The Common Good

The U.S. and Africa – Where There is Political Will, There Is A Way

Most discussions around development in Africa fall into the false dichotomy of trade vs. aid. The United States has commitments that inextricably connect trade and aid, development and technical assistance alongside strong economic relationships with many of the continent's countries. 

Understanding these relationships and continually working to strengthen them is of vital importance, both for the African continent (in particular in sub-Saharan Africa) and for the United States. Gone are the days of paternalism – in today’s world, we must view the developed and developing states as equal partners in a complex and interdependent world.

The most comprehensive legislation on the United States’ commercial relationship with Africa is The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), signed into law by President Clinton in 2000 in the hope of creating mutual benefits for both the U.S. and Africa. 

This week, the Brookings Institution hosted an event which looked back at the last 12 years of the legislation, which the Institution estimates has created 300,000 jobs in Africa and taking the opportunity to look forward. The legislation is set to expire in 2015, and debate has grown over how the United States can best work with Africa, in the light of its changing relationships with China, India and other emerging economies. There will be more on the relationship between Africa and China on the blog next week, when I review a new film called ‘China in Africa’ – so stay tuned.

In attendance at the Brookings event were key policymakers and politicians, including former President Clinton as the keynote speaker. The group of participants was encouragingly diverse – both in terms of drawing on U.S. policymakers, African politicians, civil society leaders, and private sector spokespeople from both African and the United States. 

While President Clinton’s speech focused more on the broader ways that Africa can “capture opportunity," the rest of the event, which was broadcast live on the Brookings website, focused more on the details of what has been successful in AGOA, and what can be done to improve it in light of the lessons learned over the past decade.

One common feature among the outlooks of all of the participants was that the relationship between the United States and Africa is one that has matured into a complex web of interactions, whether based on trade, security, energy, governance or one of many other areas. President Clinton noted that “the fundamental idea behind AGOA was right. No country can work itself out of poverty with aid alone.” 

While some people view foreign aid as an unnecessary burden on the U.S. economy, at just 1 percent of federal spending, it is just one small (albeit vital) piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating a safer, healthier and more prosperous global population. For the most part, the foundation that AGOA has laid is mutually beneficial for both sides, and is, as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Kirk noted, “having [a] tangible impact on both sides of the Atlantic.”

There were, of course, reservations about the successes that AGOA has achieved. A number of the speakers, including one of the architects of the act, former presidential advisor Rose Whitaker, who seemed muted in her praise of the results on the ground in terms of "Growth and Opportunity," deeming them "acceptable," but clearly wanting to see improvements in the near future. 

A number of the visiting speakers from across Africa (such as Hanna Tetteh, Ghana’s Minister of Trade, and Erastus Mwencha, the Deputy Chairperson of the African Union) also took issue with the lack of will and interest amongst the US private sector to help African businesses break through import markets and help African companies mature in the global market. Others, however, defended the private sector’s role in African development – with the CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa arguing that very often the private sector isn’t even given a seat at the table when it comes to bilateral arrangements between the U.S. and African states. 

These reservations and frustrations were, for the most part, matched by optimism and hope for the future of the act, which a number of the speakers, including President Clinton, urged to be reauthorized without controversy or delay – all the time recognizing that reauthorization must go hand-in-hand with the lessons that have been learned since the act was passed in 2000.

The general feeling of the conference was a positive one, with President Clinton’s final words probably summing up the attitude well:

“You’re just beginning to see Africa’s moment in the sun. …The next decade will be better than the last if we deal with these few but profoundly important fundamental tasks”

All that is needed now is the political will in both Congress and the Obama Administration to reauthorize and build on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, deepening the relationship between the United States and African states, for the benefit of all involved. 

For more information on AGOA, read this report by The Brookings Institute. You can watch the whole event and listen to President Clinton’s keynote speech here.

Jack Palmer is Communications Assistant for Sojourners. 

Bill Clinton photo, stocklight / Shutterstock.com

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