Obama's Africa All-Star Team

The president's team provides strong opportunity for engagement in Africa.

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Michael Froman, his nominee for U.S. Trade Representative, at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 2, 2013.

Well into the first year of the second Obama  administration, Obama's second-term Africa team is now in place, and it may be the strongest combination for engagement with Africa that the U.S. government has had in place in several years. How they work together remains to be seen, but here, too, the early prospects for inter-agency cooperation are all pointing in the right direction.

Nominally at least, the leader of the Africa team will be Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. She initially turned down the offer, but when asked more than once by the secretary of state, few jobs can be declined if one is concerned about one's career trajectory.

Her new assignment will require a great deal of travel, far more than she has done in her life, and because crises in Africa do not follow Eastern Standard Time, she can expect many sleepless nights. It is a job that will wear on the body and soul.

Nevertheless, she is well-qualified and her appointment was welcomed, if not celebrated, by career State Department officers. She understands the State Department bureaucracy better than most and knows where she can expect support. Because of her oversight of Human Resources, she will also have a good eye for the next round of appointments of U.S. ambassadors to Africa.

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Above all, she has a reputation for fair-mindedness and solid management. She also has served in difficult assignments in Africa, most recently as U.S. ambassador to Liberia, and received one of the State Department's highest awards, the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs, for her work on refugee issues. She is used to crises. She also served in Nigeria, Gambia and Kenya, all challenging positions.

Still, the real leader on Africa may be Michael Froman, recently appointed as U.S. Trade Representative. He has been the leader in molding a comprehensive approach to Africa over the past year in his role as Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Affairs in the National Security Council, but in his new role as the U.S. Trade Representative, a job for which he is well-qualified, he may play an even stronger role in shaping Africa policy, especially economic policy, something that badly needs more definition and more action.

Since 2000 and the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, we have had no major trade treaties with any African country, and U.S. trade with Africa has been relatively stagnant. AGOA has also been more a tool for development and a political incentive instrument, seldom used by the U.S. private sector. With Obama's new export initiative, there will be more emphasis on helping U.S. businesses engage in Africa. The private sector has agitated strongly for more bilateral treaties and an emphasis on economic regionalization, both areas that will fall under Froman's oversight. While there is an Assistant Trade Representative for Africa, many expect Froman to play a more active role in defining Africa trade policy for the administration, although he does now have global responsibilities.

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One of the most important and often overlooked persons on Africa is and will be Fred Hochberg, Chairman and President of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. If the president's economic initiative announced in Tanzania is to work, the Ex-Im Bank will be the most critical American institution. The president committed no less than $7 billion dollars to new power projects in Africa. The reality is that the private sector is committing that money, but Ex-Im will need to guarantee the loans for that funding. If not, funding for American companies will continue to be more difficult.

The business community, which has been largely frustrated with the pace and breadth of financial support through loan guarantees by the Ex-Im Bank, is hoping that the success of the power projects will also open Ex-Im's conservative banking culture to more support for mid-sized companies seeking to engage in Africa. Hochberg is a proud man, reluctant to take criticism, but he has also pushed for new initiatives and ideas to support African development.

However, with the PowerAfrica projects and the president's export initiative, there will likely be further pressure to help U.S. businesses engage on the continent. There has not been one more committed to do so since Jim Harmon was in the position during the Clinton Administration.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), designed for companies investing and not only selling overseas, will also have a major role in financing U.S. companies seeking to build and invest. Elizabeth Littlefield continues as President of OPIC, and has a special commitment to Africa. She also has a strong supporting cast under her to push for more U.S. investment and jobs.

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At the National Security Council, Grant Harris will continue as Director for Africa. He is a protégé of the new national security adviser, Susan Rice, and can be expected to have an even stronger role in shaping African policy. Behind the scenes will continue to be Gayle Smith, who along with Froman was a principal architect of the new policy on Africa. She is a very close associate of Rice, and has worked well with Froman and Harris. She has especially been involved in some of the most difficult issues in Africa, especially but not exclusively those from Somalia to Sudan.

Finally, one should look for USAID's Director for Africa to continue to play an important role. Raj Shah, Adminstrator for USAID, continues to enjoy Obama's confidence and is a thought leader extraordinaire, but the implementer of Africa policy at USAID will be Earl Gast, who has gotten high marks from the White House and has worked well with the private sector.

There are many other actors, but this team is one of the more unified teams on Africa for some time. I look for more coherency and consistency in US policy towards Africa, and I look for far more cooperation between the public and private sector in the final three years plus of the Obama Administration. It couldn't come at a more important time in our relationships with Africa.

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

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