Where Trump fails on US-Africa policy, Congress must step in
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Congress has historically shown great leadership on U.S.-Africa policy, on issues ranging from health and governance to trade and energy.  Now, as the 2018 budget battle takes shape, maintaining this rare oasis of bipartisanship is all the more important for countering two Africa-related risks that the Trump administration appears to be overlooking: the rise of violent extremism, and the growth of Chinese influence.  

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is currently active in eight countries in Africa, and al Qaeda is also deepening its roots in the region.  Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s overtures toward Africa suggest a narrow emphasis on security, at the expense of capacity building, governance, and economic development.  By focusing only on the symptoms of instability — and ignoring the causes — this approach puts Americans at greater risk.  

African leaders across the continent must generate 18 million new jobs every year to absorb the region’s fast growing and young population, as well as address instances of bad governance and injustice, which create fertile ground for terrorist groups to radicalize new recruits.  This is a tall order that will require U.S. assistance and investment.

All the while, as the Trump administration deprioritizes Africa, Chinese leaders must be salivating.  China now makes at least $50 billion a year from its African infrastructure investments, and that number is only growing.  Last year, China more than doubled its foreign direct investment in Africa, eclipsing the value of U.S. investments by a factor of 10.  Other countries are also poised to benefit from Africa’s growth, and this is not small potatoes: household consumption in Africa is forecasted to reach $2.1 trillion by 2025.

These are not the only reasons why feeble engagement with Africa harms U.S. interests.  As I argue in a recent Atlantic Council report, other countries are strengthening ties across the region in ways that disadvantage the United States.  For instance, North Korea has sold weapons to African countries, in violation of UN sanctions, to fund its weapons of mass destruction programs, and Russia is looking to Africa to hedge against U.S. sanctions.

So, what must be done?  Here are three ways in which Congressional leadership can make all the difference:  

First, Congress should wisely continue defending foreign assistance that supports development in African countries.  For instance, President Trump’s proposed cuts to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief would undercut development gains, potentially causing a million deaths.  Other initiatives such as Power Africa (which expands energy access) also merit continued support.  As over 120 retired generals wrote to Congress earlier this year, supporting U.S. diplomacy and development assistance is key to combating the “drivers of extremism” and “critical to keeping America safe.”

Second, we should expand the financing and insurance tools that American companies need to compete with foreign companies in Africa.  President Trump’s proposal to defund the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) is exactly the wrong approach.  The calculus is simple: these tools help American companies — particularly small companies — and therefore create American jobs (and, by the way, OPIC actually returns money to the U.S. Treasury, and USTDA produces $85 in U.S. exports for every dollar invested in emerging economies).

Congress had it right in 1997 when specifically mandating the U.S. Export-Import Bank (which also returns money to the U.S. Treasury) to help U.S. exporters in Africa.  At a time when we ought to be institutionalizing the important commercial agenda launched by President Obama, we risk throwing our gains away.

Third, Congress should insist on good governance, abroad (not limited to Africa) and at home.  Beyond being a cornerstone of American values and soft power, good governance is critical for justice and inclusive economic growth — without which literally hundreds of millions of African youth will be deprived of opportunity and hope (and therefore more susceptible to radicalization).  

Likewise, Congress should use its voice to support human rights and civic space, as several senators recently did in denouncing Egypt’s law restricting NGOs.  Finally, hypocrisy is not a good look on the United States of America.  U.S. diplomats have told me about certain African officials mocking their urging for anti-corruption measures, calling it sanctimonious.  Congress cannot allow the Trump administration to torpedo transparency and sully the American brand.

There is little hope that the Trump administration will display the savviness to seize economic and political opportunities in Africa.  But Congress has the institutional memory and capacity to see the larger picture on U.S.-Africa policy.  Now, more than ever, it’s up to Congress to act.

Grant T. Harris was senior director for African Affairs in the White House from 2011-2015 and is now CEO of Harris Africa Partners LLC. Follow him on Twitter @Grant_T_Harris.

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