Discussion of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Africa, which begins tomorrow, has so far focused largely on the estimated cost. But as the president prepares for a trip that will take in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, there will be no shortage of policy issues to contemplate.
Steve McDonald, director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, responds to GPS readers’ questions on some of the key issues in U.S.-Africa ties.
“Karen van Drie” asks on Facebook whether the U.S. media spend too much time focusing on Africa’s problems, and not enough on the potential the continent holds, especially as a future market?
For understandable reasons, all media tend to look for the sensational at the expense of the everyday, so conflict, corruption, and human tragedy – like starvation due to drought or floods – tend to monopolize the headlines. Reporting on economic potential, democratic transitions, rising education and public health access, successful small scale entrepreneurship, or growing information technology innovation, all of which typify the Africa of today, are not exciting reading. Even in conflicts, the news isn't prime time worthy unless there is some aspect of international terrorism involved, like the presence of al Qaeda personnel. This is frustrating for Africa and those who understand its vast potential, but, editors and producers make decisions based on their best guess of what their reading or viewing public will want to see. This situation is more of an indictment of our national sense of priorities than the media itself.
How much ground has the U.S. lost to China in terms of investing in Africa, asks “Eva Pietrzak.”
China has been outdistancing the U.S. in terms of total trade and investment with Africa in recent years, replacing the U.S. in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner. China’s foreign direct investment in Africa has skyrocketed from under $100 million in 2003 to more than $12 billion in 2011, and total trade (exports and imports) topped $166 billion in 2011, and has continued to grow since.
In 2011, according to the U.S. Trade Representative's office, total trade between the U.S. and Africa was $95.3 billion. China has almost doubled the U.S. efforts. But, the question has to be looked at in terms of need and opportunity, because Africa is a continent of 1 billion people, a burgeoning middle class of consumers, numbered at over 300 million, with endless marketing and investment opportunities. No one has, or will, corner the market, and the Chinese presence, will large and growing, does not close the door on the United States. There’s room for all, and Africans welcome everyone, not just Chinese or Americans, but growingly Brazilians, Indians, Japanese, Europeans, Turkish, and other emerging and established economic powers.
Is Africa becoming the center of a kind of Cold War style, proxy conflict between the U.S. and China, asks “Don Pickerel.”
The United States has often officially criticized Chinese activities in Africa. This has included denouncing environmental degradation and human rights violations around development projects, the importation of labor and materials for projects instead of hiring locally, flooding local markets with cheap textiles and generic drugs or medicines, and supporting autocratic rulers like President Bashir in Sudan or Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, I think the U.S. should leave it to African governments and the Africa Union to monitor China's activities and set rules of conduct and investment codes, and should conduct its own involvement with Africa in response to needs and priorities that it works out with those African governments and the AU.
There is no "Cold War" style proxy conflict building with China. In Africa, there is room for all, and any conflict with China will be based on far more strategic and economic concerns.
Some readers, such as “Alana Kotvalaw,” argue that the U.S. should be focusing on problems at home. What are the key advantages for the U.S. in developing ties with African nations?
Africa offers immense potential for trade and investment for the American private sector. That not only creates capital flows back to the U.S., but results in job creation here. It fascinates me that this question is asked about Africa, when it would never be posited for investments or trade with Europe, Japan, or even China. I think most Americans think that our only relationship with Africa is one of providing aid and assistance, and do not understand the vast economic potentials the continent offers.
Has the U.S. hit a wall in terms of its efforts to help Africa tackle poverty, asks “JAL.” What should the U.S. and others be focusing on in helping Africa tackle the issue?
Poverty is a difficult problem, and its solution does not lie with foreign aid or development assistance. Poverty will be eradicated in Africa only when individual countries emerge from conflict, begin to provide education, health services, and opportunity for their populations, and begin to break down artificial trade barriers between them and their neighbors, open up society for all, and integrate within their regions, the continent and the world.
The onus is on Africa itself, and, in fact, that is what is happening now and why 2013 is so different from the past 50 years of autocratic and corrupt governance during the first independence governments and the Cold War era. The U.S. was never in a position to tackle Africa's poverty, although our continued support for better health services, conflict resolution, and democratic governance will help these governments to address poverty as a national priority. Africa must and will bring the solution to its poverty, and is well on its way to doing so. Just remember that even the most advanced of countries, like the U.S., still have pockets of poverty despite our wealth. Each African country is different, with different levels of government commitment to poverty eradication. Progress will depend on the demands of the people of their government, and the responsiveness and commitment of those governments. The U.S. should remain a partner of those committed states who are tackling this problem.