By Justin Sink - 07/02/13 11:43 PM EDT
President Obama’s eight-day trip to Africa came to a fitting end on Tuesday as he stood side by side with the man whose legacy seemed to trail him all across the continent.
Obama made a rare joint appearance with former President George W. Bush at a memorial to the victims of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.
Throughout the trip, the president’s efforts were largely measured against those of Bush — who remains beloved in Africa for his signature AIDS relief program — and China, which has invested aggressively in the continent.
The president also sought to promote democratic institutions, only to find himself in the shadow of both Nelson Mandela, the ailing anti-apartheid icon battling a potentially fatal respiratory disease, and a brewing internal conflict in Egypt.
The news about Mandela and Egypt largely overshadowed the president’s announcement about a multibillion-dollar initiative to expand electricity access in Africa, as well as the creation of a major partnership aimed at expanding U.S. trade to sub-Saharan Africa.
Still, foreign policy and economic experts say that behind the scenes, the president laid the groundwork for investments and partnerships that could pay off for generations to come.
The president’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to double access to electricity across sub-Saharan Africa, could dramatically alter the continent’s role in the world economy, experts said.
Scott Eisner, the vice president of African Affairs and International Operation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said electricity access was “one of the major issues prohibiting growth” in Africa.
“To focus on power — he was dead on to do it,” Eisner said, adding that electricity access was the “baseline of all growth of economies.”
The program is also a strategic counter to China’s growing influence. Total trade between the China and sub-Saharan Africa surpassed the region’s trade with the United States in 2009, and China has routinely offered to fund vast infrastructure projects like roads, railways and electricity in exchange for contracts that ensure access to raw material resources.
But the president emphasized that the American investments would bring jobs and opportunities in, rather than simply siphon resources out.
Speaking in Tanzania on Tuesday shortly before boarding a flight to Washington, Obama called the electricity program “a win-win.”
“It’s a win for Africans — families get to electrify their homes; businesses can run their plants; investors can say if we locate in an African country, that they’re going to be able to power up in a reliable way. All this will make economies grow,” Obama said.
“It’s a win for the United States because the investments made here, including in cleaner energy, means more exports for the U.S. and more jobs in the U.S.,” he said.
The president also announced a trade initiative aimed at moving goods faster and at a lower cost across borders within Africa.
“We’ll work with the countries involved to modernize customs, move to single more efficient border crossings, reduce bottlenecks, reduce the roadblocks that stymie the flow of goods to market,” he told business executives at a roundtable event earlier this week.
Still, the American focus on competing with China has its own complications. Greg Adams, who directs Oxfam America’s advocacy work on aid effectiveness, says the president’s plan “parallels in a lot of ways the Chinese approach,” without addressing crucial issues like aid transparency or ensuring the abilities of African governments to regulate the newly emerging power markets.
“It’s great the president is making the trip, and it’s great he’s focused on an issue like access to power ... but it seems to be the same sort of model we’ve seen in the past, a little bit of new wine in an old bottle,” Adams said.
Calestous Juma, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, also said it was a mistake to view Africa today “through the lens of China.”
“Africa is emerging as a legitimate economic and political player on the global scene that is worthy of U.S. attention without the tedious detour through Sino-U.S. relations,” Juma said.
Juma said African leaders “view their future in pragmatic terms,” and predicted Obama’s trip could “usher in a new age of collaborative economic diplomacy.”
“Africa is entering a new age where economic growth is needed to reinforce the gains made on the democracy and human rights fronts,” Juma said.
The White House hopes that by supporting African economic growth, the U.S. will empower governments there to take a more active role in fostering beneficial trade relationships. They also see stronger African governments as a way to further streamline the delivery of aid.
Ahead of their joint appearance Tuesday, Obama praised Bush for spending political capital to jumpstart AIDS relief efforts. But he also defended eliminating millions in funding to the program by saying the programs had gotten more effective.
The hope, Obama said, is that a stronger sub-Sahara Africa would someday begin implementing more of the programs on their own.
“The important piece is acknowledging that the transition needs to happen at some point,” Adams said. “African countries need to be able to lead their own solution to the HIV/AIDS challenge.
“We ... have a contribution to make to that, but we’re just going to be treading water if we don’t make the space for African leadership to take over.”