When he was running to win the White House, President Joe Biden’s campaign committed to implement a “bold strategy” toward Africa, and one that would be based on a “mutually respectful engagement” and a reinvigorated diplomacy, if elected. Indeed, the campaign was the first ever to outline how it would promote the interests of the African diaspora in the United States. On his 16th day in office, President Biden sent a video message to African leaders attending the 34th African Union Summit that promised American partnership and solidarity on a range of critical issues. The message was a welcome departure from former President Donald Trump’s disparaging characterization of the continent.
Coordinator for Prosper Africa - U.S. Agency for International Development
Former Bookings Expert
Given this promising start, few would have predicted that almost one year later the Biden Administration would have imposed an omicron-inspired travel ban on eight countries in southern Africa. The ban, which was criticized by regional leaders as “unfair, discriminatory and unnecessary,” coincided with the withdrawal of benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) from three other African countries. As surprisingly, members of the African diaspora—especially those from Ethiopia—were vocal in supporting the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia because of what some claimed to be the “pain of neglect,” as it concerned the administration’s handling of the conflict in Ethiopia. In fact, ending the conflict and the devastating humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region consumed much of the administration’s attention to Africa last year.
Despite these discouraging developments, it would be premature to write off Biden’s Africa policy.
The November visit by Secretary of State Tony Blinken to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal advanced an important set of priorities for Biden’s Africa policy: COVID-19 recovery, combating climate change, support for democracy, and greater trade and investment.
Blinken’s announcement of an African leaders’ summit in late 2022 will help to galvanize progress on implementing the Biden Africa agenda.
Investing in Africa’s public health institutions
Central to Blinken’s trip to Dakar was his visit to the well-respected Pasteur Institute, where the U.S. Development Finance Corporation has invested $3.5 million to bolster the production of vaccines on a continent that imports 99 percent of its vaccines. More investments like this are needed.
It is encouraging that the Biden administration is looking to support Africa’s health security in other ways: In October 2021, the National Institutes of Health invested $75 million in seven research hubs in South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, and Cameroon to advance data science and catalyze research and innovation across Africa. This collaboration between the NIH and African research institutions needs to be accelerated as quickly as possible. The African genome is the oldest human genome, and there is more genetic diversity in Africa than on any other continent. Despite this, fewer than three percent of analyzed genomes come from Africans, making it an inherently rich source of new genetic information for health and diagnostic research and development. Africa has the potential not only to help detect and defend against future pandemics but to provide African solutions for global problems. It is for this reason that South Africa should have been applauded—not punished—for discovering the omicron variant of the coronavirus and promptly alerting the world.
The trade and investment scorecard
Also in Senegal, the Secretary of State signed construction deals worth $1 billion that will include an 111-mile highway linking Dakar to Saint-Louis. Drawing a sharp contrast with China, Blinken noted that the U.S. would not saddle African countries with unmanageable debt. The secretary also said that the infrastructure projects would “build on the values we share as democracies,” namely, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. These themes would be central to the Summit for Democracy that the Biden administration hosted several weeks later in which 17 African nations participated.
A challenge for the Biden administration will be the rollout of other infrastructure investments in Africa in the coming year. The trend line is not positive. U.S. direct investment into the region has declined from a peak of $69 billion in 2014 to $46 billion in 2020. In the decade prior to 2020, bilateral trade between the U.S. and Africa fell from $113 billion to $44 billion.
The implementation of the administration’s Build Back Better World initiative, launched by President Biden at the G-7 Summit in June, could help to reverse this trend. So can the U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit. The African leaders’ summit in 2014 generated $37 billion in new investment commitments from U.S. companies. The $8.5 billion financing package to help South Africa transition from coal to renewable energy that the U.S. and its European partners agreed to at COP26 could also be a model for more American investment in the region while mitigating climate change. The promise of a Digital Africa initiative in support of connectivity, upskilling, and expanded e-commerce could further enhance the U.S. commercial position on the continent.
Nevertheless, robust commercial diplomacy will be essential to reversing the erosion of the U.S. commercial position in Africa. The last commerce secretary to visit the continent was Wilbur Ross, who spent just one day in Africa, in Ghana, during the course of his four years in office. Hopefully, Secretary Gina Raimondo and a revitalized Presidential Advisory Committee for Doing Business in Africa (PAC-DBIA) will spark renewed investor interest in the region.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who met with Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, and Zambia’s president, Hakainde Hichilema, at the White House in September, can also be helpful. Her ongoing involvement in African issues would give a welcome boost to the continent on the Biden foreign policy agenda.
Important trade and investment issues remain to be addressed. Negotiations on the U.S.-Kenya free trade agreement, started under the Trump administration, should be resumed given the significance of Kenya to the United States as a commercial and strategic partner. This issue went unaddressed when presidents Biden and Kenyatta met in the Oval Office in October, and during Blinken’s November visit to Kenya.
The recent hearings in the Senate and the House (where I was a witness) on the future of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) suggest that Congress is giving attention to the U.S. position in the African market well before the legislation is set to expire in 2025. This attention is welcome given that AGOA remains the cornerstone of the U.S.-Africa commercial relationship. Nevertheless, key elements of AGOA need to be modernized. In December, Sen. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Karen Bass urged President Biden to reconsider the administration’s decision to terminate Ethiopia’s AGOA benefits, noting the decision “will hurt the nation’s most vulnerable and reverse hard-won economic gains without reducing hostilities in the ongoing civil war.”
Preparing for 2022
Late last year, the experienced former intelligence official Judd Devermont joined the Biden administration to help craft a new Africa strategy. Several key issues, such as U.S. support for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and follow-up to COP26 in Glasgow, presumably will be central to the new strategy.
At the same time, President Biden would send a positive signal if he were to start 2022 as he did 2021: with a targeted video message for African leaders. This time, however, the administration would need to follow up quickly with convincing actions that Africa is indeed a priority for the United States. Announcing visits by Vice President Harris and Commerce Secretary Raimondo early in the new year would be a good place to start.