An Elephant in Africa: Principles for the New U.S. Administration in Africa

An Elephant in Africa: Principles for the New U.S. Administration in Africa

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By Eliot Pence, ASP Adjunct Fellow

While Sub Saharan Africa’s growth and stability has stumbled recently, it remains a growing and strategically significant region for the United States and the world. Africa’s hopeful demographic trends and wealth of strategic resources stand in stark contrast to a world in which population replacement rates are declining and resource depletion is increasing. Over the next ten years, a population equivalent to half the US population today — 187 million  — will move to African metropoles and in less than 20 years, Africa will have the largest working-age population in the world. At over 1 billion working age people, Africa will exceed that of either China or India.  The continent remains a pivotal producer of critical resources, including rare earths, of which it has more than half of the world’s supply.

As the Trump Administration considers how best to advance its approach to the “Next Africa,” it should consider building policies around three increasingly important principles: Divergence, Reciprocity and Continuity. First, the country-continent basis on which much of the US-Africa relationship has been based is outdated, spreads resources too thin and increasingly does not reflect the diverse and divergent paths many African countries have followed. After decades of engaging with the continent as a patron, America must hasten the transition to partnership and reciprocity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for an administration that has pursued an anti-establishment foreign policy, continuity cannot be overrated.

The Obama Administration, and the Bush Administration before it, pursued policies that have advanced both a more nuanced and reciprocal relationship with the continent’s countries; some of these programs should be continued, but creativity is needed in enhancing how they are implemented on the ground in Africa.


Divergence: Learning to Prioritize and Not Standardize

After 15 years of converging economic growth where ‘all countries rose,’ Africa is now entering an era of divergence, where the development paths of each country and region differ markedly — and confusingly. The consequences of this divergence will affect how America engages the continent. Divergence entails a number of things, but most notably, how we have tended to construct our programs and initiatives on the continent.  American programs in the past tended to promote a standardized set of measurements that examined characteristics like level of development (least developed, more developed) and level of freedom (most or least).

The limitations of such an approach were significant – few countries were clearly one or the other, and most fell in between. In the area of governance it was especially unclear.  Blanket titles like democracy papered over massive gaps in inequality, class divisions and governing capacity.  The most relevant distinction between different African governments in the future will not be the type of government, but the degree of governance. Even more importantly, the metrics promoted the idea that all countries could and would be assessed on this basis, when clearly they were not – we had neither the data nor necessarily the intent. The consequences were at best awkward: it lifted nations like Cape Verde, a country of 500,000, by signing a $100 million Millennium Challenge Compacts, and excluded strategically important ones like Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was initially excluded from Power Africa, despite having the potential to be the continent’s largest power provider.

Eliminating outdated standards and metrics of assessment, or introducing more appropriate, fact-based assessment metrics (such as whether a country is a commodity producer or importer, its ability to project force and willingness to use it, economic size and regional influence) that guide programs will avoid awkward contradictions and an overly diagnostic lens sometimes applied to US-Africa policy.


Reciprocity: Walking the Talk

In President Obama’s speech to the African Union in 2015, he noted the ongoing change in the relationship between the US and Africa as one that has gone from patron to partner. That’s not entirely true yet – the US still gives an enormous amount of budgetary support across the continent. The African Union itself is majority donor funded. However, the trend line is good.

We can start with trade.  Revising the Africa Growth Opportunity Act to better reflect how far both the United States and Africa have come since 2000, is an important first step in course correcting the relationship. An updated version of AGOA would make American manufacturers more competitive in African markets, like South Africa, which benefited enormously under AGOA. In order for the US to compete, it must be more creative and less prescriptive in how a new trade and investment treaty might be formed. One way it could do that is by striking more bilateral deals with specific countries or with regional groups, like East Africa Community, on sectors of particular interest to American investors.

Disaggregating its approach and looking for priority countries and sectors would focus American government resources where they are needed most. Part of reciprocity is also recognizing that we could do more. One area where the US approach can be clarified is around corruption. African countries should be given the civil penalties and disgorgement proceeds associated with any corrupt activities immediately. This practice unnecessarily complicates the relationship and generates resentment amongst our African partners.


Creative Continuity: Same, Same but Different

As we look to reinforce the trend lines in US-Africa engagement, we should be creative in how we bend the arc of those policies to serve American strategic interests. Doing this also requires recognizing that African countries have new partners with different approaches – China, India, Brazil and Turkey. These approaches tend to conflict with American forms of economic diplomacy – such as low cost loans and commodity backed financing.

Non-Western firms are also buttressed by a strategic commitment to the market by their home country. China sees Africa as an essential partner in their foreign policy both because it is reliant on its strategic resources (Africa supplies over one third of China’s oil imports) and as a destination for its state owned enterprises. While we may not wish to emulate these approaches, there are clearly things that can be done, including reauthorizing Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), allowing the Millennium Challenge Corporation to sign compacts with sub-national entities, and doubling down on Trade and Power Africa. More also must be done to communicate to Congress the lost commercial opportunities by not fostering new and innovative supporting structures around our economic diplomacy. Part of ensuring continuity in our engagement with the continent concerns ensuring the smooth transition between Africa’s older generation of leaders, and its newer generation of leaders.

Doubling down on programs like Young African Leadership Initiative and other young professional networks like the Africa Leadership Network and Africa 2.0, will help build and sustain US influence in the decades ahead. As we reconsider our development assistance, we should look to reinforce the ongoing shift from aid to trade to investment. Mixed messages on democracy promotion activities, in particular, or overly complex or cumbersome development programs can work against our projection of soft power and capacity building, even as both intend to bolster it. Focusing more on investment-related issues might build trust and alliances where and when they have been diluted by advocating for issues where there is less unanimity even within our own government. One area where we could start is by more fully considering purely outcome oriented development assistance initiatives, such as cash transfer programs, which do not prescribe a certain ‘way of doing things’.

As the Trump Administration’s Africa team forms, it will need to consider how best to address the four pillars of America’s Africa policy – stability, democracy, governance and growth. Given the competing foreign policy priorities, it is unlikely to have the resources, patience and capacity to address each area fully. Focusing on priority countries and sectors as the continent enters an era of divergence, motivating a maturation and encouraging reciprocity in its trade and investment ties to the continent and building creatively on what has worked will hopefully help the new team allocate resources and time as effectively as possible to a continent with 54 countries and over 1 billion people.