/ 7 November 2023

African Growth and Opportunity Act: Early extension or substantive improvements?

Some in the international community are not as optimistic concerning the African free trade zone and have not been hiding their skepticism.
There is strong bipartisan and beneficiary support for making improvements to Agoa.

On the sidelines of the 20th African Growth and Opportunity Act Forum, President Joe Biden pressed “congress to reauthorise Agoa in a timely fashion and to modernise this important Act for the economic opportunities of the coming decade”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signalled that the Biden administration doesn’t “just want to extend Agoa”, it wants “to work with the United States congress to make it even better”. And trade representative Katherine Tai declared that the US government wants “to see this programme be more than just a symbolic one”, it wants to make “it to be more useful and effective”,

The administration’s calls to improve Agoa will be welcomed by select members of congress. Since the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, levelled Russian arms trafficking allegations against the government of South Africa, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, has been vocal about the need to improve, not just renew. Last week, he argued that these improvements should include “robust changes to Agoa’s eligibility criteria, management of the Agoa programme by USTR [Office of the United States Trade Representative], and oversight of the Act’s implementation by congress”.

Similarly, these calls will be welcomed by select African Union member states. Prominent Agoa beneficiaries want to see a significant revision in the eligibility criteria and graduation conditions. They want to see a shift in eligibility determinations from the current practice of once a year to every three years. They want to see targeted benefits for women, youth, and micro, small and medium enterprises. And they want to see eligibility expanded to every AU member state that has signed and ratified the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area. This includes those in North Africa.

The good news: There is strong bipartisan and beneficiary support for making improvements to Agoa.

The bad news: There is little consensus on what improvements should be made to Agoa.

The assessment: The Biden administration will find it to be very difficult to reach consensus on a specific set of changes prior to next year’s elections.

If an early extension is the desired outcome, key actors will need to find a quick way to bridge four substantive improvement divides. The first is between members of congress. The second is between federal agencies. The third is between the US government and the US congress. The fourth is between the US government and the Agoa beneficiaries.

Fearful of a two rabbit chase, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is urging members of congress to take a pragmatic approach.

After expressing a commitment “to working with our colleagues and our African partners to improve Agoa”, chairperson Michael McCaul and ranking member Gregory Meeks reminded their colleagues that “the principal consideration must be ensuring a successful and timely reauthorisation”.

The White House should pay attention to the lesson: “Successfully achieving one desired outcome is better than failing to achieve two.”

This raises the question: what is the outcome that should be prioritised; an early extension or substantive improvements?

The White House would be wise to pick one of these desired outcomes to chase.

Michael Walsh is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, United States.