President Obama’s Africa Trip: Making the Business Case

President Obama’s forthcoming trip to Africa offers an opportunity to reenergize U.S. engagement on a continent where economic opportunities are rising, tough security challenges endure, and relative U.S. influence is waning. The president will travel to Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa from June 26 to July 3, his first official trip to the region since a brief 20-hour sojourn in Ghana early in his tenure in the summer of 2009. His objective will be to signal to African governments and citizens that the United States remains an important and interested international partner, prepared to engage in ways that are relevant to the continent’s changing economic and demographic landscape. To be fully successful, he will need to overcome a general perception that the United States has withdrawn from Africa and at the same time convince an American public and private sector that there are upside opportunities in Africa that ultimately will serve both U.S. and African interests.

Barack Obama’s election to office in 2008 was greeted with elation in Africa, and many U.S. and African observers assumed, perhaps naively, that his background and previous travel to Africa would translate into a robust and activist U.S. Africa policy. Those expectations were largely disappointed as the Obama administration’s first term offered little in the way of big new ideas or funding, contrasting sharply with the expansive programs on HIV/AIDS, development, and security launched by his predecessor George W. Bush. A sense of stasis set in, fuelling perceptions that the United States is downgrading its Africa engagement, even as other international players are stepping up their commercial and diplomatic ties.

Governance, Africa’s youth, and women’s empowerment, standard fare in the administration’s Africa repertoire, will figure prominently in the trip. Africa’s need for strong institutions rather than strong men was the central message of the president’s Ghana speech in 2009; the White House and State Department–led Young African Leaders Initiative has been an effort to reach out to up-and-coming African leaders and entrepreneurs through a series of high-level forums; and promoting health and empowerment for women and girls was a signature piece of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s Africa engagement. First Lady Michelle Obama will likely attend the “Africa First Ladies” Forum in Tanzania during the trip, hosted by President and Mrs. Bush and centered on women’s education, health, and economic well-being.

But the major departure in the upcoming visit will be the emphasis on bolstering U.S.-Africa economic and commercial engagement. This makes sense for a number of reasons. U.S. foreign assistance levels—although a small fraction of the overall budget—will come under continued pressure from a Congress preoccupied by U.S. debt and government spending. Harnessing the capacities and resources of the U.S. private sector can serve U.S. commercial interests and also spur economic growth and development in Africa. At the same time, it speaks to Africa’s changing economic landscape, where opportunities—and competition—for investment are expanding, and where traditional donor-recipient relations are giving way to more mature partnerships.

The continent has made impressive economic progress in the last decade, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting average real GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa at 5.4 percent this year and 5.7 percent in 2014. High commodity prices—and high demand from China and others for mineral and energy resources—have contributed to this growth, and new oil and natural gas finds are setting the continent up for a hydrocarbon boom that will draw big new investments going forward. But sectors outside the extractive industries—telecommunications, transportation, construction, wholesale and retail, financial services—have played a major role as well, as has a growing consumer class. Other countries have seized the opportunity. The value of China’s trade with Africa surpassed that of the United States in 2009, and China’s commercial presence is evident across the continent, accompanied by high-level diplomatic outreach. President Xi Jinping of China made a three-country visit to Africa mere weeks after taking office in March 2013; his predecessor Hu Jintao made five major trips in his 10-year tenure. Other emerging powers—Brazil, India, Malaysia, Turkey—are making important commercial and diplomatic inroads as well.

The U.S. private sector—beyond the big energy companies and corporate giants like GE, IBM, and Coca Cola—has been reluctant to venture into Africa, which is generally perceived as risky, poor, and corrupt, and the U.S. government, until recently, has done little to encourage investors or counter this negative narrative. The president will first want to make the case to U.S. investors that Africa is worth another look. Some 500 business leaders will join the president at various points in his trip to assess the opportunities for themselves. Second, he will to want to convey to African governments and citizens the comparative advantage of U.S. private-sector investment versus other international investors—in terms of quality, transparency, technology and knowledge transfer, training, and systems development. And third, he will seek to harness the capacities of U.S. government agencies and private-sector partners to help improve the investment climate in African states. This will include technical assistance to strengthen government and institutional capacity and an expected announcement to partner on electricity generation and distribution, which has been a long-standing impediment to Africa’s economic and industrial growth.

As with past presidential trips to Africa, the tone of the visit will be upbeat, focusing on opportunities and successes, rather than thorny security, human rights, and governance issues. But an equally important objective of the trip will be to build and sustain U.S. influence and partnership with African governments and publics on these more difficult challenges. Violent extremist organizations have increased both in their geographic reach and their capacity to mount attacks. The epicenter has been Mali where extremist militia, some with links to al Qaeda seized two-thirds of the country until they were pushed back by French troops. Somalia’s al Shabab has been weakened, but is still, as the June 19 attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu illustrates, a potentially disruptive threat. While these groups may not pose a direct and immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, the U.S. Africa Command has repeatedly voiced its concern that the threat could mushroom if groups such as Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Shabaab manage to forge links and exchange resources.

The number of violent conflicts on the continent have fallen but are not entirely quashed. Sudan and South Sudan, despite massive U.S. diplomatic and financial investments in the last decade, are seeing an alarming escalation of violence. And the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo remains violent and unstable, despite an extremely costly UN peacekeeping mission and a series of U.S. diplomatic envoys. Pirates off the west coast of Africa are now surpassing their Somali counterparts in levels of violence, and organized crime networks smuggling cocaine through West Africa and the Sahel and heroin through the Swahili Coast are further cause for alarm.

Finally, a number of countries are seeing a consolidation of democratic norms and broadening of political space, but many others are governed by recalcitrant authoritarian regimes, some of which are important U.S. security and assistance partners and some rising stars in economic growth and investment. The United States may have little leverage over these governments, but the president will signal, through his travel to three basically democratic countries and his emphasis on governance and youth engagement, the importance the United States continues to attach to democratic principles, political freedoms, and human rights. The rise of social media and the growing strength of African civil societies and constituencies for reform offer new and more nuanced forms of engagement on democracy and governance priorities. A singular focus on economic growth will not address the needs of Africa’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Not all countries in Africa will see major growth surges, and where governments lack accountability, economic growth will not guarantee inclusive, sustained development or equitable distribution of resources and services. The United States is unlikely to abandon its commitment to poverty alleviation or democratic principles, even if its relative leverage declines.

Media previews of the trip have been dominated by controversy over its cost (estimated by the Washington Post to be in the region of $60 million to $100 million, in line with previous presidential trips to Africa). The implicit assumption behind the controversy is that Africa is not worth visiting. This is a value judgment that is worth challenging. Presidential visits are by their nature high on photo opportunities and rhetoric. But in this instance, rhetoric matters. President Obama has an opportunity to assert Africa’s importance in the world and challenge outdated narratives of the continent as a place of disease, disaster, and costly assistance projects. And by moving toward a new, more optimistic engagement with Africa’s citizens and entrepreneurs, the president’s trip will have strong resonance with the continent’s up and coming generation, creating links more fully based on enduring mutual interests. Ultimately, expanding the many ways that American companies and citizens engage in Africa will help ensure that the United States remains relevant and influential in an increasingly diverse and competitive global environment.

Jennifer Cooke is director, and Richard Downie deputy director, of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Richard Downie