America needs strong partners in meeting this century’s accelerating challenges: climate change, human migrations, pandemics, tech revolutions and threats to democracy. A vital new partner, the U.S. administration has rightly declared, must be a rising geostrategic actor: Africa. Next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will test America’s readiness to move from visionary declarations to concrete work. The key step, little noted in American public discussion, is for the United States to invest in Africa’s own 21st century development plan. This summit should send Americans and Africans home with “to-do” lists and a schedule to shape the first joint projects under that plan.

Kenyans work at an internet café in Nairobi in 2017. African nations and institutions are pursuing an investment and development plan that aims to massively expand internet and tech resources across the continent. (Adriane Ohanesian/The New York Times)
Kenyans work at an internet café in Nairobi in 2017. African nations and institutions are pursuing an investment and development plan that aims to massively expand internet and tech resources across the continent. (Adriane Ohanesian/The New York Times)

America’s new National Security Strategy recognizes that Africa’s evolution will be a central determinant of global and U.S. futures in this century. The new U.S. strategy toward Africa understands that Africa is likely to generate the majority of all human population growth by 2050 to form a quarter of humanity and a younger work force than the rest of the world. Thus, U.S. policymakers aim to build a new economic, political and democratic partnership with Africa, cognizant that China, Russia and other authoritarian states also are building influence there. America can do this, for it is more capable of respecting and engaging Africa as a welcome and powerful partner than any other potential counterpart, for reasons of both history and recent, bipartisan policymaking.

The respect and engagement that can win America an enthusiastic new transatlantic partnership require two steps at next week’s summit here in Washington. Americans need to offer supportive participation, through public and private investments, in the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the continent’s homegrown plan for massive investments, freer trade, broader education and improved democracy, justice and peace. And both Africans and Americans need to take concrete steps such as those suggested below.

Begun in 2013, Agenda 2063 is a planned 50-year campaign by African governments, business and civil society to build the systems and sinews to meet their continent’s exploding needs and capacities. Its bold projects include high-speed railroads, broadband networks, high-tech industries, peace and security initiatives, and one of the world’s largest free-trade areas. Embracing this African self-help plan is the greatest single opportunity for the United States to shift its own role in Africa, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently vowed to do, from a long-ineffective model of “development assistance” to one of equal  and effective partnership.

Showing American Partnership

For more than six decades in Africa, not only the United States but other wealthy powers, international institutions, donor organizations and many African governments themselves have applied a model that treated world powers as the providers of solutions to African problems. This donor-recipient relationship has often failed to bring sustainable progress, whether on economic development, democratization or security. For U.S. policymakers, just one of these many failings is enough to dramatize the consequent threat to U.S. and international security: Corrupt and ineffective governance across Africa’s Sahel region has triggered the spread of violent extremist insurgencies, military coups and refugee populations seeking shelter. Recent U.S. (and French and other international) “solutions” have failed, underscoring that only a only a true partnership can produce the sustainable African solutions to this and other crises.

Next week’s summit is a chance for Americans and Africans to acknowledge the changes required to build a fully equal partnership to address our Africa-related challenges. American makers and implementers of policy need to shift into a mode of what peacebuilders call “active listening” — pressing Africans to describe their visions of Africa’s problems and solutions. Africans must respond with more of the leadership represented by Agenda 2063, building serious national and continent-wide approaches to our challenges — approaches that are rooted in African and universal values of democracy and human rights. While both sides will necessarily address bilateral issues, African leaders must ensure that a cacophony of these does not drown out their combined message: that U.S.-African partnership is essential to address transnational issues, and our core, shared interest in better growth and security.

Re-balancing any long relationship to more equally share its burdens is never easy. But a resource for that effort is this: America is by nature a relentless self-improver. Driven powerfully by its African-American people and values, the United States over generations has been strengthening its practices of inclusion and democracy in ways that can make it Africa’s best partner now. Experience shows that any number of international counterparts can offer money and transactional benefits to African elites. But a United States that remains determined to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” is better placed to offer, and to benefit from, an equal, 21st century partnership with the Mother Continent and its 1.4 billion people. Moreover, this combine of democratizing partners can be a powerful engine for the reforms so urgently needed in the governance of global institutions at the heart of multilateralism and a rule-based global order — the United Nations, World Bank, Group of 20 and others.

Consensus and Investment

Any effective U.S. partnership for a more stable, prosperous, 21st century Africa must be a matter of broad American consensus across administrations and political parties, much like the U.S. transatlantic partnership with Europe since the 1940s. A basis for that consensus is visible in two specific, bipartisan actions by Congress in recent years that can strengthen a U.S. engagement with Agenda 2063. One is the 2019 Global Fragility Act, which promises to overhaul U.S. peacebuilding policies and programs across the Global South, making them more coherent, long-term and effective. This reform is now being applied first to a basket of nine countries, seven of them in Africa. The second is Congress’ 2018 creation of the International Development Finance Corporation, which doubled the U.S. capacity to support private-sector business development abroad that is vital to stability or U.S. national security.

As partners, both U.S. and African governments will need to strengthen the coordinating and consensus-building roles of the African Union and its eight recognized regional bodies, such as West Africa’s ECOWAS and East Africa’s IGAD. The regional groupings, while generally labeled as economic forums, play frontline roles in confronting political and security crises in their neighborhoods. The United States should bring these organizations to the center of its engagements in Africa, while they, through their member states, should build stronger institutional muscles to concretely apply the democratic principles of their charters and engage more effectively with the United States.

A mighty U.S. engine for partnership with Africa, and simultaneously the heaviest tool in the pro-democracy toolbox, is investment and trade. Agenda 2063 and one of its projects, the African Continental Free Trade Area, only multiply the opportunities for American businesses of every size, including those led from among the 47 million Americans of African heritage. Commendably, next week’s summit is taking up that focus, with a business forum on its second day, and a long list of side events to promote various elements of investment.

Let’s Make This Happen

The lives of children born today in Africa and America will be heavily shaped by their elders’ success in forging an equal partnership between the world’s fastest-growing population and its largest economy. Next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will test us in taking the first concrete steps of the partnership that both sides (and indeed the world) desperately need. We can pass that test with a range of actions, such as these:

  • Make this conference a regular event, to push a partnership forward, rather than a sporadic meeting. (This second summit is coming eight years after the first one.)
  • Form a U.S.-African partnership mechanism to begin shaping the structures of a formal partnership with the same seriousness as those of America’s transatlantic relationship with Europe.
  • Form a joint working group to set a list of high-priority projects for fast action in the coming year to support Agenda 2063. Schedule it to recommend, within months, the first steps to implement. Some Agenda 2063 priority projects, such as the high-speed rail network or digitalization initiatives could leverage pledges already made by the United States, for example $200 billion in five years for the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
  • Agree on a strategy, to advance democratizing reforms to global institutions — the U.N. Security Council, Group of 20, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and others — that are necessary to fully include Africa in a stronger system to promote peace and development through the rule of law.

Eighty years ago, the global earthquake of World War II jolted Americans and Europeans into recognizing their need to invest in a permanent partnership. That commitment produced the Marshall Plan, the NATO alliance, tides of trade and investment, and generations of unparalleled stability and prosperity for both transatlantic partners. Today, our world confronts a complex storm of shifting demographics, catastrophic climate change, and technological and economic revolutions — all of which are placing America’s other transatlantic continent at the center of our futures. When American and African leaders sit together next week in Washington, they must apply the same bold vision and commitment to equal and effective partnership in the service of our children’s generation.

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