President Barack Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will be a success to the extent that it updates the perception of Africa’s economic, political and social potential without underestimating the remaining problems of violence, dictatorship and corruption, according to two former assistant secretaries of state for African Affairs.

 

Pictured left to right, Jon Temin, Amb. Johnnie Carson, Amb. George Moose

Ambassador Johnnie Carson, now a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Ambassador George Moose, vice chairman of the Institute's board, briefed reporters covering the summit on Aug. 5. They outlined the importance of the event for U.S.-Africa trade and investment, political relations and historical ties.

Carson emphasized the event's focus on the next generation in Africa and on accelerating American business with African nations. Moose noted America's "intensely interactive relationship with Africa for the last 60 years." The U.S. was a champion of many of the independence movements in sub-Saharan Africa, and U.S. support for African countries has remained strong since then, Moose said.

"We have more…representation on the continent than any other country," said Moose, citing the large number of embassies, missions of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Peace Corps volunteers working throughout Africa.

The Summit aims to broaden and strengthen relationships with countries throughout the continent, including in North Africa. The U.S. is engaging long-term partners such as Morocco and Egypt, and developing deeper relationships with nations such as Algeria, because of common security interests in the Maghreb, Moose said.

Last, largest emerging market

Bringing business and investment to Africa is one of the most important objectives of the Summit, said Carson.

"Africa is the last, largest emerging economic marketplace," Carson said, and the U.S. should be "active and aggressive" in its pursuit of its economic interests on the continent.

African economies are growing rapidly; already six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa. Much of this growth has been in natural-resource development, particularly in oil, natural gas and minerals. The U.S. has long been dominant in the petroleum industry in Africa, but there is still enormous potential in Africa for other kinds of energy-sector investment.

The emphasis in the summit on the potential for investment and on bringing African leaders together should result in "concrete manifestations of U.S. interest and investment and trading with Africa," Moose said. "That investment is what is going to drive the economic growth and, in turn, is going to create opportunities for meaningful development."

China in Africa

China has also recognized Africa's investment potential and has garnered attention -- and some concern -- for its rapidly expanding economic activities on the continent and little emphasis on democracy and human rights. But the assumption that China is not "getting its hands dirty" with these issues is incorrect, Moose said. Although this was the case for several years, citizens are more frequently challenging China and its investors to end abusive policies and practices on labor rights and other questions.

China held its first African summit in 2000, prompting speculation that the Obama administration organized the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to keep pace. Carson points out that many other countries have held similar summits, including the European Union, Japan and India.

The summit in Washington is part of a "natural evolution" of U.S.-Africa relations, according to Carson. "It seemed, I think, for the Administration, an appropriate time to do it."

"The U.S. and China are not in any strategic, military or security competition in Africa," Carson said. The U.S. is competing economically with China in Africa, but merely in the same way the U.S. competes on the continent with the European Union, Japan and other economies.

The U.S. and China work with African countries very differently, and African nations can and will decide which trading partners they work with and to what degree, Carson said. He is optimistic that African nations will choose the U.S. for several reasons: business deals are far more transparent in the U.S.; China brings in its own workers in places where unemployment and underemployment are rampant, whereas the U.S. trains local labor and helps integrate them into the local economy; and the U.S. has significantly more legal accountability than China.

The U.S., Moose said, also can help China become a more positive contributor in building African institutions, because it serves everyone's interests.

Changing narratives

Carson and Moose said the Summit will be significant if it can change the perceptions about Africa in the U.S. Existing narratives tend to be dominated by the persistent ravages of dictatorships, violence and famine.

"All of Southeast Asia is not characterized by what happens in North Korea…or in places like Burma or Laos," Carson said. "This is a continent of 54 states, and it would be a mistake to say what prevails in northeastern Nigeria or in the eastern part of the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo should be a characterization of what is happening in Namibia, Zambia … in Senegal and in Ghana."

The outdated image of Africa in the U.S. fails to recognize the incredible advances there over the past 60 years, said Moose. The Obama administration can reinforce the positive aspirations of Africans by acknowledging and drawing on the more accurate "political, economic and social dynamism that now characterizes the continent," Carson said.

Still, the U.S. and its African partners must openly confront the challenges that remain, Moose said. The continent is still home to five of the world's most violent conflicts and the majority of its fragile states. Good governance remains an issue, as well. Unless these problems are "addressed squarely," Moose warned, Africa's promise will not be achieved.

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