A month after leaders from 49 African states returned home from the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, their region’s struggles have shifted back into their frequent place in global news headlines and discussion, often obscured by crises from Ukraine to China to the Middle East. So it’s a good moment to refocus on a specific “to-do list” for President Joe Biden’s vow that “the United States is ‘all in’” on the future of the continent with the world’s fastest-growing population. To be “all in” on Africa’s future requires concrete steps on at least six needs.

President Joe Biden greets Senegalese President Macky Sall, the African Union chairperson, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit a day after Biden vowed that America is “’all in’ on Africa’s future.” (Cheriss May/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden greets Senegalese President Macky Sall, the African Union chairperson, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit a day after Biden vowed that America is “’all in’ on Africa’s future.” (Cheriss May/The New York Times)

1. Sustain the summit and its conversation.

The United States needs to institutionalize the summit, holding it regularly on the basis of a shared U.S.-Africa agenda. Last month’s summit was only the second after President Barack Obama initiated it in 2014. Meanwhile, China, the European Union, France, Japan, India and Turkey have sustained regular summit or development conferences stretching back years or decades. They, as well as Russia, have increased engagements and investments in Africa. This leaves the United States scrambling to catch up in boosting its role as a partner to a continent only growing in importance through its huge youth population, essential natural resources and critical partnership in supporting democracy and free markets. The United States should institutionalize its top-level engagement with Africans proactively, rather than in reaction to what others are doing. Yet it might note that competitors will continue to accelerate. Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely, in his third term, to continue his focus on a continent that he already has visited 10 times since 2014. Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang completed a trip to five African countries in early January to prepare Xi’s next visit. Russia, which hosted its first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, plans to host its second in six months.

2. Intensify a broad diplomatic engagement with Africans.

With so many development partners positioning themselves for primacy in Africa, the United States must step up its diplomatic engagement to remain competitive and sustain its advantages. A good start could be to establish an interagency office, perhaps led by the State Department, to plan and coordinate official outreach across U.S. government agencies to key U.S. and African constituencies. These would include the African Union, the continent’s eight Regional Economic Communities, civil society and private sector leaders, and the diaspora. The United States should widen the range of senior officials who regularly visit Africa. Typically, these have included secretaries of state and defense, U.S. trade representatives and administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). U.S. secretaries of agriculture, commerce, education, health and transportation should visit as well. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s upcoming Africa visit will likely be welcomed by many Africans. This wider engagement could broaden a common agenda with America’s partners in Africa and better connect U.S. officials to African people and realities that U.S. policies need to address.

President Biden vowed last month that he and Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Africa soon — trips that will be highly welcomed. They will demonstrate the continent’s importance to the United States, including to the private sector, underscoring that Africa is open for business and that the U.S. government will support mutually beneficial deals for Africans and Americans.

3. Implement America’s specific Africa summit commitments.

A vital and welcome first step is President Biden’s appointment of Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa, as his special representative for U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit implementation. The ambitious implementation agenda includes:

  • delivery of $55 billion in U.S. assistance in Africa over the next three years.
  • cooperation and technical support for the secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area — a project critical to the continent’s own blueprint (called Agenda 2063) for transforming Africa’s economy to meet African and global needs within a generation.
  • the achievement of $15 billion worth of “two-way trade and investment” deals, announced at the summit, that advance U.S. and African priorities.
  • U.S. steps to support the African Union’s membership in the Group of 20 nations, and permanent seats for Africa on the U.N. Security Council.
  • the establishment of a presidential advisory council drawn from America’s African diaspora to help guide policies.
  • commitments in a U.S.-African Union joint vision statement for their partnership, including shared efforts “to increase food production capacity” and strengthen food supply chains.
  • steps to improve accountability for democracy and human rights abuses.

The summit’s ambitious agenda of commercial projects reflects an essential American act of listenership and partnership with Africans who for years have been asking for greater investment and trade. A vital implementing step will be to add personnel — particularly Foreign Commercial Service and economic officers — to repair long-inadequate staffing levels at U.S. embassies in Africa. USAID’s Prosper Africa program, designed as a one-stop shop to help Africans find U.S. commercial assistance and support for joint ventures, has established a helpful website. But real people are still necessary to bring transactions to closure. The three-year-old International Development Finance Corporation expands the U.S. capacity to help Africa meet its huge infrastructure needs. Still, the successes of these U.S. tools to increase investment opportunities will be measured by how accessible the assistance and how concrete the results.

4. Support Africans’ human security.

The United States must respond to Africans, including civil society organizations, who demand more U.S. support for human rights and security. This will include adjustments on the perennially sensitive question of which African leaders to invite to U.S.-Africa Leaders Summits or other U.S. engagements. At last month’s summit, the United States invited heads of state in good standing with the African Union, excluding only those sanctioned by the organization because of recent coups: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan. (Eritrea was excluded because it and the United States do not have diplomatic relations.) Many Africans see U.S. hypocrisy in its welcoming of leaders who have manipulated constitutional term limits; permitted (or directed) torture, disappearances, and imprisonment of dissidents or opponents; or are shown to be corrupt, stealing from their own people. While diplomacy generally seeks dialogue even with the odious, an effective implementation of U.S. commitments on Africa requires creative steps to balance diplomacy with clearer support for human rights. One specific step: U.S. security assistance in Africa must shift from the narrow, often destabilizing, practice of training and equipping security forces to more forcibly protect governments. Instead, peacebuilding experts note, U.S. action must help Africans shift the focus and behaviors of their security forces to protect human security, including human rights. This imperative only grows with Africa’s recent spate of coups, and with U.S. commitments to revive in-country military training in Somalia, support for U.N. and African Union peacekeeping missions and other efforts to promote peace.

5. Reopen our doors to Africans.

Implementing America’s commitments at last month’s summit requires a reversal in the constrictions and unacceptable delays to visas for Africans to study, build business and travel in America — obstacles heightened by the COVID pandemic in 2020. Visa delays and refusals have barred so many Africans from attending U.S. universities or international conferences, or from business opportunities, that many Africans now see America as a less desirable destination. The government must bolster the inadequate staffing of embassies in Africa that is central to these delays. Other changes could be to conduct visa interviews online, lengthen the validity periods of visas, and waive visa requirements for low-risk categories of travelers. The administration’s announced intent to expand the Young African Leaders Initiative will strengthen more of Africa’s talented youth with short-term training and mentoring programs, but the United States needs to offer more Africans longer periods of study to compete with China’s and Russia’s substantial investments in educating African youth. The administration’s support for the nascent University Partnerships Initiative should be robustly funded beyond the announced $1.5 million from the Department of Education to build academic partnerships and student and faculty exchanges.

6. Use America’s soft power, notably our African diaspora.

The United States still has modest soft power advantages in Africa because of its long, substantial development assistance, particularly in health, as well as its support for democracy and human rights. A powerful resource for implementing America’s summit promises, and the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, is our country’s African diaspora. A first step is the State Department’s establishment of a White House-mandated advisory council, due by June 11, which can help the administration prioritize and implement its goals.

Of course, all implementation of America’s commitments on Africa — and all demonstration that America is “’all in’ on Africa’s future” — will require the underlying principle of partnership that supports African priorities, notably those of the continent’s Agenda 2063, that complement those of the United States’ Africa strategy.

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