The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: What are Indicators of a Successful Summit?

Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit blog series is a collection of posts discussing efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Africa ahead of the first continent-wide summit. On August 4, Brookings will host “The Game Has Changed: The New Landscape for Innovation and Business in Africa,” at which these themes and more will be explored by prominent experts. Click here to register for the event.

Much has been written about the first U.S-Africa Leaders Summit scheduled for the first week of August 2014. Commentaries have varied in tone, with many critical of the summit’s organization and expectations (for examples of these critical stances see Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold and the Corporate Council on Africa’s Stephen Hayes). Others have been complementary and consider the summit an important step in solidifying durable and positive U.S.-Africa relations (Amadou Sy responded to criticism that the summit is already “bungled” and Dane Erickson addressed the perception that U.S. is primarily using the summit to compete with China in Africa).

The summit’s schedule of events includes several public meetings involving civil society, the public sector and the private sector. A wide range of issues such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Power Africa, investing in women and youth, peace and security, health, food security, and the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals will be part of the public schedule. These events are expected to strengthen various dimensions of U.S.-Africa relations. Nevertheless, the primary focus of the event is the meeting between the African leaders and President Obama.

No doubt there will be many post-summit commentaries with a focus on the success and failures as perceived by various analysts. Unfortunately, such commentaries are unlikely to be based on what should be clearly pre-defined indicators of a successful summit.  Here I propose what I consider to be some important—though not exhaustive— indicators of a successful summit:

1. A Tangible Plan of Action and Commitments

Many valid questions remain as to the expected outcome of the summit, and especially if indeed the meetings with the African leaders will end up with a tangible plan of action that will forge closer ties between Africa and the United States, ultimately promoting development on the continent. For the summit to be considered a success there would have to be firm commitments from both the African and American leadership in regard to specific actions on the part of African governments and U.S. government. In essence, the final communique should go beyond mere statements of what leaders say without a firm plan of action.  

2. Effective/Coherent Participation of the African Leaders

According to the program that has been released, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will focus on three broad topics: Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace and Regional Stability, and Governing for the Next Generation. While these topics are important, it is not quite clear what the contribution of Africans was in the formulation of this agenda. Nevertheless, given the large number of African leaders, the short duration of the summit and, thus, the impracticability of holding bilateral talks with President Obama, it is not quite apparent that the African leaders will have the opportunity to fully participate in meaningful dialogue. One concern is that the summit might turn out to be more of a lecture from the U.S. president—which would be an indicator of failure. A critical success indicator then is the extent to which the African leaders effectively participate so that their views shape the future of U.S.-African relations. Presumably the leaders will have already agreed on positions to bring to the table and will have the opportunity to impact the final plan of action.

3. Alignment with African Development Priorities and Strategies

The various topics to be discussed at the summit are quite relevant to Africa’s development and indeed to the United States. In this respect, the final plan of action should reflect issues that matter to both Africans and Americans.  Of concern, however, is that some key African development priorities may not get the attention they demand.  For example, the centerpiece of Africa’s growth and development strategy today is regional integration and, from the summit’s agenda, it is not quite apparent that strategies to advance regional integration will feature prominently in the discussion. Another priority for which U.S.-Africa collaboration is critical is curtailing illicit financial flows. While the summit will focus on increasing trade and investment, failure to address strategies that seek to reduce the corrupt flow of resources from Africa is bound to neutralize expected gains. Presumably these development priorities and strategies will be incorporated into the summit’s discussions and plan of action. Thus, a key indicator of the success of the summit will be the alignment of key African development priorities and strategies in the deliberations.

4. From Unilateralism to Mutualism

Currently, U.S.-Africa relations are defined by unilateralism, with United States largely extending benefits to Africa. This relationship is, for example, the case with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which grants Africans quota and duty-free access to the American market. Likewise, the U.S. has several aid programs in the various countries. Certainly these and many other such initiatives will continue to define U.S.-Africa relations. Nevertheless, the summit should go beyond a focus of one-sided transfer of benefits to a relationship defined by mutualism—with both sides benefitting and sharing responsibilities.  Thus, an important indicator of the success of the summit should be an outcome of a relationship that reflects mutualism.

5. Institutionalization for Sustainability

Being the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, there are bound to be numerous organizational challenges. Notwithstanding such challenges, this first summit represents an important milestone in the U.S.-Africa relations and President Obama deserves credit for the bold initiative. If nothing else, the summit will highlight the increasing importance of Africa in the world, which is in itself an important output and an indicator of success.

However, the critical indicator of success here is what happens in the future. Specifically, the outcome of the summit should include strategies and plans to institutionalize future summits so that they are part of U.S. foreign policy. Institutionalization should define the character of future summits, including frequency and the process of agenda setting. Although the idea of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is an Obama administration initiative, institutionalization is necessary to ensure that such summits will be held post the Obama era. Strategies to institutionalize the summit so that it is part and parcel of U.S. foreign policy with clearly defined goals and objectives will therefore be an important indicator of success.