It has been nine months since President Obama made his only trip to Africa, not counting a brief stopover between Moscow and Washington early in his first term. During the 2013 trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, he announced four major new initiatives, each meant to be different from those any other American president had delivered to Africa, and perhaps to define what would become the president's legacy on that continent.
At the culmination of President Clinton's second term, Congress passed the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the first comprehensive act solely on behalf of Africa ever passed by a US Congress. In the George W. Bush years, there were enhancements to that law, as well as the landmark President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Act, one of the most innovative pieces of foreign aid ever created by Congress, which not only provided development aid, but allowed the recipient country to design its own proposals and select its own bidders, unlike most foreign aid defined by the donor country and often tied to donor suppliers.
In each of his three stops during his 2013 trip, Obama announced a new initiative, each unique from those of his predecessors. Yet the response was surprisingly muted, both in Africa and back home. There was little US press coverage of the trip, and even less of the details of his four-part initiative. Looking back, it is hard to understand why the trip did not receive the coverage it deserved. Perhaps it was the way it had been planned, with relatively short notice to the host countries. Perhaps media, especially American media, had yet to grasp changes occurring in Africa and their implications for America.
But many, including me, believe that the four initiatives were exactly what was and is needed to support development in Africa. The initiatives reflected a recognition that the US needed new approaches to our relations with African nations, beyond traditional development aid. China, India , the Gulf States, Brazil and even Russia were all making major inroads into the African market and were providing much needed and significant improvements in Africa's infrastructure. US companies were losing market share, and were in danger of being left out of the world's largest emerging market. There was a perception that US policy was no longer held in high esteem by African leaders.
The four initiatives – PowerAfrica, TradeAfrica, Young African Leaders Initiative and Governance – are well-thought out. Each new initiative focused on the very issues that have hindered African development, and each of the initiatives played to US strength. Though as a financial package , they are modest in comparison to the announced development packages of China and Japan, the initiatives were designed to address some of the most fundamental changes that Africa has ever experienced. They focus respectively on the need for infrastructure in Africa, the need for greater regionalization for trade facilitation, the development of leadership in the public, private and civil society sectors, and the issues of overall governance of nations.
PowerAfrica focuses on perhaps the most critical aspect of Africa infrastructure: the development of a continent-wide electrical grid accessible to all. There is not a country in Africa that is meeting its current power needs, let alone its future needs. Nigeria, recently announced as the economic leader of Africa, is now only meeting 20 percent of its power needs. Some countries are meeting even less. Without power, economic development is nearly impossible.
TradeAfrica focuses on the development of one economic region, the East Africa Community. The thinking behind this is to work with the region most likely to successfully develop a regionalization of customs, roads and infrastructure and use that as a model for the rest of Africa.
The Young African Leaders Initiative is designed to mentor emerging young leaders in Africa by providing internships in corporations, non-profit agencies and public enterprises in order to develop a long-term network of support. In some ways this program may be the most challenging for this and subsequent administrations.
There will be and is pressure on the administration to come up with new programs for Africa that will excite the imagination of Africans and Americans alike. The core of his vision has been laid out in the four initiatives announced last summer. However, with the future of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a linchpin for US policy towards Africa these past 15 years, uncertain , it is important that Obama be able to reassure the Africans of our future long-term commitment to the continent with new initiatives in trade, beyond those announced last summer.