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America’s Africa policy needs a rethink

This weekend, the African Union will convene its annual Ordinary Summit of Heads of State as a new administration in the United States begins to unveil its foreign policy. As the US frees itself from the isolation of the past four years and emerges on the world stage under the administration of President Joe Biden, it is imperative that America resets its relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Under the previous administration, the US became a negligible player on the African continent. In our absence, China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf States have recognised the potential for engagement with the continent, making inroads through substantial diplomatic, financial and cultural investments. It would be a foreign policy miscalculation to view Africa simply through the prism of competition with other countries. Our approach must be shaped by an understanding that Africans not only have agency, but that our relationship is of mutual interest and should be collaborative. In short, we are interacting with Africa on its own merits — not because we are in competition with other powers. 

In light of recent events in the US, we must re-engage the world with humility, and our credibility in advocating for democracy and human rights abroad must start with a commitment to the same values here at home. This inflection point presents a unique opportunity to foster partnerships between US and African civil society organisations that transcend domestic and foreign policy. 

This cooperation must be two-fold: government-to-government and people-to-people. In the House of Representatives, we should expand legislative partnerships with additional African democracies through the House Democracy Partnership (currently, the only African members of this partnership are Kenya and Liberia). Both in Congress and in civil society, such partnerships could shape the discourse and plan of action on shared concerns such as: strengthening democratic norms, civic engagement and anti-corruption measures; countering disinformation and violent extremism; promoting transparency, accountability and respect for the rule of law; ensuring equitable economic growth and recovery; and addressing Covid-19 and other public health challenges.

While it will remain important for the US government to interact with African governments, we need to increase people-to-people exchanges to promote understanding and a shared respect for common values. It is important that we strengthen African voices in the implementation of our foreign assistance programmes. One way to do this is by ramping up African participation in US government exchange programmes, and prioritising the employment of the alumni as lead implementing partners. We should also expand two-way academic exchanges between US and African universities, and encourage the establishment of US university campuses in Africa with full-time faculty, staff, and operations. 

On the issue of climate change, which is a shared national security priority, we should foster collaboration between the US Conference of Mayors and the Covenant of Mayors in Sub-Saharan Africa to address climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. With African cities expected to absorb two-thirds of the continent’s rapid population growth by 2050, it will be important to share lessons learned on how climate change affects food security, urban planning, and other cascading effects of a warming planet. 

Beyond the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Power Africa and Prosper Africa initiatives of previous administrations, the US needs to think creatively about its economic relationship with the continent of Africa. As a start, we should support the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area by providing technical assistance to the secretariat, supporting trade dispute resolution mechanisms, and promoting opportunities to digitise cross-border trade. 

To formalise our support for Africa’s emerging technology sector and startup environment, we should establish partnerships between US and African technology companies, incubators and educational institutions to build the digital capacity of young Africans. Such an initiative could unlock boundless potential, create locally-generated wealth, diversify African economies and promote sustainable job creation.  

Here at home, we should be leveraging the African diaspora, which is the fastest growing immigrant population in the US, which increased by 50% between 2010 and 2018. We need to prioritise tapping into their entrepreneurial spirit, expertise and transnational connections and facilitate the entry of their small and medium-sized enterprises into African economies, including with the support of the US International Development Finance Corporation.

These innovative economic, intergovernmental and social engagements will need to be paired with appropriately-scaled traditional diplomacy. State department, USAID and commerce positions on the continent should be fully staffed, and we should explore adding positions as appropriate. To ensure that our perspectives are also informed by populations outside of capital cities, we should consider opening consulates in places like Kano, Mombasa and Dire Dawa. We should establish dedicated US embassy country teams for the Regional Economic Communities, separate from the bilateral mission and staffed by representatives from the state department, US Agency for International Development, the department of defence, and the commerce department. America will not be relevant if we’re not present in these bilateral and multilateral fora.

As chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I will be working to emphasize that the US is not simply developing its approach to the continent in an echo chamber. I look forward to continuing the conversation in the months ahead with African governments, regional organisations, citizens and the diaspora about what the US relationship with Africa should look like. We’re listening, and welcome this exchange of ideas.

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Gregory Meeks
Gregory Meeks is the US representative for New York’s 5th congressional district and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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