With President Joe Biden’s intent to “revive” the Trump administration’s approach to relationship-building in Africa, to deliver effective commercial engagement across African markets, the Biden administration must build on recent successes and continue the strong starting point.
The administration announced on July 29 its intent to engage Africa through commercial diplomacy and to reinforce its $80 million appropriation request for Prosper Africa, the two-way trade and investment initiative.
That message further acknowledges that the American private sector experience with Africa is capable of transitioning from primarily aid-based engagement to one pursuing durable economic partnerships.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. exports to Africa posted consecutive gains in 2018 and 2019, and the reciprocal interest from African peers in accommodating U.S. commercial partnerships and investments suggests the prospect of developing greater commercial ties—expanding market access for U.S. firms, promoting reforms and raising standards abroad, and serving supply chain resiliency on both sides of the Atlantic.
Former President Donald Trump’s U.S. Africa Strategy understood the importance of economic growth and security as key pillars for American engagement with Africa, and it affords a working starting point for Biden’s own policy for the continent.
If Biden’s intended investment in Africa is to bolster democracy, environmental and labor standards, intellectual property protections, and humanitarian values, the U.S. private sector should play a key role.
Promoting U.S.-Africa commercial connections has many advantages beyond boosting trade or foreign direct investment.
First, it generates American attention to Africa, and not simply as an international aid recipient, but as a burgeoning yet real investment opportunity and partner. The domestic economic growth, supply chain, and job creation potential should not be underestimated.
Second, a U.S. commercial presence is the most sustainable counterbalance to foreign alternatives.
The Trump administration’s Africa Strategy understood that African governments and enterprises want quality, accountable partners. With fewer than 1% of the continent’s population vaccinated for COVID-19, fierce competition for political attention amid the pandemic recovery requires the U.S. to send its clearest signal.
“Vaccine diplomacy” represents a private-public partnership capable of further introducing African states to the advantages of the U.S. economy and to the value of American quality, reliability, and trust.
Third, Africa itself is reorganizing. With a combined population of more than 1 billion, the continent’s clout in multilateral organizations continues to grow. Global trade policy is now under historic African leadership with the World Trade Organization’s selection of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as director-general. Following the formation of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the continent boasts a 54-member free trade region.
Africa is leading with the promise and pursuit of economic prosperity—and the U.S. can meet this moment unlike any other nation in the world.
In December 2018, the Africa Strategy identified the significance of relationship-building as well as the necessary steps to forge partnerships, including the repositioning of government bandwidth to see trade, investment, and diplomacy come together through the launch of Prosper Africa.
In turn, Prosper Africa leveraged private sector insights to realign government tools to deliver best results—and support the market-led engagement integral to long-term relationship building.
The current $80 million request for Prosper Africa is a clear approval of that.
Prosper Africa must be responsive and nimble to respect the continent’s diversity, since a one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate, given the tremendous market variety within Africa. Each of Africa’s 54 distinct nations require tailored approaches to adequately address their challenges and needs, and American businesses are best positioned to respond to that complexity.
As U.S. exports to, and direct investment in, Africa are still working to return to the previous decade’s high marks, reinforcing Prosper Africa is a strong measure—and can be complemented by other actions.
Opening new foreign commercial offices in North Africa and West Africa, for example, would provide a visible commercial footprint and help qualify trade and investment leads in fast-rising economies.
The appointment of a U.S. executive director to the Africa Development Bank would demonstrate the administration’s attention to development there, as well.
Continuing the Trump administration’s empowering of diaspora-owned firms and small businesses is an essential commitment. Both large and small businesses understand market realities, and their voices should be represented as Washington makes important decisions concerning the African Continental Free Trade Area and whether and how it should renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
The proposed funding for Prosper Africa hopefully will maintain the initiative’s momentum. The appropriation could support more interagency detail assignments, add foreign officers to the initiative’s secretariat, and further invest in what already exists—and works—to foster market-led trade and investment.
Prosper Africa would be more effective still with congressional action that codifies the initiative. That would give it stability and bring further accountability to its operations, as the Electrify Africa Act in 2015 did for the Power Africa program. With a proposed $80 million supporting the coordinated activities of 17 agencies, such action would provide critical oversight, as well, to see program objectives are achieved.
For a White House with the opportunity to continue progress toward a free trade agreement with Kenya, to implement the economic cooperation memorandum of understanding with Senegal, and to reinforce the Abraham Accords’ collaboration and peace objectives with Morocco, those hallmarks can be immensely valuable.
The Trump administration has enabled Biden’s efforts by establishing a central theme: U.S. enterprise must be a key part of an effective American strategy for Africa.
The most effective and durable foreign policy toward Africa will balance national security and diplomacy goals with serious economic partnership, one that pursues trade and development reforms, reinforces market access, and identifies creative avenues for two-way engagement.
Maintaining this approach would ensure U.S. competitiveness and provide the building blocks for generational transatlantic relationships.
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