Africa is on the 2020 political agenda — now make it count

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Something curious happened last week. Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s teams both made plays for Africa, a foreign policy area often relegated to a footnote, especially during an election year. The motivations vary, but the upshot could be auspicious for U.S.-Africa policy.

Indeed, my hope is that as the continent grapples with the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, with a recent surge of infections, that political competition could result in a more comprehensive U.S. response to the crisis, which thus far has been lacking.  

On Tuesday, July 14, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announced that it is launching the Africa Investment Advisor Program, which establishes regional teams based in Africa. The DFC is a consolidated agency that has brought together the capabilities of OPIC and USAID’s Development Credit Authority. It was established in 2018 when President Trump signed legislation making this merger and doubling the DFC investment cap to $60 billion.

According to its CEO, Adam Boehler, the DFC is doubling down on investments in Africa amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, as it believes this is an essential time to drive investments and to bring liquidity facilities quickly to the continent. Boehler also serves as the Executive Chairman for the Administration’s Prosper Africa initiative.

But there was more. Quoting Boehler, the U.S. Africa Media Hub posted on Twitter that the White House would be hosting African heads of state in September for an investment event — a big announcement from the appointee overseeing Trump’s signature Africa policy.

Now for the Democrats.

The Biden campaign announced last week that a virtual fundraiser would be held to discuss U.S.-Africa policy priorities featuring Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and Ambassador Susan Rice for Tuesday, 28 July.

An accompanying email said this would be the first time that a presidential campaign had set a pre-election event focused on Africa. The event, it was noted, reflects the importance that the Biden campaign attaches to Africa. 

Four months out from a U.S. presidential election, such political maneuvering is unprecedented — thus, it’s worth considering the drivers, the implications and the opportunities.

On the Republican side, recent events are grounded in Donald Trump’s U.S.-Africa strategy released in December 2018, which is largely about countering China’s commercial, security, and political influence on the continent. This objective, as one can imagine, is now on hyper-drive given China’s mishandling of the pandemic and its post Coronavirus aggression in India, the South China Sea and Hong Kong. Not to mention that labeling Biden as weak on China is part of the Trump campaign playbook.   

On the Democratic-side, the prompt looks less about great-power politics, and more about constituent interests within the Biden campaign and the party. Coons, Bass, Rice and others in Biden’s immediate circle are long-time advocates for Africa. Bass, who is rumored to be on Biden’s short list for VP, is both chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee. Bass has been strongly engaged on Africa policy since she arrived in Congress in 2013.

Beyond the personal, there is also the historic. The murder of George Floyd, followed by Black Lives Matters protests in every major American city, connected Black Africans and Black Americans in a dialogue of solidarity that Democrats hope could have real implications for domestic politics, the diversity the next administration will seek in its institutions, and the conduct of foreign policy.   

It’s all good that Africa has made it onto the agenda of 2020 presidential politics, but keep in mind that the last place its leaders want to be is on a battle ground of great power competitors, or  between the U.S. president and his political rivals — domestic or international.

Further, with Africa standing to lose up to 15 percent of its GDP because of the coronavirus, potentially pushing more than 20 million people into poverty, U.S. political gestures, no matter how well-intentioned, will offer little relief. 

Any credible Africa policy in 2020 — Democrat or Republican — must stand behind the appeal by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to prevent long-lasting scarring of the global economy from the coronavirus.

IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva says the G-20s needs to move beyond Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) and fill the gaps in the international debt architecture and think about more comprehensive debt relief for many countries, including stepping up action on Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).

“The situation in developing countries is increasingly desperate,” World Bank President David Malpass told a meeting of the G-20 this weekend. “Time is short. We need to take action quickly on debt suspension, debt reduction, debt resolution mechanisms and debt transparency.”

Unfortunately, the U.S. administration has so far been unprepared to support a multi-lateral debt standstill — coupled with the allocation of SDRs — which many advocate is the best way to provide desperately needed capital to staggering African economies. And this is despite the fact that China is the single largest bilateral creditor and — kept outside of a global settlement — will yield undue influence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has one more bite at the apple when it returns from recess this week to deliberate on its fourth and final COVID-19 emergency relief bill.  Thankfully, there is growing bipartisan support for a foreign aid component to include a “robust, coordinated and sufficiently resourced international response.” 

Again, it’s all good that Africa is in political play in 2020 — whether the impetus is the predatory behavior of America’s competitor nations, the alleviation of poverty, increasing trade and investment, equality, freedom and social justice, global warming, empowering youth and women, promoting sustainable wildlife conservation, the fight against terrorism and other threats of destabilization or all of the above.

But it all will be too little and too late if Africa’s liquidity crisis is not solved, a crisis that could send the continent into its first recession in 25 years with devastating human consequences and undermining the ambition of any future U.S. administration for the continent and for our own national security.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa Africa–China economic relations Chinese investment in Africa Chris Coons Donald Trump Great power competition International Monetary Fund Joe Biden Karen Bass Prosper Africa World Bank

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