2014: Africa at last?

The recent White House announcement that the first-ever “U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit” will be held this August is the latest – and most conspicuous – example of the increasing focus on Africa by the U.S. and other governments. The summit is set to host 47 African heads of state, who will join President Obama in discussing trade and investment in Africa. This year therefore looks to be a fruitful year for those with high hopes for a continent growing rapidly as a center for trade and investment.

Obama’s announcement comes on the heels of a transformative 2013 for Africa. After Chinese President Xi made Africa his first international destination, Obama followed up in June with long overdue visits to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. While there, the president launched two major initiatives “Power Africa” and “Trade Africa”, which together, form the foundation of a new kind of relationship between the U.S. and Africa. 2013 also marked 50 years of the Organization of African Unity, the immediate predecessor to the African Union. In a speech marking the anniversary, the Chair of African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, heralded a prosperous Africa marked by peace, economic prosperity and regional integration.

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Part of the cornerstone of this new U.S.-Africa relationship, is the active interest of major American multinationals. Companies such as Wal-Mart and General Electric demonstrate how pursuing business goals as well as development can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. GE’s “Country to Company” agreement commits one of the largest global companies to Nigeria’s ambitious efforts to become one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020. Wal-Mart has shown a similar commitment to sustainable growth and poverty alleviation, ramping up store openings in a number of countries, and notably across Nigeria, where consumer demand is booming. All of these efforts are being pursued in partnership with local communities and government alike.

Another aspect of the renewed relationship is a reimagined approach to development assistance and its role in the continent’s growth. New studies support the reality that overall conditions are improving throughout the developing world. In their annual letter, Bill and Melinda Gates upend the myth that poor countries are doomed to stay poor. They show that progress can be seen both in the figures and in their first-hand accounts from travels to the continent over the past two decades.  The letter suggests that by 2035, poverty will be largely a thing of the past. Such a prognosis, if even half realized, is a promising prescription for African nations eager to start a new chapter.

Despite these new initiatives from the White House, growing commercial diplomacy and new approaches to development, these efforts stand in stark contrast to the halting progress on US-Africa trade legislation on Capitol Hill. Despite commendable interest from a small cohort of House members on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), political will to move legislation is a significant and persistent hurdle. Similarly, Senate engagement appears sluggish.

The situation in Congress continues to be out of step with the demand for legislation aimed at facilitating a new invigorated trade relationship with African nations. The appointment of Senator Baucus (D-Mont.), forrmer chair of the Senate Finance Committee, as Ambassador to China may hamper efforts to resurrect the U.S.’s Generalized System of Preferences that expired in July 2013 and on which AGOA is built. Other competing factors include an August recess that is a mere 18-congressional weeks away and the November mid-term elections.

Progress ultimately hinges upon a complicated balancing act of competing priorities. AGOA’s few champions, Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), and Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.), face an uphill battle to get their fellow colleagues to set aside intransigence and to fully recognize and act upon the economic opportunity offered by a healthy and robust trade relationship with African nations.

As we look forward, there is tremendous opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Africa trade policy. The months leading up to the African leader’s summit will be the final months before the congressional summer recess and the mad dash to the midterms. After the midterms and with a lame-duck legislature, all bets are off until the new Congress in 2015. While the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit takes place after congressional leaders depart Washington for the summer recess, it is nonetheless an occasion to showcase the potential for new possibilities in business and investment afforded by an African continent clearly on the rise.

Williams is a director at the Seattle-based strategic advisory firm williamsworks and the former Democratic staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations. Pence is director for Africa at McLarty Associates, a corporate strategy and investment advisory firm based in Washington, D.C.