As U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Begins, Key Members of Congress Say AGOA Must Be Reauthorized

“The issue of extending AGOA is not in question,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said today in a Brookings event on the new landscape for innovation and business in Africa. As the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit begins in Washington, DC this week, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative has pulled together a high-level forum of leaders of entrepreneurs and leaders in business, government, civil society and the media to explore priorities for U.S.-Africa policy; business strategies for economic growth and development; innovation; governance; and shifting perceptions of Africa in the eyes of the rest of the world.

In the opening panel, moderated by Vera Songwe, Rep. Karen R. Bass (D-Calif.) and Rep. Smith, who are ranking member and chairman, respectively, of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, delivered remarks on the importance of Africa and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

“Chairman Smith and I are from different parties,” Rep. Bass said, “but the issue of AGOA is bipartisan and bicameral. We concur on the importance of AGOA and will both be working to ensure AGOA is reauthorized in a seamless manner.” She also spoke to the importance of the summit in the context of Africa’s continued development:

The summit has in and of itself taken the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and the nations of Africa to a higher level. As the first such gathering on U.S. soil, this is an opportunity for the United States and the nations of Africa to address issues of mutual interest and concern. It’s also an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate its strong and unwavering commitment to a vital region of the world as an inherently strong ally of our country. …

The continent of Africa is arguably at a stronger position economically than it has ever been. … The entire world knows Africa is rising. And Africa will continue to rise, with the investment in its youth, with the development of its infrastructure, the developments of its 54 economies and of its democracies.

Rep. Smith also emphasized that not only must AGOA be extended, but that it should be extended sooner rather than later. “The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act expires on September 30 of 2015,” he said. Continuing:

And the issue of extending AGOA is not in question. The issue of when and how is the big question. AGOA has certainly proven itself. It is still a work in progress. It has had many benefits, although 90 percent of the benefits accrued to petroleum products and minerals. And that needs to change. A greater market mix, more items need to be not only included but also those that are already on the list need to be utilized under the provisions of AGOA.

AGOA “has created about 350,000 direct jobs in Africa,” said Rep. Smith. “About a million jobs have been created that were created indirectly. In the United States the estimates are about 100,000 jobs as a result of AGOA.” He noted that African businessmen and their ambassadors in the U.S. have already asked Congress to not wait until the last minute to reauthorize the legislation. “It is for that obvious reason,” Rep. Smith said, 

that AGOA should be, if not this year no later than early next year reauthorized. And some of the things that should be on the table as we do that reauthorization would include … extending AGOA for at least 15 to 20 years so that there is no more of this, will it be extended or will it not be extended.

Both members of Congress emphasized that in a divided Congress this has been a bipartisan issue and an area where they think Congress and the U.S. government can and will do a lot more. Rep. Bass called for a “whole of government approach to how we deal with Africa,” noting that in terms of staffing and resources in agencies, there is a “huge imbalance” between Africa and Asia or Europe. She also said that “there needs to be a lot more than just AGOA,” including “capacity building in various African countries.”

Rep. Smith, answering a question about Congress’s attention to Africa, said that “you don’t need the entire Congress pushing and surging and working on things related to Africa, but you need key players” on the relevant committees and in the leadership. “And I think,” he said, that the “Summit will have a truly laudable effect on that to say, these are the problems, these are the issues.”

You can watch live and follow along on Twitter here.

Learn more about the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit here.