Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
The re-election of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America has been favorably received throughout Africa. This may not be a surprising revelation. First, although the late Jack Kemp—a Republican leader—once said, "We are all sons and daughters of Africa," President Obama is viewed, quite naturally, as a son of Africa with more direct lineage than most of the rest of the world leaders. Whether Mitt Romney, had he been elected, would ever have said or believed he was also a son of Africa remains for conjecture. Second, most people, including leaders—and maybe especially some leaders—don't really like change. Change brings uncertainty. President Obama is a known quality and all have some familiarity with him, even if at odds with his policies. Each country has a sense of U.S. policy towards their respective lands, and the known quality makes it easier for them to make decisions based on their understanding of current U.S. policy. Had America elected a different candidate, every leader and policymaker would be making adjustments, and waiting for several years perhaps to discern America's directions with and understanding of Africa. Continuity makes planning easier and more predictable.
Nevertheless, as I wrote in my last blog, I do anticipate significant changes in U.S.-Africa relations in Obama's second term. Over the past year, there has been significant and real progress in U.S. government institutions towards Africa. Various policy decision-makers are putting Africa at the forefront of their operations. Also, under the leadership of Michael Froman, there is developing a coalescing of U.S. policy, with more emphasis on increased U.S.-Africa trade and investment. That policy will become more evident in the coming months, and especially so after the next secretary of state appoints the assistant secretary of state for Africa, but clearly there is and will be far more focus on Africa in the next four years. Only the spectre of the financial cliff and unknown crises ahead will affect that determination by this administration.
Most encouraging is the awakening of the U.S. Department of Commerce towards Africa. For the first time in more than 10 years, a U.S. secretary of commerce, albeit an acting secretary of commerce will be visiting Africa. Yes, you have that right! It has been more than 10 years since a U.S. secretary of commerce set foot on the soil of any of the 54 countries of Africa, the continent of more than a quarter of the world's nations and a sixth of the world's population. In less than two weeks Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank will go to southern Africa. There is nothing in her background that would suggest an interest in Africa. Still, she is making the trip that should have been made by every other secretary of commerce before her. Yearly do China's leaders, and especially their economic leaders, go to Africa. Only in a decade has our secretary of commerce done so. Secretary Blank deserves great praise. Commerce's engagement with Africa over the past decade has been carried out by a few dedicated civil servants, but has received almost no support from the highest levels of the department.
However, it is not simply at the highest level that the Department of Commerce is showing signs of coming out of its long slumber of indifference towards Africa. During Secretary Blank's upcoming trip a new program with Africa will be announced, and there will be a renewed effort for the Department of Commerce to bring American business leaders to Africa. The Department of Commerce is organizing a trade mission to Zambia and South Africa that will link up with the secretary in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It has been a rare occasion when leaders in this administration have taken a business delegation to Africa, and one can hope this is a precedent for things to come. I believe it is. Over the past year, Assistant Secretary of Commerce Carson led a trade delegation of energy companies to Africa and Secretary of State Clinton engaged a U.S. business delegation on her recent trip to South Africa. Although both will be departing the administration soon, they have set a precedent that I expect will be repeated more and more over the next four years. We badly need greater cooperation between the public and private sector in many areas, and none may be more important to our future than our engagement with Africa. Our economic efforts towards should be at least co-led by our Department of Commerce, as well as the Department of State. The new engagement is overdue and welcomed.