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US African policy's lost 'dynamics'

June 17, 2019

At the US-Africa economic summit, stakeholders from both sides meet to discuss future business. Africa's political elite is represented in large numbers. Interest in the US is not as strong.

Logo of the 2019 U.S-Africa Business Summit

It is the top event for economic relations between Africa and the United States: 12 heads of state and government, including the presidents of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Guinea-Bissau and Malawi, have announced their intention to attend the US-Africa Business Summit, which begins on June 18 in Mozambique's capital Maputo. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta will be among the keynote speakers. African political leaders make sure that they don't miss a chance to discuss trade relations.

The summit is hosted every two years by the US Corporate Council on Africa (CCA), a foreign trade association of the US private sector. In this year's edition, strategies, visions and initiatives for the promotion of companies and investments will be discussed under the overall motto "Promoting a resilient and sustainable partnership". The focus will be on agriculture, energy, health, infrastructure and finance. More than 1,000 private sector leaders in the US and Africa, international investors, government representatives and multilateral stakeholders are expected to participate. The event follows on from previous summits in Washington in 2017 and Addis Ababa in 2016. But despite the large presence of African leaders, the US government will be poorly represented. The highest ranking member of US President Donald Trump's administration to attend will be Deputy Secretary of Commerce Karen Dunn Kelley.

Washington's disappointing lack of interest

Silhouette of an African militiaman wielding a grenade propeller
The US have an interest in stability and peace in AfricaImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Moore

"It was unlikely that President Trump would ever attend an event like this," says Judd Devermont, Africa Director of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "He has done very little personally when it comes to Africa. He has so far only welcomed two African heads of state from sub-Saharan Africa to the Oval Office." More important for Devermont is the question why no cabinet member will attend: "I think this is disappointing."

However, this doesn't mean that the US is not interested in economic relations with Africa, says Devermont. He refers to a presentation by John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor and former US ambassador to the United Nations. According to the strategy then announced, US aims in Africa include "increasing trade and investment, fighting terrorism and seeking stability," Devermont explains. In addition, the United State Agency for International Development is focusing on "a journey to self-reliance: they want to create resilience in these markets in sub-Saharan Africa and support the private sector so that they are no longer dependent on American development or humanitarian aid."

Foreign policy unpredictability

Chart of Africa's ten main donors

Despite Bolton's rhetoric, Philipp Gieg, political scientist at the University of Würzburg, sees US foreign policy in Africa as being unpredictable. "Africa represents 1.5 percent of the USA's total foreign trade with. Compared to European and Asian states, Africa is of little importance to the Americans and has therefore never really been on their radar." But there are positive developments. "For example, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which granted import duty exemptions to African states. And there have been economic initiatives that have certainly been successful." What the US' Africa policy is missing is dynamics, says Gieg. "This can be seen from the fact that the highest ranking post for Africa at the State Department was vacant for a year and a half. If no one there is specifically responsible for Africa, then that's not where the US' focus lies."

On the other hand, the US is important for Africa, says Gieg. "Now that the African free trade zone is being planned, one can see that at only 15 percent, intra-African trade is a disaster. That is why external actors are of course much more important from an African point of view." The US are unmatched leaders in direct investment s in Africa, which Is were the main interest in Africa lies: "This means that American companies buy there or set up subcontractors. In addition, Americans are still by far the largest donors of development aid in absolute terms."

Read more: African free trade – ready for the next steps? 

US direct investment recently reached $57 billion (€51 billion). An estimated 600 US companies, including some of the largest, are active in South Africa alone. In 2016, the US gave nearly $10 million in aid. European Union (EU) institutions came in second with a total of about $6.3 million.

China as America's driving force

A woman studying Mandarin
Some schools in Africa have added Mandarin to the curriculaImage: DW/E. d. Vries

But the US is not alone in Africa. Taken together, EU states are Africa's largest trading partner, with an export volume of $827 billion over a 10-year period. But China, too, has long since put its feelers out. Between 2000 and 2017, the Beijing granted loans of $143 billion to African states and companies, making the country Africa's largest creditor. Gieg believes that this is a thorn in the side of the US.

"When Bolton presented the new US-Africa strategy in December, more than a third of his speech was about China. Mainly he accused the Chinese of a lack of goodwill actors, since they were setting up a debt trap for African states," the expert told DW. In Washington's view "the Chinese are colonial exploiters and the Americans are the 'least imperialist nation in Africa'." Gieg says this rhetoric reveals an essential factor in US's African policy: competition with China is a driving force for America and an incentive to stay on the ball in the continent.

Africa expert Devermont of the CSIS also notes that the US government is very anxious to counter China's and Russia's activities on that continent; this despite the fact that one could build upon some Chinese initiatives in Africa. Devermont stresses that basing African policies on the narrow view that Chinese competition needs to be matched is not a tenet of US African policies, but only of the Trump government. "The US has an interest in a stable and prosperous Africa," said Devermont.


DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German-born journalist.