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US-Africa summit: Congress and the last hurdle

Posted on Tuesday, 29 July 2014 12:48

Although sketchy, with the absence of bilateral talks and joint statements, the decision to hold the summit is a giant step. After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.

Looking at the history of US-Africa relations, it is obvious that significant progress has been made. Echoing Congressman Bobby L. Rush’s words, US-Africa relations have moved from “the slave-ship to a Partnership”. But as the summit approaches, legitimate questions as to whether its core purpose can live up to expectations persist. Will tangible results be achieved?

Africa at the centre stage for other reasons than humanitarian crisis

The outcome of ALS is not only dependent on the President of the United States. It is intrinsically tied to America’s democratic institutions, especially as the final outcome is highly dependent upon Congressional discussions about the future or renewal of the current US-Africa trade agreement – the African Growth of Opportunity Act (AGOA) and passage of the Electrify Africa Act. Discussions that are yet to take place.

A key, promising element that allows African entrepreneurs to fully grab the bull by its horns is the Power Africa Initiative, which has seen a number of American investors gravitating towards Sub-Saharan Africa. But with barely a week to go before the opening of the summit, the Electrify Africa Act – a legislation that seeks to provide electricity to more than 589 million people in Sub-Saharan African countries and help produce at least 20,000 MW of electrical power, and which has already been passed in the house – is still pending at the Senate.

Summit fatigue

As expressed by participants at a recent event in Paris, co-organised by Cercle Andrew Young and Cercle Jefferson, with the support of the US Department of State, the August event might be the last straw as Africa desperately seeks to wrest itself from “Summit fatigue”. And signing this legislation, approved by congress, into law in the presence of 51 heads of states and la crème de la crème of African leaders would signal a strong partnership between the United States and the entire African continent.

Though essentially in a nascent state, Africa’s private sector has trumped many government agencies by strategically and efficiently addressing the needs of an increasingly sophisticated consumer market. A surge in investment opportunities has boosted the relatively new Africapitalism philosophy, spearheaded by Tony Elumelu, and as a result a high level private sector participation – at the summit – to underscore the dollars and sense of doing business with Africa is expected. Africans expect this summit to be a clear response to their ceaseless calls for “more trade and less aid”.

Emerging African global thinkers, who understand the African business reality, the need for inclusive growth, impact investments and social entrepreneurship are mobilising the private sector and moving the continent forward despite challenges. A majority of Africa’s 54 countries are leaving no stone unturned to ameliorate their investment climate and governance to attract and give legal stability to foreign investments. This perseverance translated into Africa’s strong economic performance during the recent global economic meltdown and its continued growth.

Success, however, will be ascertained with the creation of jobs, especially those targeting the youth. According to United Nations Africa Renewal, youths under 35 years old account for about 65 percent of the total population with a projection that by 2020 75 percent will be on average 20 years old. Ten million of them are entering the workforce every year, and with a population growing faster than jobs created, youth employment is a loud ticking time bomb; a situation that the timely US sponsored Young African Leaders initiative seeks to address. Enhancing the initiative beyond President Obama’s presidency is not just common sense, it’s a matter of natural security. Unemployment leads to poverty, which encourages terrorism in some of the most volatile regions in the world.

Another factor that needs close examination as a potential youth job creation avenue is the establishment of an African Employment Zone in targeted areas, as inspired by Clinton’s “empowerment zones” or President Obama’s “Promise Zones”. Originally, these “zones” are designed to boost economic development in underserved areas in the US. The same could be done in Africa’s cities and rural areas, while tying them to free trade zones and foreign direct investment. This will allow young African leaders to become full participants in this new economic partnership.

Building lasting bridges

Harnessing the economic potential of Africa’s diaspora, however, remains the missing link in the summit’s agenda. America is home to ‘little Africa’; a diaspora that does not only bring added value to the US economy but also is also an economic powerhouse for economies across Africa – supporting almost 50% of some of the continent’s fragile economies. Remittances are enhancing cultural diplomacy by virtue of their increasing role in both social and infrastructure development. Encouraging remittances by backing them with policies that seek to enhance money transfer will help build lasting bridges across the Atlantic.

In a recent statement, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for a review of the cost of money transfer to Sub-Saharan Africa, which remains the highest in the world; between 19 and 20 percent compared to an average of 6.5 percent in South Asia. Reducing this cost to 5 percent as promised by G8 and G20 will inject an extra 4 billion dollars directed towards families that are in dire need of assistance. Achieving such a feat calls for a united front of both Africa’s increasingly influential diaspora and governments, to seize the moment and build positive foundations and bridges.

And as Senator Coons stated: “American-educated African entrepreneurs can serve as a vital link between US companies and regional economies and markets, and have a real impact on Africa’s economic future”. We have the opportunity to transform brain drain into brain gain.

As the United States seek to engage with Africa, questions must be asked as to why US Ambassadors to 11 African countries having been awaiting confirmation by the Senate for over a year now. How can significant engagement take place with African leaders if there is no high level US representations on the ground? The absence of ambassadors in Namibia, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Niger, Lesotho, Mauritania, Gabon, Sao Tome, Djibouti, Algeria, Botswana, Cape Verde, and Rwanda sends a wrong diplomatic signal and can discourage economic collaborations at the continental level.

The urge to reduce the summit to a mere photo-op could be supported by the fact that the gathering may not close with a joint declaration from the US Government and African heads of states, in spite of the strong need of commitments for tangible actions on both sides of the Atlantic, to signify a new departure in US-Africa economic relations.

Despite a shy stance towards Africa at the beginning of his presidency, and constant criticism in a self-destructive political climate in Washington DC, President Obama has set the stage for meaningful exit. During this historical summit, Africa will be at the centre of the world’s attention for other reasons than humanitarian crisis, contributing to shedding light on the positive, yet ignored, facets of its people and help to wake a slumbering giant.

Angelle B. Kwemo, MD & CEO Rimsom Strategies, Ltd and founder & Chair Believe in Africa.

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