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‘Trump is the rupture in US-Africa policy, Biden much more engaged’

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Thursday, 12 November 2020 19:24

US Africa Summit
Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The arrival of the Biden administration in the White House will be the opportunity for a reset of USA-Africa policy believes Grant T. Harris, a former Africa advisor for Barack Obama.

Harris advised President Barack Obama on Africa policy as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs at the White House from August 2011 to August 2015.

He will be speaking at the Concordia Africa Initiative, the first international forum since the US presidential elections where these issues can be addressed.

Harris sketches how the relationship may change.

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Are we going to see a genuine break to some of the trends that we saw under the previous administration; what does Biden mean for Africa?

I think that we should conceive of the Trump administration as the rupture or the break in US Africa policy, and the Biden administration will be much more engaged with African partners. The Biden administration is not going to leave the World Health Organization, the Biden administration is not going to block or obstruct the WTO. The Biden administration is going to be engaged on global issues that African states care about, including climate change.

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The Biden administration will much will be much more involved, across the board than it was under Trump. There were, for example, great delays in diplomatic appointments. The US didn’t even have an ambassador to South Africa for two and a half years.

The Trump administration also proposed major cuts in diplomacy and development assistance. Those were breaks with prior Democratic and Republican administrations. And the Biden administration is going to understand the importance of diplomacy, the importance of development assistance, and the importance of being a strong and reliable partner.

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What I hope we’ll see is a resumption to this long-standing bipartisan basis for African policy. Under Clinton, Obama and Bush, there were shared priorities to support democratic growth, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, to support us trade and investment. And I think the Trump administration really walked back from a lot of that, particularly support for civic space and democratic institutions.

Had there been a Biden administration in place a few months ago, would we have seen the massacre of armed civilians in Nigeria, for example?

I don’t know that a US administration would have been able to prevent all that happened, because there are so many issues that came to the fore. And we’re experiencing a lot of racial justice issues in the United States and I, they’re complex, and they are deep seated.

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And they have a lot of historical antecedents. And there’s a palpable sense of injustice on the part of many. And I don’t think simply having a Biden administration in a few months ago, whatever they may have counseled to the Nigerian government or Nigerian authorities, would have been determinative.

I think the issue is really about the Nigerian government, Nigerian security institutions, and them taking very seriously the concerns and and pursuing the right reforms and making sure that citizens feel safe.

It has been said that France feels largely alone in the Sahel and has not been receiving the support that it used to receive from, from the US, both in terms of on the ground Special Forces, but also electronic intelligence and surveillance. And do you think that will change under a Biden administration?

I know from my time in the Obama administration, when I was responsible for Africa, that supporting France, and their work in the Sahel was an important priority. And we did so with intelligence surveillance reconnaissance, and we were a strong partner. I think that this administration has generally been disengaged, they’ve applied less resources, less high level attention. They’ve shown less interest in what’s going on on the continent.

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And I think fundamentally, the Trump administration didn’t understand why what’s happening in African states is so important to us national security. That includes in the Sahel and working with international partners to ensure stability and to root out the terrorist threat, working with African partners. I think the Biden administration and the people who he names to the top jobs are going to understand why this is so important to national security and why it’s so important to support African states, and why it’s so important to work with France and other international partners.

There is a Trump appointee running the World Bank, making it very difficult for the institution to disperse COVID related relief, and he’s also making it complicated for debt negotiations that need to be happening at the moment. Obviously, the president of the World Bank is not a direct appointee. But do you think the Biden administration will put pressure on the World Bank to perhaps engage a little bit more constructively in these international debt fora?

I think the Biden administration is going to engage constructively, I know that they’ll work hard to have a good relationship with the World Bank. I’m not sure what the relationship will look like, precisely come January, when the Biden administration comes in, they’re going to be taking a look during this time period with the transition team at what policies are in place, what the World Bank is doing, how US agencies have engaged and there’ll be gathering their views on the way forward on debt relief.

There has been some work done by the Trump administration around Prosper Africa, around restarting the US ExIm Bank, even though it was the Republicans who themselves had stalled it by not allowing the quora necessary to restart it. But it has been restarted, and it has been interested in lending to, for example, Angola’s privatization program and other things. There have also been attempts to create a slightly more joined up network of US institutions that support companies interested in engaging in Africa. Will that be carried forward?

The work of trying to increase US trade and investment ties with Africa will absolutely be carried forward. And this was something that was started before Trump, in the Obama administration. For instance, we launched a doing business in Africa campaign, we had a US Africa Leaders Summit that generated $37bn, with respect to new commitments and inked deals. Prosper Africa was an attempt to rename some of that prior work, and to continue it.

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I think that the bright spot, really, potentially the only one, in my opinion of the Trump administration, is the creation of the Development Finance Corporation, which is a new US development institution. It’s important there to understand the nuance because Trump tried to eliminate various agencies in his budgets, including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which the US Congress then decided to double in size and expand and rename and become the DFC.

And Trump ultimately signed that legislation making it law. But sign it he did. And this is a step up to get $60 billion in resources for financing and that’s that will help us companies go forward. And about half of the DFC’s portfolio and current exposure is in Africa. And it should be growing over time.

You’re right that the ExIm Bank has been a political football in the past largely because of of views that that some Republicans held about its utility, but and and the numbers really bear out why it’s so what a missed opportunity that was in 2018, Eximbank provided about $3 billion in export financing. Compared to about $130 billion provided by the Chinese Export Import Bank for that year.

Now that Exim is back on again, that’s another important tool to be supporting US companies. The bottom line is that trade and investment is an important goal of US policy. I think the Trump administration could have done much more and at higher levels, and really encouraged it. But there was continuity in that being an important plank of US strategy, and it will continue under the Biden ministration to be a priority, I’m sure.

One of the points Eric Olander makes about the DFC is that, you know, along with the ExIm Bank, it has a very particular mandate now to take on the Chinese, especially in Africa, which will cause the US to miss opportunities to double down on things they are good at, is that fair?

I think that it’s early in the tenure of the DFC. And the decisions that will be made about how to allocate these increased resources are yet to be made, in many cases.

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I do agree that the United States should be thinking about its competitive advantages and that of American companies. I don’t think the strategy is to chase China in every particular sector or project.

I think the strategy is to have more resources available for US companies, and how they are deployed that that’s what will make the difference. So I think it’s an important issue that he’s raising, I don’t think that the die has been cast. And I think it’s too early to cast judgment one way or the other. It’s all going to be about the decisions of those in leadership positions at the DFC and Exim in terms of what they are funding, and Exim in particular, has made a priority based on on congressional prerogatives to on technology and other places where the US has comparative advantages. I think that it’s really going to depend on how the tools are used.

What sectors should US companies look to if they want to engage with the continent?

I think the issue is job creation, and with Africa’s booming, youthful population, and the fact that there’ll be a quarter of the world’s workforce by 2050. The number one economic issue on the plate is to create good jobs and economic livelihoods for its citizens. There are a lot of different sectors and industries that need to come into play.

But the issues that are at the forefront of my mind are the types of reforms needed to really strengthen investment climates so that African states can compete for international capital, so that they have more more choices. And they have more capital flowing in for projects and for infrastructure. And then I think it’s incumbent upon partners and companies around the world to be looking at these opportunities as well and to look past the noise and some of the misconceptions about risk and find the opportunities because they’re, they’re certainly there.

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