By Renuka Naj
The election of Joe Biden promises a return to conventional U.S. foreign policy in Africa. He may follow the playbook of his Democratic predecessors, with some points of continuity, but it would be wise to break with the past by crafting a smarter strategy sooner than later in his presidency.
The new administration needs to grasp the challenges it faces in Africa. The continent made up of 54 countries and 1.2 billion people suffers from poor infrastructure, rampant corruption, tribal divisions, terrorism, and the history of colonialism and authoritarian rule. Climate change and the covid-19 pandemic will make these challenges tougher.
In spite of the setbacks, Africa is transforming due to fundamental structural trends that are supporting growth and opportunity. Multiple global powers flush with funds are scouring the region for investments and influence. African leaders are no longer bound to the U.S. for aid. They are playing donors off each other to cut better deals and avoid conditions that are not acceptable, like better governance.
The U.S. diplomatic apparatus has to adapt fast to restore its standing in Africa and build the kind of alliances that advance American strategic interests while fulfilling the aspirations of Africans. Washington would benefit by shifting from reactive to proactive diplomacy. A clear, long-term U.S.-Africa policy with a focus on values-based international order aligns with Biden’s thinking. In a 2018 speech, Biden acknowledged the need to “recommit ourselves to the unending work of living up to our values—even when it’s hard. To treating everyone with dignity, without exception.” Mindful of Africa’s rising role in global affairs and economy, the new policy should take into account the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a comprehensive plan with carefully crafted goals tied to the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 adopted by African nations.
The new administration should think about five key areas:
For starter, the Biden administration should reinvigorate public diplomacy. Absence of American diplomats in some countries has eroded U.S. influence leaving the door open for China, India, Turkey, Russia and others to step into the void. Investing in public affairs and communications should be the long game for meaningful gains measured by better visibility of U.S. investments, open dialogues with citizens, and a positive narrative of Africa as a trade partner not just a poor aid recipient.
Images of the continent in perpetual conflicts have failed to capture the imagination of American investors. While there is some truth to that characterization, they do crowd out serious development gains and business opportunities. Africa’s population will most likely double by 2050, to 2.5 billion, which will be more than a quarter of that of the world. This demographic dividend is a big chance for spectacular growth and to catch up with the West, however, Africa risks the instability that could come from failing to create enough jobs that satisfy its young workforce. Large numbers of poor, unemployed young people could fall into the hands of extremists. But such a gloomy outlook runs counter to Africans’ own vision of their future.
The U.S. has a 60-year record of tried-and-tested aid schemes in education, food security, training, healthcare and humanitarian aid. People-centric development programs like President’s Malaria Initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; the Feed the Future; and the Power Africa initiative have transformed the lives of millions of Africans thanks to U.S. investments. But decades of goodwill disappeared with the entry of global powers offering alternative services. Ostensibly, Washington needs to double-down on what is known to work well in Africa, and make a strong case for why U.S. investments are benefiting economic growth and jobs—thereby, promoting more favorable views of American aid.
At the heart of the new policy should be a gender transformative vision that protects women’s rights and promotes equality, consistent with American values. Applying a feminist lens to the U.S. policy toward Africa region can strengthen the space to navigate and broaden political repertoire. At the same time, the African diaspora in the U.S. must have a seat at the table to influence policy decisions. Listening from multiple vantage points, from civil society to academia to businesses, presents a nuanced look into Africa’s past and a vison of its future.
More than half of Africa’s population today were born after the September 2001 attacks on America—the median age of 19 makes it the youngest continent. Expanding the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) will help many more youth to enter meaningful discussions to shape the agenda that is fit for their future. And it would be good for development and democracy, too. High-level summits that attract leaders from African nations serve as waypoints for the U.S. to affirm its engagement, define its values, and distinguish its approach from other powers. Unfortunately, the U.S. has held only one summit, in 2014, when Obama invited leaders from 50 African nations. The Biden administration can further build on the success of that summit to entertain and, perhaps even, embrace African nations who have more than 50 votes at the United Nations.
Second, the U.S. will have to improve the business climate and expand Africa’s private sector and middle class. Some U.S. development programs, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Africa Development Foundation have clearly made their mark, stimulated local economies and reduced aid dependency. Similarly, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which is set to expire in 2025, has been a step in the right direction in so far as treating African nations as trading partners, but the volume of trade to date and gains have been modest. In 2019, Africa accounted for 1.4% of U.S. trade and received 0.7% of U.S. foreign direct investment. (Source: World Investment Report 2019 – UNCTAD)
To accelerate a two-way trade and investment, Trump launched Prosper Africa in 2018. This new way of doing business responds to the demands of a rising middle class and the idea of integrated markets. But critics argue that the launch of the program in Mozambique was cast in a harsh way for “safeguarding the economic independence of African states and protecting U.S. national security interests,” and not for the whole-hearted welfare of Africans. Many do not share the American view that commercial ties with China are to the detriment of Africans, instead they appreciate the “no strings attached” approach that takes into account the needs of the local population. Critics aside, Prosper Africa should be supported as it has the potential to create lots of jobs for Americans and Africans by 2026.
Another flagship project, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA) under the African Union is set to be a game-changer, when it starts. It will integrate fragmented markets into a single-largest integrated market to help African countries diversify their exports, accelerate growth, and attract foreign direct investment. In essence, the AfCFTA will put African economies—and African citizens—on the road to self-reliance. By cutting red tape and simplifying customs rules, the free trade area will create an attractive opportunity for U.S. companies to sell and invest in a large consumer and business base. Pessimists fret that the initiative is hobbled by problems, like a lack of infrastructure and transportation to realize its goals. The U.S. should support AfCTA, to deliver on its promises, by improving roads and ports, or building logistics network.
Third, the U.S. military’s role remains widely misunderstood in Africa. The US Africa Command (AFRICOM), set up in 2007 to support African militaries ill-equipped to deal with emerging extremist threats, should have done a better job explaining its mission–mainly concerned with terrorism and rolling back Islamist extremism. Some 7,000 troops on rotation are in Africa operating from more than two dozen outposts. The majority of them are serving at a base in Djibouti. They conduct armed drone strikes against extremists and provide training and equipment to local soldiers. In the glaring absence of civilian experts and diplomats, the military also engages with governments, responds to health and humanitarian crisis, and builds schools and hospitals. Washington’s strategy to counter extremist groups in the region has been, more or less, same across three administrations, but the U.S. military action hasn’t vastly improved the security situation. The region has experienced a drastic rise in terrorist attacks against civilians and military. In 2019, there were 3,471 violent events linked to extremist groups in Africa, reflecting a doubling of such activities since 2013, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense.
Instead of the overt use of U.S. military power, Washington should apply diplomatic tools, or soft power, to prevent, mediate, manage and resolve conflicts in the region from the grassroots to the transnational level. The Biden administration must ensure that the civilian aspect of foreign policy has a high priority in Africa.
Fourth, global warming presents one of the main threats to Africa’s prosperity. At 3.8%, Africa accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet, climate change may have a graver effect on it than on any other continent. Of the 54 countries, 38 are coastal, and six are island states. They are vulnerable to rising sea levels that are causing massive erosion and displacement of people across cities that are important for trade. Unfortunately, few African leaders have grasped the scale of the challenge posed by climate change.
Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, a global treaty designed to avoid dangerous warming of our planet. His focus, will be to revitalize multilateralism and improve cooperation to put climate change at the center of development programs and practices that promote low-carbon energy technologies and green infrastructure. The UN Green Climate Fund designed to help the poorest nations deal with climate change may also be on the agenda. The appointment of John Kerry to chair climate policy is proof of his intent to have the U.S. reassert its leadership on climate diplomacy. But Biden must make good on domestic policies to reclaim U.S. credibility in global climate action. Given its strengths in renewable energy and ocean economy sector, the United States is uniquely positioned to help African countries increase trade, create jobs, and protect the marine environment.
Fifth, the Biden administration needs to pursue its interests by building coalitions and working with allies. Strong relations are essential to opening markets for U.S. businesses and influencing decisions at international forums, including the UN Security Council. Washington needs to listen to what Africans are saying and taking their views seriously. The future of U.S.-Africa relations will be determined by how U.S. charts its course of action in Africa, regardless of competitors. The principle of finding African solutions for African problems should be the overarching theme. The U.S. must convince Africans that America has the best interest of its partners by following global rules, protecting its allies, cooperating with regional powers, and practicing diplomacy with respect, optimism and confidence. The poet and novelist Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The same applies to how Americans relate to Africans. Biden – unlike his onetime boss, President Obama – should not wait until late in his presidency to articulate a sound Africa strategy.
Renuka Naj has worked with USAID and the United Nations in Africa. Previously, she was a journalist at The Wall Street Journal in New York, when there were no citizen journalists and social media was just a distant idea.