THIS IS probably something we should’ve done a long time ago.” Former president Bill Clinton said that last week, in what could be, economically speaking, the understatement of this decade — and maybe the next one. Clinton was one of several dignitaries and present and former heads of state attending the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
His coulda-shoulda statement distills the longstanding official attitudes toward Africa, and underscores the generations of missed opportunities for investing in that continent, and just how far the United States has to go to catch up doing what it shoulda done already.
The summit provided an opportunity for the world to recalibrate its perception of, and its attitude toward, the youngest and fastest-growing continent on the planet, the source of six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.
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On August 5, Obama hailed “the new Africa that’s emerging” ater decades of languishing in the shadow of the world’s recognition, on the margins of progress. “More countries are reforming, attracting a record level of foreign investment,” the American president said; “it is the youngest, fastest-growing continent, full of people with dreams and ambitions.”
Obama says it’s time to exploit Africa’s greatest natural resource: “its people, its talent and its potential.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We have to do better — much better,” Obama said. “I want Africans buying more American products and I want Americans buying more African products.”
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TODD MOSS, the chief development officer for the Center for Global Development, told MSNBC how much of the battle to be fought is one of perception: “This is not the Africa of 10 or 20 years ago. People think of a country like Ethiopia, they imagine people are starving. Well, Ethiopia’s been growing at 10 percent or more for at least a decade.”
“It’s really become a continent of tremedous economic dynamism, lots of economic opportunity,” Moss said. “We are going through this once-in-a-lifetime transition of families sending their first child to college. They’re buying their first refrigerator, the first car in the family...”
This emerging modernity runs counter to the still very real perception of Africa as geopolitical backwater, economic basket case, epidemiological ground zero — Africa as “the dark continent.” The persistence of this monstrous fiction has over time led to the historical unwillingness of developing economies and major corporations to invest in Africa. That’s starting to change. Just ask the Chinese.
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Quartz reports: “Last year, the US had about $85 billion in bilateral trade with Africa; China reported more than double that with $210 billion.
“China also beats the US in commercial envoys; it has commercial attachés in 54 African countries, compared to the US commerce department’s eight. China is also making massive investments in infrastructure. The ongoing summit is the largest such event ever held in the US, but seems conspicuously late.”
Give Obama credit for realizing that, for any number of reasons/excuses, the United States is late to the party — and for understanding that for this to really work, it can’t be a one-off affair.
“Given the success we’ve had this week, we agree that summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action,” he said. “The U.S.-Africa summit will be a recurring event.”
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JEFF IMMELT, General Electric’s chief executive officer, sees what’s coming, and what’s already happened. “We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and the Chinese later. Today [it] is wide open for us,” said, to Politico’s Eric Bradner.
To that end, the White House announced, the Export-Import Bank will assist in financing the sale of $560 million worth of GE locomotives to Transnet, South Africa’s largest freight transporter. GE also announced plans to invest $2 billion by 2018 to assist African countries in training programs meant to help those countries secure more American infrastructure and energy projects, InTheCapital reported on Aug. 7.
The Politico story handily boils down some of the other business pledges:
“The Overseas Private Investment Corp. is committing $1 billion to finance and insure business investments in Africa, and the Agriculture Department will guarantee $1 billion in agricultural exports to the continent over the next two years. ...
“IBM, meanwhile, said it has struck a $100 million deal to handle information technology for Fidelity Bank of Ghana.
“Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which is aimed at helping 600 million sub-Saharan Africans gain access to electricity, got a boost as well when World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced $5 billion in financing guarantees for the project. The private equity firm Blackstone Group and business conglomerate Dangote Industries also vowed to invest $5 billion into African energy projects over the next five years.”
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For Hanna Tetteh, Ghana's minister of foreign affairs, said energy, agriculture and telecommunications are key to the continent’s future.
“Energy is really the number one game changer in terms of investment that Africa requires in order for us to be part of a bigger, more competitive, more integrated global market," Tetteh said In an Aug. 9 interview with USA Today. "One of the challenges we have is that we don't have sufficient energy to be able to power all the other businesses and services that are dependent on it to be able to move.”
“Africa is the largest mobile market in the world,” she says. “We've leapfrogged technology. We didn't have landlines. But the moment mobile telephony came into play, it then made telephone access available to millions and millions of Africans.”
“This is not ground zero,” she says. “U.S. businesses that have already invested in Africa should be more encouraged to explain what it is they're doing.”
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THE SUMMIT got generally high marks. “It really provides an opportunity for President Obama to really solidify his legacy on Africa, which he really couldn’t do in his first term,” said Rosa Whitaker, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa, to Politico. “Africa has been in America’s blind spot for too long.”
“It was not a wasted week,” Mima Nedelcovych, president and CEO of the Initiative for Global Development, said in a Tuesday story on the Devex Impact Web site, a global initiative by Devex and the U.S. Agency for International Development, in partnership with top international organizations and private industry leaders.
“The point is to get the serious folks there and they were there … The African business leaders came out in very big numbers," Nedelcovych said. “There was a lot of good discussion going on ... I’m very pleased.”
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Others beg to differ. For Kola Karim, it was a waste of time.
“If it takes 47 African leaders to come to America to get an announcement of additional $7 billion investment on the continent, I’m sorry, there is a question mark,” said Karim, the CEO of Shoreline Energy International and ranked this year by Forbes as one of the ten most powerful men in Africa.
“The big American businesses were not seen,” he said lamenting what he said was a lack of heavy hitters in U.S. business. “I think if you’ve got a beautiful bride you’re trying to court, you want to put on your best suit, you want to put on your best shoes, you want to put on your best shirt … What we’ve seen so far is America just puts on a shirt and puts on a tie, they weren’t putting on their best.”
Karim did admit that some important deals did emerge from the event, “but those could have been dealt with without the soiree,” he told Devex.
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BUT KARIM protests a bit much. For all its unassailable practicality, Karim’s position overlooks the power of statecraft, and the accompanying power of diplomatic optics. Sure, the business deals hammered out last week could have been done long-distance, with a blizzard of cables and e-mails and telexes.
But part of the summit’s value was there in the “soiree” itself. The summit’s location in Washington, and the real financial deals that followed the ceremonies and photo-ops, elevated the profile of the African continent as a potential trading partner, and committed major multinational companies to a very public course of action it’d be hard to walk away from. Even as the summit sent a signal that China would no longer have Africa’s potentially explosive trade possibilities to itself.
Africa is a diamond in the rough, but it’s always been one in plain sight. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is the most comprehensive effort to date to recognize the potential of the African future and to see it for what it has to be: the beneficiary of — and catalyst for — a process, not an event. It’s a week after the summit ended. Let’s see if the world media’s paying attention a month, or a year, from now.
Image credits: Obama: whitehosue.gov. China-Africa exports chart: The Wall Street Journal. Africa imports to China chart: IMF data, chart via Financial Times. Corporation logos are the property of their respective parent companies.