Once we get beyond the historic precedent and the inevitable traffic snarls that will be created by the 50 African delegations moving around Washington, it is fair to ask what the Summit will achieve.
This is what my crystal ball suggests:
Business will move to the forefront of the US-Africa agenda. Last July, President Obama hosted U.S. and African CEOs for a roundtable discussion in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania during the course of his three-country visit to the continent. By various accounts, the event was substantive and a high point of the president’s Africa trip. The fact that the Administration is organizing a second business session 13 months later on August 5, and that trade and investment is one of three topics to be discussed among the leaders on August 6, suggests the Administration understands the opportunity that exists in the African market.
The challenge for the Administration is to develop the capacity and infrastructure to help small- and medium-sized U.S. companies trade and invest on the continent. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker recently doubled the size of the Commerce Department’s presence in Africa such that the Department is now in 8 countries. With 54 countries on the continent, and the Chinese having 150 commercial attaches spread across the region, the U.S. still has a long way to go. Nevertheless, the Summit appropriately will elevate trade and investment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. This will also benefit efforts to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act in a timely manner, now set to expire in September 2015.
Americans will begin to see Africa in a more positive and balanced light. Given the extensive media coverage that the Summit will generate, Americans around the country inevitably will begin to move past outdated notions of Africa as a continent in crisis. This will not happen overnight, and the region will be impacted by terrorism and instability like other regions over the near and medium term. The Summit, nevertheless, will help Americans begin to understand that this is only part of Africa’s story, and not the whole story by any means. Innovations related to mobile money banking in Kenya, fashion designers from Lagos and entrepreneurs from across the continent are increasingly likely to dominate the African narrative.
What will the Summit neglect to address?
The U.S.-Africa security relationship. For all the Bush Administration’s significant accomplishments in Africa, including PEPFAR, the creation of MCC and the anti-malaria initiative, an opportunity to engage African leaders in a comprehensive and strategic dialogue on security issues was missed with roll out of Africa Command in 2007. The Summit this week affords such an opportunity but with only two hours to address the issue on August 6, it is unlikely that much will be achieved. Hopefully, there will be agreement to find another opportunity to have a high level dialogue on how the U.S. can work with African governments in critical areas such as regional approaches to conflict resolution, counter-terrorism, civil-military relations and human rights. Many programs are in place to address these issues, but they would benefit from a discussion among U.S. and African heads of state.
This post can also be found on GlobalPolicyWatch, the firm’s blog on public policy and governmental affairs issues.