President Barack Obama has invited 47 African Heads of State to come to Washington August 5-6 a summit around U.S. – Africa Trade. He invited leaders from across the African continent with the aim of strengthening ties with one of the world’s fastest growing regions. The summit is also a direct follow-up on the president’s trip last summer to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.
This historic meeting, is aimed at increasing U.S. trade with Africa, stimulating job growth in the U.S., and promoting the economic development on the continent with the assistance of American companies in the areas of energy and power generation, agriculture, telecommunications as well as in other much needed areas.
The idea for the summit or a White House conference on Africa was actually proposed to President Obama at the outset of his presidency in early 2009 by the Constituency for Africa.
The White House African Heads of State Summit in August will be a golden opportunity for African leaders to engage the United States on trade and investment and to position the region as a higher priority for the United States. However, to do so African leaders need to organize and strategize prior to coming here in August in order to come to a consensus agreement on not more than three priority agenda items as goals. It would certainly be more than appropriate and highly rational for African leaders to call on the Diaspora in the United States for specific ideas, suggestions and recommendations in advance of the summit.
In the past, the approach by African countries to the United States was generally on a country-by-country basis — lobbying for bilateral support. Often the support requests came in the form of food aid, refugee assistance and other forms of humanitarian aid, to address famine, civil war or other crises that might be occurring. It also came in the form of weapons to combat insurgencies and coup d’état in these countries.
From the U.S. standpoint, the aid was often provided based purely on those African countries’ opposition to Russia and other cold war enemies, and not based on the essential economic and social development of their citizens. It did not matter if the country was democratic or not; whether the aid would be syphoned off or stolen by the leaders; or if the designated populations ever received the aid. It was all about the rhetoric.
Today, much has changed; as much as Africa needs the United States, the United States now need Africa. Over the past 20 years, Africa has emerged as a primary trading partner for many countries, most notably China (which has invested billions in the development of African infrastructure in exchange for natural resources), as well as for India, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and other countries seeking oil, gas, coal, diamonds and increasing markets to sell products. Things have gotten very competitive now, and it is no longer a given that the United States can generate influence, and get whatever it wants in Africa.
To maximize the opportunity for a successful summit, African countries must caucus with one another on a regional basis and then take advantage of the African Union Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in July, to determine what it really wants from the United States that will advance the social and economic agenda of the continent.
Melvin P. Foote is the founder, president and CEO of the Constituency for Africa (CFA), a Washington, D.C.-based education and policy advocacy organization in support of Africa’s development.