Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
It is hard to have an objective discussion on Africa in the United States. As a nation we are so ill-informed on what is going on in Africa now, and we remain divided on what should be done with Africa as if it is solely within our power and right to change Africa. Add to that the layer of black-white stereotypes and the never-ending dialogue of race and its origin in America, and there are few policy dialogues whose course is so laden with landmines, eggshells, and emotion.
The champions of Africa, of which I consider myself as one, point out the unlimited business opportunities throughout the continent. There are not uniform opportunities in every country, as some countries are moving faster with their human and economic development than others. One has to carefully pick out their opportunities for investment like anywhere else. "Location, location, location" applies to Africa as much as it does to our own landscape. Clearly some countries are better places for investment than others. Yet, nothing could help the pace of development in Africa than a massive influx of private development, combined with carefully considered government support, and, yes, some oversight—both ours and that of the host countries.
The champions of Africa are also divided. There is the traditional aid lobby, fed by the NGO sector, which in turn is often dependent upon government largesse for their budgets, or dependent upon painting the continent as full of tragedy for the sake of individual donations to keep their organizations going. There also exists the institutional cultures of government agencies, especially USAID, whose existence also depends on a more traditional approach to development assistance, with little life experience working with the private sector. These champions often view the private sector as rapacious, driven only by the profit motive.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that private sector development is the best hope for Africa. Allow the private sector to develop throughout the continent and badly needed jobs and a middle class will develop. With a broader more stable middle class, democracy will more readily evolve. Some in the private sector often view the NGO community as antiprivate sector, meddlesome, and more concerned with their own self-image than the lives of the people.
At the same time, U.S. private sector investment in Africa has never been more in our national interests. It is not a one-way street only for African development. We need Africa at least as much as Africa needs the United States. Nations will inevitably need to gravitate towards those who are investing in their future. Right now, the United States is lagging in this regard. What the private sector, the public sector, and the NGOs have in common is that it is in all our interests to develop a much closer relationship with Africa. The private sector is key to this happening as they are the only sector that can directly invest in nations.
Thus, it becomes a matter of leadership to make this happen. We need a national policy enunciated by the next president of the United States that clearly lays out the case as to why investment in Africa is in the highest interests of the United States. Then we need a plan for all of us working as partners together to make it happen.