June 25th, 2013
01:56 PM ET

Why Africa matters

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.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. JAL

    Thank you for posting my question and answering too.

    June 25, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • JAL

      I was hoping for more optimism and perhaps some references to perhaps announcing methods/ means toward increasing global economic partnerships in Africa in the near term, the Arab Spring and maybe even the Arc of the Covenant , but what can I say, I am wired differently.

      June 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
      • JAL

        The question that I asked was meant to prepare for the worst case scenario for Obama's trip. I not only want his trip to go well, but I want him to have god speed confidence when that brick wall begins to reveal itself. This is one of the most significant opportunities in Humanities recent history.

        June 25, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  2. africa dont matter at all

    it is only matter if there is oil to be stolen like in south Sudan destroying the unity of Sudan to get the oil from south and then finding that the south are thugs killers village idiots...same with France for years stealing the diamonds and the mines ,like Holland stole south Africa for years and UK , Italy , Germany and many of those thieves who are stealing and slaving Africa...now Nigeria corrupt government lead the way along with the Mali thugs who are supported by France to control the majority while the minority thugs stealing the wealth....Africa matter only as pocket book of the west

    June 26, 2013 at 12:24 am |
  3. Muin

    All the continents need to matter to U.S. Otherwise it can't give comfortable life to all the Americans. The math is simple. There wouldn't be anything for big corporation to do if all they have is U.S and Europe.

    June 26, 2013 at 2:53 am |
  4. 'niran

    It will take a lot for the US to outdo china in Africa, of course, china has capitalized on US sectionalism and narrow minded policy towards Africa. China is Investing in Africa, building Africa's infrastructure while the US treats Africa like dirt with lot of attention towards the middle East. The truth is that africa is on the rise,its youth are vibrant and the see this discrimination

    June 27, 2013 at 2:16 am |
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Poverty in many resource-rich countries is a result of graft. Corrupt politicians and officials siphon revenues into their own pockets, instead of distributing them to the population. They don't pay taxes neither. The little revenues the state cash in are used to pay low-level servicemen. There's no money for health care and education.

    June 27, 2013 at 5:43 am |
  6. Abobakar Ibrahim

    True, Countries like Botswana and Namibia do have great potential if given genuine support by developed Countries. Strong governments, low of corruption, the mindset of its Peoples largely peaceful.
    Makes sense because you will be preparing an alternative place to settle in times of troubles.

    June 27, 2013 at 9:40 am |
  7. moola mushenywa

    zambia offers unique business and investment opportunities...peaceful, mineral-rich and has a booming tourism industry:co-host of unwto conference, aug 2013...we have a fast growing young economy, so all serious investors are welcome

    June 28, 2013 at 2:57 am |
  8. Angelo

    No Chinese do not share the same culture, democratic values, do not respect Africans, and have no positive influence in Africa. Positive development, prosperity and stability in Africa can be achieved with mutual effort from France, Netherlands and USA.

    June 28, 2013 at 4:14 am |
  9. EbonyDelite

    Africa still has vast natural resources that developed countries covet. All they need to do is allow the ruling despots to continue killing the educated while overpopulation and climate change takes care of the rest. You don't really think the global elite gives a tinker's about all those dark skinned folks do you?

    June 29, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
  10. Charles Evans

    Nigeria should be recognized for the exotic minerals and vast hydrocarbon deposits which are the resources determinant for advancement into the global economy. Alliances must be created which will secure this great potential and guide Nigeria to its rightful position in civilization. Africa will attain the strength to be democratic and free; Peace.

    June 29, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
  11. txwiseman

    The Chinese are doing to Africa what the Western powers did to this continent in the previous two centuries, the only difference is that the Chinese are doing it in a very subtle manner – in the disguise of trade and development and by bribing politicians and govt. officials. The Chinese have convinced themselves that it is their turn to exploit the natural resources of Africa and Latin America. My message to Africans – please look at what the Chinese system has done to its own workers, land, water and air quality. Do you think they will have any more respect for African people and its environment?

    Examples of the Chinese mode of Operation: Infrastructure Development: build bridges, roads, etc. with Chinese labor and materials in exchange for the country’s minerals, oil, etc. Look at the Ghost town built by the Chinese in Angola as an example. Yes, you get the roads, bridges, and buildings, but the Chinese have extracted 20X more from the country than what they invested. The Chinese have leased large tracts of land in some West African countries to grow cotton. The entire production is shipped off to China to be processed by their manufacturing industry, only to be brought back to Africa in the form of finished garments for sale. The Chinese have destroyed what little textile industry existed in many African countries. If the exploitation of natural resources and destruction of the indigenous industry was not bad enough, with their newly acquired wealth, the Chinese are destroying what little wild-life left in Africa by their ever-increasing demand for ivory, rhino horns and other animal parts.

    The rise of China in this manner clearly spells doom for the countries that they do business with. My fear is that it will be too late before the Africans will realize their mistake.

    June 30, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • macha

      Are you telling us we the western powers were better predator of natural ressources in Africa. What I think, it s that now, it s China time, period..Like it or not. There is no good or bad predator.We had our time to spoile Africa it s now over.

      June 30, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
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