A new Africa comes to Washington

Some 50 official delegations, many led by heads of state or government, as well as hundreds of top-level business leaders and civil society representatives, converged on Washington this week in response to an invitation from President Obama to the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Yet most policymakers — to say nothing of ordinary Americans — have yet to come to terms with the surprising reality of the Africa on display in the many official and unofficial encounters across town.

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Of course, U.S. policymakers have come a long way from the time two decades ago when, under President Clinton, Pentagon planners issued a document entitled "United States Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa" in which they declared that they could "see very little traditional strategic interest in Africa" and pronounced themselves to be convinced that "America’s security interests in Africa are very limited," or, less than 15 years ago, when President George W. Bush, then campaigning for the White House, told PBS's Jim Lehrer that "while Africa may be important, it doesn't fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see them."

While the very fact that the summit is taking place is proof positive that the United States does indeed have significant national interests in Africa that require it engage the continent, its states and its peoples, the perception of Africa as a "heart of darkness" mired in conflict, poverty and disease stubbornly persists, even among the most well-meaning. Three weeks ago, just as attention was beginning to shift to the upcoming gathering with its theme of "Investing in the Next Generation," the House Foreign Affairs Africa subcommittee held a hearing on "The Growing Crisis of Africa's Orphans." While there is no denying that challenges like those faced by children without families, poorly governed spaces plagued by violent extremists, and countries with corrupt (or worse) rulers remain very real and need to be squarely confronted — and, hopefully, will be addressed appropriately during this week’s meetings — that picture alone is unbalanced and misses the broader positive context.

When I made my first tentative forays into the study of African politics a quarter of a century ago, all but a literal handful of the continent's states were ruled by one-party — if not one-man — regimes. Up to 1990, with the exception of the state presidents of the apartheid regime in South Africa, exactly one African leader — Somalia's Aden Abdulle Osman Daar back in 1967 — had ever left office through electoral defeat and only three — Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania — had retired voluntarily. Just a decade later, virtually every African state had opened up at least some space for political competition and many have subsequently become full-fledged democracies with regular peaceful transfers of power between governing parties and their opposition, with some countries, like Ghana, experiencing such transitions multiple times in recent years.

Of course, it is not enough to hold elections. Governments must govern, which means providing services to citizens and ensuring a climate wherein the private sector is empowered and incentivized to create jobs for those seeking work. Just two decades after the genocide highlighted the betrayal of a government's most fundamental responsibility, Rwanda is an incredible model of governance with annual signed contracts stipulating specific performance indicators for ministries and local government authorities, holding officials accountable for meeting targets by firing those falling below average. Strong civil society has played an important role across Africa since, as Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim put it pithily a few years ago, "It is demand that stimulates supply."

Even more impressive have been the economic gains across Africa. The continent is home to seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world this decade. Although, admittedly, the starting points for some African countries are relatively low and most of the boom in some countries is driven by demand for their commodities, a significant proportion of the growth is also due to deeper, long-term trends, including demographics (e.g., by 2050, one in four workers in the world will be an African; the world's fastest-growing urbanization rates means lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets) and technology (e.g., the rapid expansion of mobile telephony and Internet usage growth rates five times global averages over the last decade). Where African countries were once considered "risky" bets or thought of only as sources for raw natural resources, robust GDP growth rates coupled with improved regulatory and commercial environments have made the continent an increasingly attractive place to do business.

It is not only the direct investment coming from outside Africa, which grew nearly 7 percent last year to a net inflow of some $43 billion (according to a new study by my colleague Aubrey Hruby), but also Africans doing business with other Africans. As I document in a report released at the start of the summit, Morocco's two largest banks, BMCE and Attijariwafa, for example, are critical to the financial infrastructure of the continent: The former operates in 17 African countries and has ambitious plans to expand to another 13, while the latter has more than 550 retail branches in some 10 African countries.

Moreover, in perhaps the most interesting development of all, both the sovereign wealth funds of African countries and the private equity of wealthy Africans are increasingly courted as partners to American and European companies and sources of much-needed funding for Western capital markets. Timely Angolan investments, for example, played a critical role in stabilizing the economy of former colonial ruler Portugal after the latter was forced to accept a $100 billion bailout by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2011.

The United States may be late in pulling together an Africa summit — both the European Union and China (which, in 2009, overtook America as the continent's biggest trade partner) have been organizing regular meetings of the kind for more than a decade and India has hosted two gatherings since 2008 — and so many VIP motorcades will inevitably exacerbate Washington's already bad traffic snarls, but if this week's meetings and the presence of so many key actors around the capital can shift America’s focus to the new Africa and its political and business leaders, it will be worth the effort.

Note: This piece was published in the Aug. 6, 2014 print edition of The Hill as "New Africa steps into DC spotlight."

Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.