Obama or Romney, Expect More Engagment With Africa

Both presidential candidates would engage far more visibly with Africa over the next four years.

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Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

A former member of the Congressional Black Caucus rather cynically said to me, "Steve, there are no votes in Africa." He was right. Africa is never a campaign issue, with the exception of those events, such as the killing of an ambassador, that affect our psyches and sense of nation. All politics are local and for the voters Africa is a long way from the western shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, I do not recall a single discussion on Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, during this entire campaign. The exploration of Mars and the fate of our space program were in the discussions far more than was any words related to our relations with the 54 countries of Africa.

I suppose this shouldn't surprise anyone. The former congressman was right. A debate on Africa would likely not affect voting patterns anywhere on the U.S. map. Nevertheless, regardless of who wins the election, and we will know soon enough, I expect an upgraded interest in Africa over the next four years, one that will engage the nations of Africa far more with the United States than has been evident these past four years. The question is will it be too little too late?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

In the Romney camp, there is an active debate and growing consensus on what our policy should be towards Africa. That debate places considerable emphasis on economic cooperation and a shift away from traditional development programs. Key figures in that debate are Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council's Africa program, former U.S. Ambassador Tibor Nagy, who spent a considerable portion of his foreign service in Africa, Rob Mosbacher, chairman of the Institute for Global Development and president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in the most recent Bush administration, and Andrew Natsios, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (and fellow World Report blogger). Though their concerns were seldom visible in the campaign, this group and several others have been working to prepare for a new policy towards Africa should their candidate be elected. Pham and Nagy are cochairs of the Africa working group. Interestingly, Nagy supported Obama in 2008 but has become disillusioned with U.S. policy in Africa over the past four years.

On the Democratic side, Africa policy was largely directed by Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, a career foreign servant with vast experience in Africa. In my view, his work as been creative given the constraints on budget under which we have labored these past four years. Carson is retiring at the end of this year, and if President Obama is re-elected, the new Secretary of State will have the major say on whom Carson's successor will be. Carson developed several program initiatives for Africa, including personal leadership of a trade mission of power and energy companies to Africa in order to get U.S. companies more engaged in one of Africa's most badly needed sectors. No country in Africa is meeting its current power needs, and in nations critical to the continent like Nigeria, only 20 percent of the nation's current power needs are being met. This is a critical issue for Africa and an opportunity for our own economic interests as well. I give Carson high marks for this initiative and several others. However, these programs are not woven into overall policy planning, and until recently, finding consensus within the Obama administration on how to deal with Africa has been difficult, with a deep split among those who have favored a more traditional development view for Africa and those who recognize the need to place economic development of the middle class as a priority. There have been many praiseworthy efforts toward Africa within the Obama administration. Elizabeth Littlefield, as current president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, has developed new programs that make it easier for some U.S. businesses to invest in Africa. Raj Shah, as head of USAID, has tried to persuade an often recalcitrant bureaucracy to redirect and reshape its AID programs towards broader economic development programs and a closer cooperation with the private sector. And certainly at the National Security Council, Grant Harris, director for Africa has struggled to develop a coherent framework. Nevertheless, much of our policy is still focused on counter-terrorism and mired down in trouble spots such as Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and most recently the Sahel and northern Nigeria.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

However, over the last year, there has been far more activity within the administration towards Africa and its many parts. A new key player, Michael Froman, has emerged as a leader on U.S. plans with Africa for the next four years, and if Obama is re-elected he will play a very prominent role in shaping our destiny with Africa. Froman is the thei nternational economics adviser to the President and to the National Security Council. He is considered the number two person at the NSC, and has a high interest in Africa. Recently he took a delegation of U.S. Government representatives to Africa to begin to lay out the framework. More importantly, Froman is a unifier in an administration that has shown a less than unified approach to Africa. He also is a strong proponent of economic development through developing the private sector, and in Africa, the private sector is undeveloped, and so too is the middle class of these countries, a part of society essential to more vibrant democracies and freedom.

So in either case, I anticipate there will be far more visible engagement with Africa over the next four years. Both camps have strong and experienced leadership, full of ideas on how best to engage the nations of Africa. They have visions that go beyond simply reacting to the threats of terrorism, but encompass the need to build economies through greater public and private sector engagement. Both camps also have shown a far greater openness to the involvement of the private sector than has been evident to date, despite the efforts of the Carsons, Harrises, and Littlefields. 

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