People power

America’s African diaspora: An unmatched advantage in the soft power competition for influence

By Yaya Moussa

Posted on May 22, 2023 14:33

 © Members of the Ethiopian diaspora, the largest outside of Ethiopia in Washington, U.S., July 28, 2018.             REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Members of the Ethiopian diaspora, the largest outside of Ethiopia in Washington, U.S., July 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

The soft power competition for political and business influence in Africa has never been so fierce.

As Chinese, Russian and American government officials and businesses contend to secure the continent’s rich mineral resources, take advantage of business and investment opportunities, cultivate unexploited agricultural land, and shape the region’s 54 votes at the UN, one nation has a unique advantage.

Thanks to its African diasporas, the US is in a powerful position, but it is not currently using this strength to the fullest extent. Several foreign and domestic policy choices could change this.

Thanks to its formidable size, the African diaspora is often referred to as the sixth region of the African Union. Together, diaspora Africans have substantially contributed to America’s wealth and have growing economic and political clout. In 2021, Black spending power in the US reached a record $1.6trn, a 171% increase since 2000.

However, it is wrong to think of America’s African diaspora as a single movement or monolithic community. It includes descendants of enslaved Africans and over two million African immigrants who have close familial, social and economic connections to all parts of the continent.

America’s rivals

This diversity adds to its potential powerful role in the soft power competition. These connections simply do not exist in China and Russia, America’s biggest strategic rivals in Africa.

African-Americans have been instrumental in shaping US foreign policy toward Africa, and the US government has begun to recognise the latent strength of its diaspora communities. At the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, the US State Department announced a new President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement to leverage historic ties.

The role of the council is to encourage “collaboration, partnership, and community-building among the US, Africa, and other nations globally” and “strengthen cultural, social, political, and economic ties between African communities, the global African diaspora and the United States”. This initiative demonstrates a commitment to fostering mutually beneficial ties with Africa and starts to make good on America’s commitment to a new model of partnership as set out by the State Department’s new strategy for sub-Saharan Africa published in summer 2022.

This model seeks to counterbalance the more transactional approach to Africa of America’s rivals. China, in particular, has built vast infrastructure projects across Africa but has been accused of debt-trap diplomacy.

In the case of Russia, arms and security have yielded narrow diplomatic results. For example, several African countries with close security ties to Russia voted with Moscow at the UN following its invasion of Ukraine. However, the US can use its diaspora communities to go further to build mutually beneficial, longer lasting and more resilient ties than that of its rivals.

Authentic African perspectives

The creation of an Africa-centric think tank, led by the African diaspora, could advance relations through policy research and co-ordination of interests, in particular, between Americans of African heritage and African countries and their own policy and research institutions.

A think tank that collates African diaspora views can advocate new foreign policy perspectives and would address the issue of limited access to lobbying opportunities relative to existing vested interests. Such an institution could also provide a high-level platform for visiting African thinkers and provide guidance to African diaspora and African-Americans on how to actively engage their representatives in government.

The US has world-class universities, with most global rankings giving the majority of Top 10 spots to institutions in America. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) could partner with African universities to collaborate on research, share knowledge and facilitate cross-cultural exchange.

Educational partnerships could provide greater access to higher education opportunities for Africans, foster a positive disposition towards America for Africa’s future leaders in politics and business, and provide US students with access to on-the-ground experience in Africa and to African perspectives at a much deeper level.

Africa has little control over how it is represented internationally in the mainstream media.

African culture has become fashionable in America. African music, food, and fashion are rapidly growing in popularity. In February, four African artists won Grammys, the world’s most prestigious music awards, while several others were also nominated.

However, Africa has little control over how it is represented internationally in the mainstream media. African American and African media moguls could establish a world-class and worldwide Africa-centric TV station. Such a network can advance authentic African perspectives, currently inaccessible or without a platform, and celebrate Africa’s cultural connections around the world, particularly with the US.

The US has made clear it wants to shift its relationship with Africa to one of partnership, and has taken the first steps to leverage its unique position in having indelible connections with the continent. More can and should be done, however.

By taking advantage of its African diaspora communities, and with deliberate and thoughtful cultivation, the US can forge relationships that can bring greater prosperity to both the American and African continents, and the peoples who inhabit them.

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