Favorite or Prodigal Son? U.S. – Africa Policy under Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent trip to Africa has rekindled the high hopes that Africans had following the election of President Barack Obama. Obama’s election as president of the United States was received with great pride, joy and high expectations. Many saw this as a major turning point for improved US-Africa relations. There was particular hope that the new president, who has a direct link to Africa, the birthplace of his father, would be more receptive and understanding of the concerns of the African people. The expectations of enhanced relations between the United States and the continent ranged from increased trade and investment to development assistance to support for more African “positions and representation” in global governance. Improving the relationship was seen to have salutary benefits such as increased foreign direct investment and tourism from the United States. Also, implicit in many discussions was the expectation that there would be a significant change in U.S.-Africa policy, with Africa taking a more prominent position. But after two and half years of Obama’s presidency, a sense of disappointment among Africans is building.

These expectations were misplaced for three reasons: first, President Obama did not start with a clean slate—previous administrations had put in place many important initiatives. In fact, the previous two administrations (Clinton and Bush II) left commendable records in their dealing with Africa. Africans remain particularly fond of President Bill Clinton for his innovative approaches that supported African countries through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the fight against HIV/AIDS, and other economic development programs. President George W. Bush also expanded the support for the war on AIDS, however, after the 9/11attacks his administration’s efforts were focused primarily on global terrorism. Second, President Obama inherited a serious economic recession and his administration had to focus on the recovery of the U.S. economy. Therefore, his legislative agenda of economic recovery, health care and banking reform took precedence. Finally, Africa’s high expectations were misplaced because nothing from the 2008 presidential election radically altered the relatively limited U.S. interest in the region in its foreign policy.

Notwithstanding, President Obama has engaged Africa in a noteworthy manner during his firm term in office. The president presented his plan for U.S. – Africa engagement during his 2009 trip to Ghana, where the president emphasized the need for encouraging good governance, fighting corruption, resolving Africa’s many conflicts, and empowering Africans to solve their own problems. In addition to his trip to Ghana, President Obama has also met with numerous African heads of state, including President Zuma of South Africa, President Jonathan of Nigeria, President Mills of Ghana, and even Prime Minister Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe. One of President Obama’s key successes in the region to date has been the way his administration helped to broker a free and fair referendum in South Sudan. The president appointed a full-time special envoy to Sudan and offered various incentives and disincentives to ensure the referendum’s success. These engagements show that the president has taken a keen interest in Africa.

President Obama has also launched several policy initiatives that, while not Africa specific, will benefit the region. In September 2010, he introduced a new U.S. Global Development Policy that — for the first time — created an umbrella policy under which the United States will implement its development objectives. At the 2009 G-8 Summit, countries pledged to fight global hunger and food insecurity. As part of this commitment, the president launched the Feed the Future program aimed at increasing agricultural sector growth and improving nutrition in developing countries. This country led program is being implemented in 20 countries around the world including: Ghana, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Tanzania. The United States also helped launch the new Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), a World Bank fund that supports agricultural sector development and food security. During his 2009 trip to Ghana, President Obama acknowledged that “while Africa gives off less greenhouse gasses than any other part of the world, it will be the most threatened by climate change,” and is now working to support those countries most vulnerable to climate change. In 2010, the president requested around $1 billion to address climate change around the world. Although not specific to the continent, this aid is disbursed through USAID to many countries across sub-Saharan Africa and is a key part of the administration’s new Global Climate Change Initiative.

Furthermore, in May 2009, President Obama launched the Global Health Initiative (GHI), a six-year, $63 billion initiative that addresses tropical diseases, improves maternal and child health, treats infectious diseases and strengthens health care systems in developing countries. GHI builds on the Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and is likely to improve health outcomes in the region.

Despite these new policies, President Obama has been criticized for not introducing any new policies directed specifically towards Africa. While this criticism holds some truth to it, it also lacks perspective. First, while many of these new initiatives are not specifically targeted towards Africa, as the world’s least developed region, Africa is a major beneficiary of these new initiatives. Second, U.S. presidents historically have passed broad initiatives for Africa in their second term of office. In fact, both President Bush and President Clinton signed their Africa initiatives into law in their last year of office. Thus, any new broad initiatives are likely to be introduced by President Obama during his second term of office. Obama also faces additional political risks when implementing Africa policies. As one who has close blood ties to Africa, the president must be careful not to appear to overly favor the region. Thus, it is possible that President Obama may do less for Africa than his predecessors did in order to avoid such criticism. However, it is sad to say that given his record to date there can be no basis for criticism that the president overly favors Africa.

Inconsistencies in U.S. military engagement in the continent present an additional challenge. President Obama has been criticized, like his predecessors, for placing too much emphasis on North Africa and not enough on sub-Saharan Africa. The crux of this criticism is that the United States should respond to human rights abuses in Libya the same way it responds to human rights abuses in Ivory Coast or Zimbabwe. Inconsistencies in this policy have been a major source of frustration for Africans.

The political returns from the United States supporting African issues have historically been low. This is partially because Africa does not have a political constituency in Washington to advocate for policy on its behalf. However, there needs to be a change in the mindset towards Africa, the region offers good investment opportunities and both the United States and Africa would benefit from increased economic engagement. The U.S. business community, as current and prospective stakeholders, could serve as a constituency for Africa. Recognizing the potential that the region has to offer, the U.S. business community can serve as an advocate for increased engagement. More importantly, the rise of China as Africa’s economic partner suggests that a change in U.S. policies is necessary. China is engaging Africa at a deeper level than the U.S. Chinese President Hu Jintao has visited about 20 African countries since he came into office, whereas President Obama has visited only one Sub-Saharan African country. The emergence of new players in Africa requires the United States to re-evaluate its Africa policy away from the traditional unilateral extension of benefits to a more multilateral engagement.

Beyond the fact that the region is a key source of natural resources, one aspect of the U.S. –Africa relationship that is often overlooked is that Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, could serve as a steadfast and true ally for the United States. For all the investment and time spent in the Middle East, the United States has not cultivated the kinds of partnerships that it could engender in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the first lady’s trip to Africa underscores the importance the Obama administration places on Africa, it is time for the U.S. and President Obama to move that relationship further. Increasing global competition necessitates that the United States engage Africa more deeply. While it is hoped that a second term would bring good tidings to Africa, there is still an opportunity for President Obama to make an imprint in the region during the remainder of his first term. We propose that the president make a well coordinated trip to a number of African countries accompanied by business executives and investors. The president must send the signal that Africa is a much better place to invest and that he supports policies that provide business incentives to invest in the continent. This approach to supporting Africa that will not only help Africa, but will also contribute to economic growth in the United States, and also position the United States to better compete with China and other countries. Without a focused and creative policy to engage Africa, President Obama may end up Africa’s famous prodigal son.