Even while irrational fears about Ebola’s spread to the United States swirled, the three-day Africa summit in Washington this last week managed to crystallize the continent’s continued evolution from a beneficiary of U.S. aid and security interventions to a partner in trade.
For sure, this shift in U.S.-Africa relations won’t be completed overnight — nor should it. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced the creation of new African rapid-response peacekeeping teams as conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan show no signs of abating, as well as a $4 billion investment in health by an alliance of U.S. nongovernmental organizations. Former President George W. Bush called for “the beginning of the end of AIDS,” an effort that will require more U.S. funding, not less.
But with Africa’s rapid rise and favorable demographics, the spotlight was rightly on securing $14 billion in private-sector deals, which includes expanding electricity from 20 million to 60 million homes and businesses. General Electric alone will inject $2 billion into the continent by 2018; its chief executive told reporters that “whenever the U.S. is even a small partner in a deal, it brings a lot of investors with it.”
The United States has catching up to do, since China’s trade with Africa more than doubles that of the United States. But Africa can be a place for cooperation, not competition. China is more engaged in natural-resource extraction and manufacturing, while the United States “concentrates on higher-technology trade and services,” according to a RAND report. In fact, the United States’ increased presence and transparent dealings may help force Chinese investments into the open. China has invited the United States to collaborate on a sophisticated dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo; such partnerships should be embraced if China agrees to transparent conduct.
Sadly, the summit dealt little with human rights improvements that would sustain Africa’s growth. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was rightly attacked for “rolling out the red carpet” for strongmen such as President Salva Kiir, responsible for military killings and the intimidation of journalists in South Sudan. But worse than inviting these leaders, the agenda did not include a human rights session, leading to virtually no progress on this front. Those who wanted to discuss human rights, such as Oxfam and the NAACP, had to create their own alternative Empowered Africa summit a few blocks away.
The administration’s long-term strategy must include both human rights and increased investment, and future summits should reflect this. Perhaps the most promising development is that this summit is the first in a “recurring” series, one that Obama said he would “strongly encourage my successor to carry on.” Many feared that this gathering would be Obama’s one-time sideshow. But as the president acknowledged, engagement with 54 countries requires much more than one meeting.