By Sarah Margon
Earlier today, President Obama unveiled his Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa (PDF), a blueprint for how the administration plans to do business on the continent. Coming somewhat late in the game with only six months left in his term and possibly released to combat today’s Washington Post exposé about the special operations shadow war in Africa, the strategy commits the administration to engage more actively with African partners by setting forth four objectives for U.S. engagement. These pillars include strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade, and investment, advancing peace and security and promoting opportunity and development. The strategy builds on the president’s 2009 speech in Ghana and highlights many of the administration’s accomplishments.
Notably, a closer read underscores the absence of many new policies. The revived focus on Africa — and the ability to take stock what’s been accomplished — is important, but the main policy agenda closely mirrors the one Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson articulated many times over the last three and a half years. That’s probably a good thing, as it shows a commitment to consistency and will helpfully showcase the importance of the region — at least for a few days.
There is, however, one new initiative worth flagging: a commitment to help U.S. companies to trade with and invest in Africa. The administration will develop a “Doing Business in Africa Campaign” to assist U.S. businesses in identifying investment and engagement opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa. This goes beyond the mandate of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which creates concrete incentives for African countries to implement economic and commercial reform policies, and tangentially benefits the private sector.
With seven out of ten of the world’s fastest growing economies in Africa and the Commerce Department scaling back its presence there, such an initiative could make a welcome contribution to strengthening economic growth over the long term — particularly if the private sector invests and engages with an eye toward strengthening regulatory regimes, enabling fair labor practices, and strengthening the rule of law. There’s been a troubling gap in this area for quite some time, so much so that in late March, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Boozman (R-AR) sought to pick up some of the slack in this area by introducing legislation that would, among other things, strengthen opportunities to for U.S. investment throughout the continent.
Democratic investment, engagement with young leaders, conflict prevention, greater regional security cooperation, and security sector reform are also highlighted as cornerstone issues. Unfortunately there is only a small — but still important — nod to strengthening civilian capacity in the security realm, a vital component for progress in many African countries where undisciplined and unaccountable militaries still tend to be more the rule than exception. Finally, Obama’s vision reiterates a commitment to smart, sustainable development models by linking to the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development and recommitting to a new and more effective operational model for doing business.
All in all, the President’s strategy makes for a welcome summary of status quo policy priorities in the region. If only it had come a few years prior.