Taking a new approach

A few years ago during a trip to Africa, one president told me a story that has stuck with me ever since. He told me that when he was young, there were few teachers in his school, and had it not been for the two American Peace Corps volunteers who had come to teach, he wouldn’t be president of his country today. He said, “You are a great country because of what you gave my country, not what you took from my country.”

This story is a good reminder of what sets American foreign policy apart — our values — and why we have such a great opportunity to broaden and deepen our partnerships with Africa.


The vast opportunity for collaboration was the foundation of this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, as more than 40 heads of state from across Africa came to Washington with the goal of building stronger, more sustainable partnerships with American government and business leaders.

The summit’s goals stand in contrast to the narrative that has long dominated American news coverage of the continent. When Americans hear about Africa, we’re more accustomed to hearing about conflict and strife, disease and famine than about opportunity. That’s a shame, because it means most Americans don’t get to see the Africa I’ve come to know: an Africa of endless promise, ambition and ingenuity. There are real challenges, but I believe they’re vastly outweighed by the steady, sturdy growth of dozens of nations whose progress never makes our front pages.

I have never been more optimistic about Africa’s future.

Africa is home to strong, growing economies, emerging middle classes, budding democracies and vast natural and human resources. There are extraordinary opportunities for investment and partnerships — built on mutuality and respect — that can both move America forward and enable African-led solutions to African challenges.

We’ve historically viewed our relationship with Africa through the lens of foreign aid, but today, this view is far outdated. In the time I have spent on the continent, and with each subsequent visit, I am convinced that we have as much to gain from our African counterparts as they do from us.

Our competitors in China have already recognized this fact. But while China offers large amounts of no-strings-attached resources, America offers something more valuable and enduring — the willingness to invest in and develop Africa’s own capacities. The Africa we seek is an Africa that trades with us, that can defend itself and that empowers its citizens. This is an Africa we are uniquely suited to help Africans build.

After a decade of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), former President George W. Bush’s groundbreaking commitment to combating HIV and AIDS, and 50 years of the Peace Corps, we are better regarded in Africa than anywhere else in the world. We’ve already established a powerful foundation for partnership through our investments in health and education, clean water and good governance. And from our businesses and universities to our military training and vibrant diaspora community, we have tools no other nation can offer.

The opportunity for shared progress is extraordinary.

By helping to build broad, sustainable middle classes across Africa, American workers and businesses will have more people to sell their products to and more markets to invest in. The more we partner with African businesses, the stronger they will become as well.

We’ve already seen an approach built on partnerships pay dividends in the way our militaries work together. Rather than use expensive, large-scale American troop deployments to solve defense challenges, we’ve focused on training African forces to resolve and prevent crises themselves, while supporting them through noncombat means, like transportation, surveillance and intelligence. This increased operational capacity has already allowed the African Union to lead operations in Somalia, Mali and the Central African Republic.

Genuine partnerships like this must be the foundation for our relationships moving forward. And while so many issues break down along partisan lines in Congress, engagement with Africa truly unites us. It’s why I’m optimistic about our chances to reauthorize the landmark African Growth and Opportunity Act and pass Power Africa legislation.

This week’s summit has helped the United States bolster existing relationships and open new pathways for economic and political cooperation.

Now we must keep our momentum going. I truly believe Africa holds the greatest opportunity and promise of the 21st century. America can and should be part of Africa’s bright future.

Coons is Delaware’s junior senator, serving since 2010. He sits on the Appropriations, Budget, Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees.