Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.
The first Obama administration received far more criticism than praise for its policies towards Africa. Much of that criticism was from Africa itself. There was also sometimes muted, sometimes not so muted, criticism from the so-called Washington "Africa community," of which I am often considered a part. The criticism usually followed party lines, but a surprising number of those who support President Obama found themselves frustrated by what seemed a static approach to Africa. There is hope that the second Obama administration will be different when it comes to Africa.
The administration stated in June that its "US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa" would have four focus areas: peace and security; the development of democratic institutions; growth; and trade and investment. The announcement was met largely with yawns. It was to many, including me, a compilation of already existing programs, and there seemed to be very little new in the proposals. It looked more like a justification and rationale for what already existed.
The major reason for much of the criticism is the China entry and domination in the African marketplace. In a few short years China has replaced the United States and Europe as African nations' largest trading partner and threatens to overwhelm trading relationships for years to come. Some believe that African nations will necessarily gravitate to those countries that are investing in their economies. A new approach is needed beyond the traditional aid and donor assistance approach.
China also approaches their African trading partners with a certain laissez-faire policy of noninterference in the domestic matters of a nation. This of course acts as a disincentive for democratic reform. Some leaders have concluded, "Why react to the pressure for reform if my largest trading partner who is providing jobs and building infrastructure as part of the deal is content with my country as it is?"
There are some critics, myself among them, who feel the administration needs to place far more emphasis on developing the middle class through development of the private sector throughout Africa. A vibrant and relatively affluent middle class brings about greater accountability and gives people a stake in the system. It improves democratic institutions, at least in theory.
However, recent events in Mali, which is becoming the latest hub for al Qaeda and similar such organizations has created greater emphasis on security and stability issues. As I wrote in a recent column, AFRICOM has not taken on a more traditional military role on the continent as an active opponent to terrorism in Africa. This means more resources will be allotted to the fight against terrorism in Africa and may affect what the administration can do in other sectors such as economic development.
The new Obama cabinet, particularly the troika of Sen. John Kerry, former senator Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan will be the major determining figures of our approach to Africa especially. Michael Froman, economic adviser to the National Security Council will also likely remain a key player and perhaps the leading advocate for a stronger development approach through building the private sector in Africa among the four. However, I do look for more agreement among these four than in the past four years of the Obama administration. We shall soon see.