Africa Is the Global Economy's 'Swing Vote'

Renewing the African Growth and Opportunity Act is a step the U.S. has to take.

A ship, left, loaded with shipping containers filled with goods bound for markets across the world await departure at a port in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, March 28, 2013. Leaders of five of the world's emerging economic powers agreed Wednesday to create a development bank to help fund their $4.5 trillion infrastructure plans - a direct challenge to the World Bank that they accuse of Western bias. But the rulers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - known as the BRICS group - were unable to agree on some basic issues including how much capital the bank would need.

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

Rosa Whitaker is one of the most widely-known leaders on Africa in Washington, DC. She has received many accolades for her leadership on U.S.-Africa business relations. She deserves them all. She is forthright and outspoken. I sat with her on a recent panel, convened by Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., at the Library of Congress. Whitaker has many gifts, and one of them is her ability to turn a complex issue into a simple phrase so that everyone understands the stakes.

In the audience of this particular program sat seven other congressmen and one U.S. senator, a remarkable reflection of Bass' commitment to building a new congressional constituency for U.S. interests in Africa that included two Republicans, and both black and white congressmen. I expected the congressmen to make an appearance and just as quickly leave the room. They did not.

Instead, each stayed for more than an hour, listening as well as speaking about their own commitments to Africa. With the exception of Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., they all kept their remarks brief. Rangel had been there at the beginning of the African Growth and Opportunity Act and took deserved pride in his involvement in the first comprehensive piece of U.S.-Africa legislation.

To keep one congressman in a room for fifteen minutes should be considered an accomplishment, but to keep seven others in the room for more than an hour should qualify Whitaker for beatification, a level one achieves with one certifiable miracle. The rest of the audience was largely of the usual suspects, mostly the non-profit sector that follows Africa professionally.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Whitaker aimed all her remarks at the congressional table directly in front of us. She knew instantly who her most important audience was and zeroed in on them. She began by eloquently laying the groundwork of our history with Africa since the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, explaining how the only major legislation for the continent evolved and how it finally passed in 2000, and why it needs to be extended. 

She did not talk about how much Africa needed us. Neither she nor I believe it does need us so much anymore. We both believe we need Africa far more than it needs us. She laid out the achievements of the act, mixed but still important to African development. 

Everyone in the room knew what the act was. It has been likened to the African NAFTA, but in reality it is more restrictive on trade, and is a political incentive instrument as much as it is a trade agreement. Essentially, it allows African nations that qualify to ship a range of products to the U.S. duty-free. Its effectiveness has been largely limited by lack of infrastructure, power, and capacity of the workforce in many African countries. 

The primary beneficiaries in Africa have been those countries that have had a strong infrastructure and business sector, such as Kenya and South Africa. However, because it is the only symbol of U.S.-Africa economic cooperation, its continuation is important politically. 

To not renew the act before it expires in 2015 would be politically devastating. There are pressures not to do so, many valid, just as there are very strong valid reasons for its renewal. Right now, it is the best thing we have as a statement of our commitment to Africa. To withdraw it would send a signal throughout the entire continent that will almost certainly drive the Africans to other economic partners. Until we develop better alternatives, it is the best thing we have now in our relationship with Africa.

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

After she made the case for the act, a case the congressmen had almost surely heard before, Whitaker set the hook. "Let me put this in terms that some of you in the room can understand." she said in a rising and near-thunderous voice. "Africa is the swing vote. And right now it isn't swinging our way." She then laid out the facts. Africa's fifty-four nations represent more than a quarter of all votes in the United Nations. It is a market of more than a billion people. It has many of the strategic minerals necessary for our future. "If you lose the swing vote, you lose the election for the future of this planet, and you lose our economic hopes," she said. No one left the room.

Whitaker is right. Africa is that important to us. We need to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act now, so we aren't focusing on it for another two years, and so that we can then look at what is really needed to strengthen our economic ties with Africa. It is the largest developing market in the world and it is the fastest growing market.

America must realize the stakes are far higher than we realize, for Africa is, indeed, "the swing vote" for the future.

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