Article written

  • on 08.08.2014
  • at 06:30 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: The Aftermath 0

Washington DC – Africa’s leaders have flown home after meeting President Barack Obama, politicians, business executives and civil society in an unprecedented U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The event, themed “Investing in the Next Generation”, lasted three days from the 4th to the 6th of August during which participants discussed plans to strengthen the relationship between the two parties.  

Despite his Kenyan roots, President Barack Obama seemed to have somewhat overlooked the African continent over the course of his presidential career. Aside from a week-long trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania last year and a 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009, US engagement felt very limited particularly compared to China’s growing influence. Hence expectations were high when the President invited fifty heads of state to Washington for the first-ever US-Africa Summit.

Let’s talk about business

With an underlying aim to move away from development aid towards “equal” economic partnerships, trade and investment were star topics discussed in depth over the three days. This started on Monday with a forum on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a legislative agreement signed by former US President Bill Clinton in 2000 to promote a free-market system and fuel US-Africa trade and investment. The AGOA is due to expire in 2015, and South African President Jacob Zuma led the way in securing plans to renew and strengthen the Act in the future. Core economic discussions took place during the US-Africa Business Forum on Tuesday, when American companies such as Coca Cola, General Electric and Marriott pledged 14 billion dollars of investment in various sectors such as energy and infrastructure around the continent. In addition, the Doing Business in Africa Campaign (DBIA) – launched by the Obama Administration in 2012 to help US businesses harness trade and investment opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa – was offered 7 billion dollars, and Obama’s “Power Africa” Initiative, set up in 2013, will receive a 12 billion dollars in new commitments from a mix of public and mainly private partners. These will be provided by the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Swedish government and US companies, which are highly attracted by a continent whose total electricity output is similar to a country the size of Spain, and where a mere 8% of hydroelectric potential is currently being exploited. According to the White House, “these new commitments amount to more than 33 billion dollars, supporting economic growth across Africa and tens of thousands of U.S. jobs”.

Energy was inevitably a key theme of the US-Africa Business Forum, but how about climate change and environmental degradation? “Africa can be a clean energy beacon for the world”, said US Vice-President Joe Biden before announcing an additional 10 million dollars would be committed to the US-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative, which was launched in 2012 to catalyze private sector investment into clean energy projects in Africa. Yet the sum devoted to green investments still falls uncomfortably short compared to other pledges.

The usual suspects

The guests’ reactions to the Summit seem generally positive. Upon his return to South Africa on Thursday, Jacob Zuma said the three days had “reshaped” US-Africa relations and “taken it to another level” in a statement acquired by PANA. His enthusiasm is not unfounded, however. Together with Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia and Tanzania, South Africa is amongst the handful of countries (none of them francophone) likely to benefit from the opportunities provided by the AGOA, which is biased towards oil and gas. On another note, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, told reporters she thought the summit was successful and appreciated the frank discussion amongst leaders.  “Africa looks forward to doing business with American companies, not because we need aid or assistance, but because it makes business sense to invest in Africa,” she said.

Yet it is precisely this financial and economic focus which draws criticism from the media and civil society. “We see a definite shift in the US policy towards Africa,” managing editor of The East African Pamela Sittoni told Afronline. “It’s a bit of a concern that they are adopting the trade and investment stand, as opposed to a previous policy where aid was linked to governance and the respect for human rights and democracy. We fear that this new emphasis on trade is actually overlooking other issues that are important, such as issues of corruption which must not be downplayed.”

Good governance and democracy in the shadows?

These topics were not entirely excluded from the agenda, with a Civil Society Forum and various discussions centered on tackling the lack of democracy, security and high levels of corruption that affect a majority of African countries. In fact, regional director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Christopher Fomunyoh stated: “While trade and investment became the predominant theme because of Africa’s potential as a market, and because of contributions from the US private sector towards the Summit, I would say the other issues were still addressed.” It is also on these terms that President Robert Mugabe did not receive an invitation, together with the leaders of Sudan, Central African Republic and Eritrea. Still it is difficult to see much beyond symbolic actions and sweeping announcements. Whilst acknowledging the US has a more solidarity-based approach to Africa than China, Italian journalist Father Giulio Albanese claims trade and investments will not solve poverty. “We need welfare policies, and most importantly we need to ensure greater participation in terms of democracy and civil society. It seems to me Obama has been latent on these issues.”

US vs China… and the EU

Speaking of China, many observers see the Summit as a move to reassert American influence on the continent. With over 210 billion dollars in trade volume with Africa in 2013 (against 85 billion between the US and Africa), China has overtaken the world’s superpower and has been organizing Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summits since 2000. Although this was never explicitly stated, Obama himself alluded to Sino-African relations during the Summit stating, “We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources. We recognise Africa for its greatest resource which is its people and its talents and its potential”. Indeed, Mr Fomunyoh seemed to think this distinguishes the US from their Chinese counterparts. “The US is putting emphasis on the overall environment of good governance that can foster economic growth,” he told Afronline, “whereas the Chinese have focused solely on commercial relationships and do not bring up issues of good governance and human rights with African leaders”.

As attention is focused on US-China relations, where does this leave the European Union? “A sleeping beauty!” says Father Albanese. “We have policies in Brussels pursuing democracy and human rights, but then sovereign countries like France and the UK acting like mavericks.” He adds, “the problem is moving from words to facts. As long as we only focus on investment terms and agreements we will never solve Africa’s problems.” Yet Mr. Fomunyoh sees greater opportunities, claiming this is a chance “for Africa to leverage real interest by multiple partners, in a way that allows a more balanced commercial relationship between the continent and the world’s major economic blocs.” What we know is many words have been said over the Summit’s three days. Now Africans wait for facts.

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy/The White House Blog

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