Howard on Africa In-Brief
A publication of the Center for African Studies, Howard University
A Bolder Approach to U.S.-Africa Foreign Policy
By Suleyman Konte, Ph.D.
The excitement on the African continent over the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden (46), who is perceived to be a pragmatic if not a progressive force in international relations, has African policymakers and public policy practitioners eager for the unveiling of a revamped Biden administration Africa policy. The question on many minds remains, exactly how bold would a Biden policy be? To more discerning analysts, the question evolves to, why, if at all, would the U.S. propose a bold African strategy? Which in turn raises the question of Africa’s geopolitical position in global affairs, and the U.S. geostrategic outlook for the foreseeable future. Is the African Bloc a U.S. ally? Is it a geopolitical partner? Or is it something lesser… Africans, if they had a say, would likely contend that their geopolitical relevance is an ever-increasing stock, where smart money gets in early, not late.
Biden—and by extension the broader U.S. government, is therefore in a favorable positioned to have a significant impact on U.S.-Africa relations over the next decade, if Biden can seize on the continent-wide enthusiasm and take advantage of a ripening political and economic regulatory framework coming out of the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the need for internally developed industrial/energy capacity, and the growing demographic boom happening across the continent. To be effective, Biden will have to act fast and deliver on bold and actionable ideas, especially because Africa’s increasingly organized collective political/economic leverage are only progressively widening the continent’s reach and its importance across an ever-growing complex and competitive global society. The United States, through its many programs, embassies, exchanges, and attached programs have established long-lasting inroads into virtually all African markets and governments, and continues to enjoy a favorable reputation across many African countries and cities, particularly when compared to global competitors like Russia and China.
Thus the United States is in a unique and mutually beneficial position to boost African development over the coming years, while also helping to eradicate poverty by harnessing the demographic dividend and industrial push – to build cross-border partnerships and intercontinental enterprises; and provide leaner and more targeted foreign assistance that focuses the United States’ leverage on large-scale mega projects, public-private sector partnerships, and critical infrastructure development in key African cities. This will undoubtedly spur economic growth in African states, and leverage markets for American investors by creating an enabling business environment, thousands of needed jobs in manufacturing and technology, and an interexchange of ideas and people. Such a partnership will require capital investment in large order and require new thinking around project financing, institutional lending, and foreign aid.
Anticipating the Biden Plan
The Biden administration has not come out with its plan for U.S.-Africa relations yet, though there is growing skepticism as to whether Biden will take a bold and forward leaning approach to Africa, or fall back on the familiar – mostly lethargic, Obama-Biden era Africa policy which focused on democracy and governance, and tangentially on peace and security. Biden’s message to the African Union on February 5, which was meant to be a symbolic restart of U.S.-Africa relations, did little to reassure African observers of his enthusiasm for African development and a better U.S.-Africa relationship. His message, although a welcome deviation from President Trump’s often vulgar and off-putting style, was a far cry from the fervent and impassioned enthusiasm for Africa his supporters expected, particularly those that remember his impassioned 1986 speech on the congressional floor famously calling for the abolishment of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The perceived mixed messaging has heightened the suspense around U.S. foreign policy implications on the continent and given African observers and analysts new reasons to speculate on what a new age U.S. Africa policy will look like. What is clear, is Africa’s rapid integration into the international community over the past 20 years presents opportunities for more robust engagement and collaboration that will undoubtedly advance US economic and security interests in the 21st century if harnessed effectively. African nations represent the largest regional voting bloc at the UN and have unfortunately often voted against the United States on key issues, according to a review of voting coincidence between 2016 and 2019. This is an area the U.S. can improve upon by fostering respect, cordiality, and dignity in its foreign policy delivery. As Congressman Gregory Meeks noted in his Mail Guardian article “… our relationship [with Africa] is of mutual interest and should be collaborative.” In short, he insisted the United States “must interact with Africa on its own merits.”
Building on Trump’s Prosper Africa
On October 5, 2018, President Donald J. Trump (45) signed into law the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act (BUILD), establishing the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), a new development bank targeting energy, healthcare, infrastructure, and technology sectors in developing countries. The agency with a newly increased $60 billion lending cap, double that of its predecessor agency the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and a more flexible lending authority can make a serious dent in the estimated ($68 to $108 billion) infrastructure gap plaguing African roads, electric grids, dams, ports, bridges, fiber optic lines, etc. In 2019, USAID and the U.S. Department of State provided roughly $8.3 billion of assistance to African countries, a portion of which can be redirected, streamlined, and targeted to key projects important to Africans. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) also spends roughly a billion dollars annually on targeted infrastructure projects. The DFC currently has about $8 billion exposure in Africa but could readily increase it if a more deliberate and more robust strategy were to be implemented.
In order for Biden to engage Africa effectively, the U.S. government will likely have to pivot from its current foreign aid strategy by building on the momentum of President Trump’s Prosper Africa initiative. Implementing Trump’s “Prosper Africa” strategy will continue to require serious commitment to changing the cultural and institutional mindset of aid culture in the United States. The U.S. Congress, as the foreign assistance appropriators, will surely need to play a bigger role for this effort to have any meaningful impact. Further, the effort will require the consolidation of several key U.S.-based foreign aid and investment institutions, as well as the integration of key trade and aid policies to align with a broader geo-economic mission. This includes streamlining funding mechanisms at USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of State, and incorporating the recently passed BUILD Act into a singular cogent foreign assistance system.
President Trump’s hallmark principle of “America First,” the unyielding emphasis on American gains in zero-sum terms, must be reevaluated and course corrected. Unconstrained multilateralism, and our strategies within it – the neorealist assumptions/calculations – must also be analyzed further to maximize its output. The concept of “diplomacy first”—the post-World War II U.S. foreign policy strategy rooted in concerns over globalism, international stability, democratic persuasion, soft power, and geopolitical leverage must all be debated and scrutinized. There is perhaps no clear or precise evaluation for this, however, maintaining focus on U.S. priorities and strategic geopolitical partnerships within the execution of both policy and aid is remains paramount. This means, Prosper Africa as a strategy, should continue to maximize U.S. economic gains vis-a-vis the billions of aid dollars it disburses to the continent annually. Devote less funding to social programs that address democracy or governance issues in piecemeal fashion, by focusing more on large-scale targeted investments on select sectors. The strategy should not include a focus on counteracting the “great-power competitors,” namely China and Russia, as Bolton suggested. Instead, U.S.-Africa engagement should be an internally driven fundamental shift in foreign policy strategy, from “paternalistic,” to “investment and partnership.” This will ultimately be a boon for U.S. and African economies, and certainly a welcome change in Western foreign assistance on the African continent.
Lessons and Opportunities from The Past – Obama, Bush, Clinton
The African people, many of whom are development focused and look to the United States for inspiration, held high hopes for U.S.-Africa relations following the rapid ascendance of President Barack Obama (44) in 2008. Obama, the first African American president who also happened to be the son of a Kenyan immigrant, galvanized people all across Africa to pay attention to American politics with the hopes of drastic changes in U.S.-African relations. However, despite his African lineage and the overwhelming enthusiasm received from Africans and diasporans across the globe, Obama, did not deliver substantively on improving U.S.-Africa relations or Africa’s development trajectory. His chief accomplishment, the Young African Leaders Initiative, delivered on “investing in the next generation of African leaders” by doubling the size of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (renamed Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders) to 1,000 participants and established four Regional Leadership Centers in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa. In 2013, the Obama administration also launched Power Africa, bringing together technical and legal experts, the private sector, political leaders, financial institutions, and governments from around the world to improve the average African citizen’s access to power and help the continent overcome its energy crisis. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a George W. Bush initiative, contributed much of the U.S. government’s funding for Power Africa, approximately $1.5 billion over the past five years.
Republican President George W. Bush (43) has arguably had the most innovative, positive, and long-lasting legacy on African development. Two of his signature programs, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (as noted previously) and the Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) are arguably two of the most successful ongoing U.S. foreign assistance programs on the continent. Both programs employ an intensive concentration of resources, delivering better outcomes in shorter periods. In the case of the MCC, its compacts (large-scale U.S. funded vetted national projects) are on average about $500 million. MCC has invested more than $13 billion in compact and threshold programs worldwide. U.S. funding for PEPFAR hit $6.9 billion in 2020, most of which is programmed in Africa. Over the past 17 years, the program has reportedly saved over 18 million lives through what the CDC calls “accountable, transparent, and cost-effective investments.” According to the CDC, PEPFAR is the largest commitment ever made by any nation to address a single disease. Initially launched in 2003, the program has been reauthorized three times, twice under Obama (2008, 2013), and most recently in 2018 by President Trump. The African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), a hold-over from the Bill Clinton era, has also helped select African countries export billions of dollars of goods to the U.S. by bypassing tariffs and levies. Under AGOA, African exports to the United States have increased by more than 500 percent from around $8.2 billion in 2000 to $61 billion in 2018. Though successful in lowering trade barriers, AGOA has been criticized for being dominated by oil, gas, and other extractive exports (precious metals/minerals) –an area African countries have acknowledged their complacency.
The merging and expansion of these platforms, in a style initially suggested by an unlikely agent for African development, President Donald Trump, will likely yield better results from U.S. development assistance dollars than returning to the Obama-Biden policies of old.
If Biden is to make a significant impact on the African continent—especially in development terms, his administration will have to find collaborative ways to partner with and leverage ongoing African-led initiatives like Africa50, which was established by African governments and the African Development Bank to help bridge Africa’s development funding gap. The goals of Africa50 are to facilitate project development, mobilize public and private sector finance, and invest in infrastructure on the continent –similar to goals set by Power Africa, DFC, and the MCC. This aligns U.S. and African development goals and their strategies. The Biden administration will likely need to reprioritize its foreign assistance spending objectives, and allocate less resources to traditional democracy and governance programs that have high administrative and personnel costs and adopt a new transformative approach to capacity building, civic engagement, anti-corruption eradication; respect for the rule of law; and public health by employing more efficient bilateral technical assistance through existing federal agencies like DOJ, FBI, DEA, IRS, CDC, and others. Humanitarian affairs funding will have to remain roughly the same, if not more. Peace and security programs can be significantly streamlined. On general foreign policy, a similar shift is needed, the U.S. should aim to take less punitive actions against the developing world – more carrots less sticks. Nigeria for instance, the largest population and biggest economy on the continent, arguably the most strategic country in Sub-Saharan Africa was hit with restriction after restriction during the Trump era, which severely eroded public trust in U.S. partnerships and undermined regional security and the collaborative policy agenda for prosper Africa.
The Marshall Plan – From European Recovery to African Renaissance
The Marshall Plan, also known as the European Recovery Program, was a U.S. program providing aid to Western Europe following the devastation of World War II. The four-year development plan to reconstruct European cities—namely industries and infrastructure heavily damaged during World War II, was enacted in 1948 and provided more than $15 billion ($162 billion in today’s dollars) to help finance rebuilding efforts, remove trade barriers between European neighbors, and foster commerce between those countries and the United States. A similar plan can be developed for the African continent today, if Africa is similarly viewed and respected as a continent of allies and trade partners (a question that has never been sufficiently answered). The African Development Bank estimates that Africa's infrastructure needs are between $130 and $170 billion per year. Financing for African infrastructure currently falls short by between $68 billion and $108 billion annually. The consolidation and streamlining of U.S. investment and aid programs can provide the resources needed to fill the gap. $150 billion in loans and partnership initiatives to African countries, though difficult to conceptualize coming out of global recession driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, will only help the United States diversify it trade options, strengthen its geopolitical position, and build stronger ties to the world most resource abundant and emerging markets in the world. American companies can take advantages of large swaths of arable land for farming, deserts for wind and solar, dense populations for the advancement of cheap technology and production.
The U.S. can also boost trade relations by investing substantially in trade, manufacturing, and making credit available to large and medium size enterprises through such a proposed African Marshall Plan. Trade to the African bloc, a necessary component for sustainable development, can also be strengthen by the United States. In which case, a policy shift away from one-off trade agreements with individual states –as witnessed in the current Kenya trade negotiations, to one in favor of supporting the newly established AfCFTA by pursuing a multilateral trade agreement with the African continent is preferred by most experts. The Biden administration’s backing of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), after the Trump administration block the move for months, already demonstrates a positive shift in U.S.-Africa trade relations.
Ultimately, the Biden administration will only benefit from a more deliberate and organized bilateral process between the U.S. and African nations, as well as a multilateral process involving the African Union. A new relationship with Africa should be based on sincerity, mutual respect, and joint progress and development for both American and African counterparts if the U.S. is going to truly be an ally in Africa’s development.
Howard on Africa in Brief is published by the Center for African Studies at Howard University. Contributors include prominent scholars, policy makers, Howard faculty, alumni and graduate students. Our papers provide open access to research and make a global contribution to understanding Africa-related issues. The views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s).