America’s new strategy toward Africa, released this week amid Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to the continent, offers promise for a newly productive relationship, and not a moment too soon. Global crises such as food insecurity, pandemic diseases and climate change — and Africa’s inevitable move in this generation to the world’s center stage — make a first real U.S.-Africa partnership vital. Yet a strategy is not a solution. Both American and African peoples and governments now face urgent tasks to seize this moment and jointly frame concrete milestones for the implementation of a new transatlantic partnership, ideally by December’s U.S.-African Leaders’ Summit.

A scientist works at Cape Town’s Biovac Institute, one of few African facilities working on COVID vaccines. A U.S. partnership with Africa should boost investment that can help meet Africans’ needs and priorities. (Sydelle Willow Smith/The New York Times)
A scientist works at Cape Town’s Biovac Institute, one of few African facilities working on COVID vaccines. A U.S. partnership with Africa should boost investment that can help meet Africans’ needs and priorities. (Sydelle Willow Smith/The New York Times)

The U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa notes in realistic terms Africa’s emergence as a demographic and geopolitical giant critical to any progress on our world’s gravest challenges. It declares that some U.S. approaches to Africa “have become insufficient” and commits the United States to “reset its relations with African counterparts, listen to diverse local voices, and widen the circle of engagement, … elevating African leadership to advance our shared agenda.” The document’s positive shift in tone and approach opens a new sense of opportunity for an unprecedented partnership among equals. Seizing that opportunity now requires immediate, intensive work on all sides.

New Challenges — for Americans and Africans

This new opportunity for partnership will require the United States, and African governments and regional institutions, to step up their game.

A first challenge for the United States is to show it is following through on commitments already made that are vital to Africa. One is its pledge of $200 billion over five years as part of the Group of Seven’s plan to mobilize $600 billion in global infrastructure investments, notably in Africa. Another is its latest pledges, at the November Glasgow summit, to lead in the world’s campaign against climate change, and support the necessary transitions in Africa’s economies. America’s need for follow-through includes as well the many specific commitments noted by Secretary Blinken this week. An example is the plan to invest $11 billion over five years with countries, 16 of them in Africa, that are working to bolster food security by making agriculture and supply chains more efficient and resilient to drought and other climate problems.

Also vital is that America demonstrate through action the full attention and respect for African voices and priorities iterated in this week’s strategy document, this even as all sides recognize that the United States retains its concern over the rising influence in Africa of China and Russia. A fundamental step in demonstrating that attention is to bolster the mechanisms of U.S. Africa policy, such as adequately staffed U.S. embassies led by ambassadors. Also, America’s emphatic assertion of partnership as the mode of its relations in Africa can strengthen — and be strengthened by — the practices of long-term engagement and better coordination that it is applying through its 2019 Global Fragility Act. Initial programs under that law aim to prevent conflict and promote stability in Mozambique and coastal West Africa — and those efforts should be reviewed to ensure their full application of the new U.S. strategy.

A simultaneous challenge for African peoples, governments and regional institutions is to forge the very African-led solutions that the United States is committing to support. This includes local solutions where communities or countries struggle — despite climate change, COVID and scarce investment — to ignite the economic growth that can benefit their populations and strengthen democratization. And it includes the regional or continental solutions on economic or security problems that must be built among governments. At all levels, African experience has shown consistently, the only effective solutions will be those that are infused with respect for rule of law, transparency, accountability and inclusion.

Those same African values must be central in the critical work of building more effective solutions to violent conflicts, many of which have persisted despite years-long African peacemaking efforts so far. These include the violence and extremism in the Sahel, the war in Ethiopia and instability in the Horn of Africa, and the protracted conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name a few. While many of these conflicts are driven partly by external actors, American officials acknowledge that outsiders cannot unilaterally shape solutions to them, but can support Africans in doing so.

An Immediate To-Do List

Africans and Americans must seize this moment — and policymakers should take vital steps to do so in the next four months. Here is a to-do list with which to begin:

  • Generate African multilateral responses to the American offer, ideally for discussion with U.S. representatives by the time of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) sessions in September. Africans should push aside skepticism about a superpower’s sincerity and take the United States at its word, for that is the way to hold the Americans to their commitment. Parts of America’s offer — to support African leadership and solutions on global issues like climate change, food security, trade and a green economy — will need multilateral responses forged within the African Union and Africa’s regional economic communities. The African Union’s strategic development plan, Agenda 2063, provides a platform on which to base this multilateral offer of partnership. Clearly, the U.N. sessions will focus heavily on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. But African institutions will be able to claim their own priority amid the UNGA consultations by arriving with a coordinated response.
  • Develop African bilateral responses to the U.S. strategy. These will inform ongoing discussions with American counterparts on the many issues where individual governments must shape their counter-offers according to their own national interests and development trajectories.
  • Engage all sides now to shape plans of action for December and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The U.S. and African governments, and Africa’s multilateral bodies, should begin intensive consultations with all vital constituencies, domestic and international, on the architecture — and the first concrete steps — of a new U.S.-Africa partnership. Following UNGA, this broad engagement should aim ambitiously to culminate in an agreement at the December summit in Washington on a detailed, shared vision for the partnership, including concrete milestones.
  • Specifically, open a dialogue with the private sector. President Biden last month noted the importance of the private sector in U.S.-African cooperation. And now the new U.S. strategy invokes investment — for example, via the G-7 infrastructure initiative — as a transformative tool. But investment at the scale required cannot be directed by governments alone. The private sector is needed to identify the areas and projects that are ripe for financing — so a private sector presence at the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit could be as important as that of any U.S. government official. Also, investments in African and American small and medium-sized businesses can be an engine for development vastly more powerful than any government program. And it is investment, so persistently sought by Africans, that can “flip the script” of inadequate prior strategies for economic and democratic development. With the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act expiring in 2025, the administration should increase consultations with Congress on advancing the vigorous trade and investment agenda for Africa promised by the strategy. 

With its new strategy, the United States has invited African partners to join it on a journey — and in a relationship qualitatively different from those of the past. But a shared journey must begin with traveling companions jointly identifying their destination — and that is the step we must take now. America has spoken clearly of Africa as a rising global power that will be central in shaping the world that our children will inherit from us. Africa must now summon the confidence and determination to respond in kind, and to play its role as a global power to the benefit of Africans and the world.

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