For years, the US-Africa relationship has fallen short of what it could be, owing to misaligned priorities and a mix of neglect and contempt on the part of the United States. But the door is open for the US to improve its engagement with the continent; President Joe Biden’s administration need only walk through it.
CAMBRIDGE – In recent decades, the US-Africa relationship has disappointed both sides. Republican and Democratic US presidents alike have treated the continent with benign neglect, if not with outright contempt, and the United States has duly fallen behind China, India, and France in terms of overall trade with Africa.
Although Barack Obama, America’s first black president, launched a modest “Power Africa” initiative, his four trips there are mostly remembered for his lectures on “good governance.” And this from an administration that turned a blind eye to autocrats in countries hosting US military bases, and then joined forces with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a misguided and costly military intervention in Libya. The consequences for the Sahel and beyond have been catastrophic.
Then came Donald Trump, who did not even consider Africa a destination worth visiting. His racist insults about the continent (“shithole countries”) confirmed his disdain, and will not soon be forgotten or forgiven. True, Trump’s administration did acknowledge that lasting stability, prosperity, independence, and security in Africa are in America’s national interest. But his pledges to advance trade and commercial ties, and to counter Islamic terrorism, did not materialize. Instead, the administration weaponized trade policy by suspending duty-free status for some African exports under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, in retaliation against Rwanda for its efforts to protect its garment industry.
Now, the arrival of President Joe Biden’s administration provides an opportunity to rekindle the US-Africa relationship. Typically, articulating an Africa strategy is not a top priority for new American presidents. In Biden’s case, he has taken office at a time of heightened global fears about COVID-19, ongoing economic uncertainty, and deep geopolitical division. And for its part, Africa is suffering its worst economic performance in a generation, setting the stage for persistent misery, social unrest, and violent conflict in the future.
Nonetheless, the sheer depth of these problems makes this a perfect time for bold initiatives. To be sure, Africa – a dynamic region with great resilience, high aspirations, abundant resources, unbounded creativity, and plenty of ideas – should not rely on any foreign power for its political and economic future. The fuse of prosperity and peace must be lit from within. But, because trade is the main engine of growth and socioeconomic development for African economies (all of which are small and open), and because the US remains the world’s dominant economic player, Africans are looking to the Biden administration to propose a new course.
To that end, the US can reap major political and economic benefits by acting symbolically, strategically, and operationally. For starters, the Biden administration can set the tone for a new partnership with several costless overtures. Official statements acknowledging Africa’s enormous contribution to human civilization and the urgent need for it to reclaim a prominent role in world affairs would convey respect and help change perceptions. And a US commitment to support permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council for the African Union, and to co-finance peacekeeping missions in the Sahelian region and the Lake Chad Basin would cement this.
At the strategic level, the US should offer a new vision for its approach to the continent, shifting from a focus on geopolitical stakes and countering China, which led to disastrous results during the Cold War, to a true partnership based on mutually beneficial business relationships and delivering visible results. That means going beyond meager bilateral projects that aim only to plant an American flag. For example, the US should take a leadership role in ensuring that COVID-19 vaccines quickly make their way to Africa. This would be consistent with Biden’s priorities and send a strong signal that the era of benign neglect is over.
For too long, the US has been content to support any African dictator who offers cooperation in the fight against terrorism (or secure access to mineral extraction), on the grounds that doing so is necessary to prevent chaos. But this policy has failed: the US has ended up with dictators and chaos at the same time. Without falling into the self-righteous trap of pursuing regime change, the Biden administration should treat bad African leaders the way the US treated communist autocrats in Eastern Europe. Moral clarity is of the essence.
Finally, at the operational level, renewed pragmatism toward Africa could deliver quick and valuable wins. The first task should be to de-politicize the macroeconomic policies promoted by international institutions and development banks where the US dominates. African monetary policies should be open to domestic intellectual and policy debates, just as they are in other parts of the world. Similarly, African strategies for fiscal policy, financing, and debt management should reflect current knowledge, not old static accounting orthodoxies.
With these considerations in mind, a first bold objective for the Biden administration would be to set a target date for ending US foreign aid to Africa, with the goal of replacing the current politicized bilateral aid instruments with new trade finance and facilitation programs.
Second, America could improve its standing in Africa by recognizing that its distortionary agricultural subsidies negatively affect global prices for many commodities, thereby lowering growth rates in Africa. By reforming its own agricultural financing, the US could trigger similar positive policy changes across OECD countries, as well as encourage African industrialization – all of which would benefit both America and Africa.
Third, engagement by the US with China, the European Union, Japan, India, and public and private financiers would help to de-risk investment in Africa and facilitate financing for productive infrastructure. By targeting sectors where African countries have a comparative advantage (agroindustry, light manufacturing, and cultural and creative industries), and by supporting the construction of special economic zones and industrial parks, the US can help stimulate global demand, generate growth, and create employment in Africa and advanced economies alike.
Finally, collaborating with private investors to build first-rate educational and cultural institutions in Africa would strengthen America’s soft power there. The best response to China’s export of Confucius Institutes is not Sinophobic rhetoric, but concrete action to foster learning and knowledge accumulation in Africa.
The new US administration cannot rely on symbolism alone. Strategically and operationally, too, a new relationship with Africa requires a cooperative framework that embodies the principles of dignity and mutual respect.
Célestin Monga, a former managing director at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and a former senior economic adviser at the World Bank, is Visiting Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the co-editor, (with Justin Yifu Lin) of The Oxford Handbook of Structural Transformation and the co-author (with Justin Yifu Lin) of Beating the Odds: Jump-Starting Developing Countries.
The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website