African leaders and citizens had great expectations in 2008 that the election of President Barack Obama would elevate the prominence of Africa and its concerns in U.S. government deliberations.

These expectations have not been met.

Shortly before the 2008 election, a senior Obama campaign Africa policy adviser outlined an agenda of (1) accelerating Africa’s integration into the global economy; (2) enhancing regional peace and security; and (3) deepening democracy and accountability and reducing poverty. Although generic, these priorities are unobjectionable. The problem is that the administration has neglected Africa and done little to advance these policies aggressively, which has diluted the goodwill created with Africans by previous U.S. administrations.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which starts today, is unfortunately poised to simply reinforce the Obama administration’s unfocused policy with few major announcements, agreements, or policy developments expected to be revealed. The summit looks to be a missed opportunity to refocus America’s Africa policy. Ultimately, the actions the U.S. takes toward building greater partnerships with African countries following the summit will be the ultimate test of Obama’s leadership and commitment to Africans. Specific steps that should be taken are:

  • Renew and upgrade African Growth and Opportunity Act. Under AGOA, the U.S. grants duty-free access to nearly all imports from eligible sub-Saharan countries through September 2015. Unfortunately, as a trade preference arrangement, AGOA does not allow Africans to benefit from cheaper U.S. imports. The administration should work with Congress to quickly renew and upgrade AGOA to advance economic freedom in Africa, encourage economic integration within the region, and set the stage for a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Africa.
  • Shift traditional development assistance to the Millennium Challenge Corporation and treatment of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tropical diseases. There is scant evidence that increased foreign economic aid leads to improved economic growth and development. Government development assistance is growing less relevant as private financial flows have grown. The U.S. should focus its assistance on proven initiatives (such as PEPFAR) with measurable impact that bolster America’s credibility or encourage policy changes to enable African nations to take greater advantage of private financial flows and entrepreneurship.
  • Pursue fundamental reforms of America’s food assistance programs that would increase efficiency and effectiveness. Food aid programs should be run for the benefit of people who are starving. Eliminating legal requirements on the use of U.S. food and shipping would result in more timely response to crises, savings from shorter shipping distances, competitive pricing, and encourage local and regional production by buying closer to the affected population.
  • Reinforce the importance of democratic governance in Africa and publicly support the region’s democratic standard bearers. Countries such as Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, and Mauritius should be held as examples for the region, and the U.S. should support their growing regional leadership roles while isolating those with poor records for human rights and the rule of law.
  • Identify counterterrorism as the overriding U.S. security priority for the region. Violent extremism is undermining stability in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, other African countries. The U.S.’s preeminent priority should be to work with other countries such as Niger, where the U.S. has a drone base, to counter this threat.
  • Promote security cooperation in the region. The U.S. should leverage its existing strategic dialogue partnerships with Algeria, Angola, Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia to foster greater regional security cooperation. The U.S. should increase funding and support for training and professionalization of African militaries and also dedicate more resources to maintaining training and retention of trained units. The goal should be to better enable African militaries to assume more responsibility for regional security and peacekeeping through the African Union or regional groupings or in support of U.N. peacekeeping.
  • Review and address flaws in U.N. peacekeeping. The U.S. has supported U.N. peacekeeping and missions to address various crises in Africa. The U.N. has a mixed record on resolving these crises. Worse—as evidenced by a recent U.N. report finding that peacekeeping missions charged with protecting civilians failed to respond to 80 percent of incidents from 2010 to 2013—there are questions of whether U.N. peacekeepers are willing and able to fulfill their responsibilities. The U.S. is the largest contributor to U.N. peacekeeping, being assessed 28.4 percent of the peacekeeping budget, and has a responsibility to ensure that the missions are improving the situations where they are deployed and that peacekeepers are fulfilling their responsibilities.

During the upcoming summit, which marks a critical juncture of America’s engagement with Africa, peoples of the continent will be watching, reading, and listening closely to the words of the Obama administration. While the administration has proposed or expressed support for several of the above proposals, they have languished due to insufficient leadership by the administration or unwillingness to overcome resistance by his allies in Congress. Obama still has an opportunity to advance forward-looking engagement with Africa. It would be a shame if he just settled for recycled rhetoric and an expensive photo-op.

This piece was adapted from The Heritage Foundation issue brief “Setting a Course for Obama’s Rudderless Africa Policy.”