and American businesses are the players who compete to make successful deals that create wealth and thereby reduce poverty. Government plays the role of referees, who in this case create and enforce the rules of competition. Finally, civil society acts as the analysts who tell the public not just what the statistics say about who is winning and losing but why they win or lose and how the rules affect the game. The players must be creative and diligent in their efforts achieve profits that will benefit themselves, their families, and their communities. The referees must make sure reasonable rules are observed fairly and equally. The analysts of civil society must tell the public not just what they see but also what trade and investment mean for the common future.

Civil society is not the lone voice crying in the wilderness. It is in reality the collective voice of think tanks that provide critical economic analysis, faith-based organizations that help provide entrepreneurs their first chance to start a business, business associations that safeguard the interests of their members. Civil society groups are the conveners of local, national and international conferences examining the effectiveness of AGOA and other efforts to enhance the benefits of free trade. While hunger, poverty, lack of social services, and lack of basic infrastructure still exist in sub-Saharan Africa, civil society organizations have a vital role to play in the building of just, economically viable societies.

Gregory Simpkins is Vice President for Policy and Program Development at the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation.

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