WITH OBAMA IN AFRICA — Many analysts viewed President Barack Obama’s recent Africa trip through the jaded lens of China-US competition. Reacting to President Obama’s $7 billion Power Africa initiative, one observer noted that it “may look low-wattage compared with China’s already ongoing big electricity projects on the world’s least-developed — and least lit — continent.”
Others saw Obama’s trip through the lens of America’s traditional deference to Europe in shaping its Africa policies. That often reinforces the view that the United States is unable to define its own stances on Africa, and views the continent as an extension of its former colonial masters.
On the ground in Africa (as I happened to be), President Obama himself moved beyond those clichés. He sought to demonstrate that the time has come for the United States to approach Africa as a legitimate player on the global economic and diplomatic scene in its own right.
It is true that China has, over the last decade, emerged as a major player on the continent. This role signals the growing importance of Africa as an economic player and not simply as potential threat to US interests in Africa. The continent is worthy of US attention without the tedious detour through Sino-US relations.
The record speaks for itself. In 2012 the International Monetary Fund forecast that seven of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world will be in Africa. The World Bank has projected that Africa will grow faster than the world average in coming years. While a large part of the growth is correlated with China’s raw material imports, domestic investments and intra-African trade are emerging as significant drivers of Africa’s new growth.
Such an impressive showing after decades of stagnation is sufficient to signal the importance of direct US-Africa engagement — independent of what Europe, China, Brazil, India and Turkey are doing in Africa.
During his trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, Obama announced major initiatives to support African goals on energy, regional trade, youth development and environmental management. Obama’s priorities during his visit mirror Africa’s primary development goals: agriculture; infrastructure (particularly energy); human resource development, especially youth; intra-Africa trade; and environmental protection, such as wildlife trafficking.
The next challenge is developing these themes into programs at a scale that can make a difference. There is a new generation of African leaders and followers that are not swayed by idealism and view their future in pragmatic terms. Many of them have strong records as builders and managers of large-scale initiatives.
Last year six African countries — Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Angola and Senegal — elected leaders with engineering training. There are other leaders in countries such as Tanzania that have demonstrated remarkable focus on pragmatic economic transformation.
African leaders have set their own development priorities, and Obama’s messages were aligned with their aspirations. The challenge is to bring all of Africa in the spirit of the African Union around the table with President Obama to chart an equally practical way forward.
Africa’s global interests are shifting from relief programs and relations on raw material exports to domestic capability, development and trade. US government programs such as Feed the Future which emphasize the need for Africa to feed itself offer new cooperation models.
In this spirit, perhaps aid programs such as PEPFAR (the US president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) should include joint venture initiatives that involve the shift of pharmaceutical production to Africa. The continent’s next frontier of engagement with the rest of the world will increasingly involve such joint ventures.
Such adjustments would be consistent with the way Africans view their future cooperation with the US. Africans have gotten over the euphoria of the election of the first African-American president. It is a good thing that they view him as a president of a friendly country and not as a leader of African descent, a perception likely to distort diplomatic engagement and create a false sense of entitlement.
The fact that Obama traveled with a large business delegation was viewed positively by a continent that is seeking to be defined by trade rather than aid.
It is notable that President Obama put less emphasis on classical human rights and democracy during his trip. This is not because human rights and democracy are no longer relevant.
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To the contrary, they are even more relevant as Africa starts to grow and signs of economic disparities start to appear. But fundamentally, Africa is entering a new age where economic growth is needed to reinforce the gains made on the democracy and human rights fronts.
Another important feature of the trip is that Obama was able to focus on critical infrastructure such as energy while acknowledging that China was focusing on transportation. This division of labor should open opportunities for trilateral cooperation between the US, China and Africa and usher in a new age of collaborative economic diplomacy.
The new Africa offers fertile soil upon which the seeds of a new multi-polar world could take root. With consistent nurturing, Obama’s visit may have plowed new ground for a more peaceful and prosperous Africa.
Calestous Juma is professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of Innovation for Economic Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He co-chairs the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and is a trustee of the Aga Khan University. He tweets @calestous.