Fostering growth and opportunity

Africa seems a faraway place with little bearing on the daily lives of many Americans and their livelihoods. This view fails to grasp current geopolitical realities and obscures a tremendous opportunity to advance Africa’s continued economic and social growth — as well as our own.

First signed into law in 2000 by President Clinton, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, provides qualifying sub-Saharan countries duty-free access to the U.S. market for a wide variety of products. Having been strengthened and extended by Congress and presidents George W. Bush and Obama, the current authorization of AGOA ends Sept. 30, 2015.

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The act has received such broad and bipartisan support because its advocates recognize the crucial role that Africa plays in the global economy. The continent represents one of the world’s fastest growing economic regions. According to the World Bank, economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa continues to rise, expanding from 4.7 percent in 2013 to a forecasted 5.2 percent in 2014. These rates compare quite favorably to a global average of about 3 percent.

Africa’s population is the world’s youngest. According to the United Nations, half of its inhabitants are under age 19. The U.N. projects that by 2035 Africa’s working-age population will be larger than that of China or India. The potential importance of this emerging demographic, both as producers and potential consumers, is difficult to overstate.

AGOA allows the U.S. and Africa both to take advantage of this dynamism. Since the act was fully implemented in 2001, U.S. imports covered by AGOA have tripled. Non-oil AGOA trade has increased fourfold.

Its benefits have been broad and AGOA has notched particular improvements in the apparel, textile, jewelry, handicraft and electronics sectors. AGOA has created hundreds of thousands of jobs in those fields, most of those in the apparel industry, where women comprise up to 90 percent of the workforce. This is especially important because in sub-Saharan Africa, women are at the highest risk of being poor. AGOA has tackled barriers to poverty reduction by eliminating tariffs on goods that come from many sectors in which women are employed.

Modern trade agreements, however, need to be about much more than lowering tariffs and increasing commerce. In an increasingly global economy, we can no longer consider issues like labor rights, human rights and good governance as separate from trade policy. Strong commitments to the rule of law and human rights are values that must be integral to any such agreement.

AGOA is no exception. It has been encouraging such commitments from its inception. To qualify for the act’s benefits, countries must establish or make continual progress on measures that promote good governance and a fair economic system. These include fundamental rights, the rule of law, a system to combat corruption, and policies that expand physical infrastructure, while increasing access to healthcare and education.

As part of the annual AGOA review process, the U.S. Department of Labor examines AGOA countries’ efforts to implement and enforce workers rights. These include the right of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, prohibitions on forced and compulsory labor, a minimum age for the employment of children and acceptable conditions of work. Improvements in these areas have been shown to foster the kind of inclusive economic growth and opportunities that raise families — and nations — out of poverty.

A bipartisan effort is underway in Congress to extend and improve this important legislation. One key improvement will be strengthening AGOA eligibility criteria to further incentivize improvements in human rights. Another is providing coordinated technical assistance and capacity building.

The time to develop consensus on how to improve AGOA is now, not in the minutes leading up to its expiration. I urge my colleagues to join me in proactively supporting and strengthening the act. Together, we can bolster the U.S-Africa trade relationship, elevate human rights and fight global poverty.

Cardin is Maryland’s junior senator, serving since 2007. He sits on the Finance; the Environment and Public Works; the Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and the Foreign Relations committees. He is on the Foreign Relations African affairs subcommittee.

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