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AfricaSource March 13, 2023

The US has gotten the day to day right in Africa policy. Time to think bigger.

By Aubrey Hruby

Summits, conferences, fora. Whatever one calls the gatherings, summitry has defined Africa policy globally for decades. Japan was a pacesetter, inviting African governments to the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993 and hosting a steady drumbeat of Africa summits ever since. The most recent took place in August and featured more than twenty African leaders. The European Union and China quickly caught up, convening their first Africa summits in 2000: the European Union-African Union (EU-AU) Summit and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), respectively. Over the past year alone, there was a sixth EU-AU Summit, an eighth TICAD, and a second US-Africa Leaders Summit. A second Russia-Africa Summit and a fourth Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit are set for later this year, and the ninth FOCAC arrives in 2024.

Summits are about announcements. In the days and months prior to these splashy events, there is always a mad dash to gather success stories and draft up new—at times purely aspirational—funding commitments. The recent US-Africa Leaders Summit in December is a case in point, featuring a large number of announcements, some new and some repackaged. It also included some sizable financial commitments to African markets, albeit with a little creative accounting that makes it difficult for even the most assiduous US-Africa policy watchers to make sense of what’s new and what is repackaged. (See one attempt in the chart below.)

Two solid successes and continued momentum

The three-day US-Africa Leaders Summit in December brought together high-level delegations from forty-nine African countries and the AU, along with business and civil society leaders. The summit was part of an overall new Africa strategy authored by Judd Devermont, the special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council. The strategy has returned US-Africa policy to the basics, including consistent high-level diplomatic engagement between US and African leaders—and US President Joe Biden pledged at the summit to continue to make that engagement a priority.

The Biden administration is thus far making good on this promise. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield have already made official visits to the continent in 2023. Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia from March 26 to April 1, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will visit the continent this summer. Devermont has long argued for this type of consistent, high-level engagement, and it is refreshing to see it operationalized. Regular, high-level engagement has long been a staple of how the United States approaches other regions of the world and it is important that African nations continue to be integrated into the broader, day-to-day practice of US diplomacy. He reiterated this view during his recent visit at the Atlantic Council. “If we are going to solve problems in the world, if we are going to come up with creative solutions, it is going to be with our African partners,” he said. “The summit was just a kick off.”

Biden’s focus on the diaspora was another important aspect of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, with diaspora interests and concerns highlighted across sectors and in multiple fora. The African diaspora in the United States distinguishes and enriches US-Africa ties from those of global competitors and should remain a centerpiece of US policy toward the continent. The summit also served as the launching pad for the President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement in the United States, a new initiative that follows in the footsteps of the Obama administration–established President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. The new initiative should help ensure the diaspora has a seat at the table in shaping US policy toward the continent.

The summit also gave additional momentum to US efforts to support digitization in African markets. While hugely important and widely supported across the US-Africa policy community, Biden’s new flagship Africa initiative—Digital Transformation with Africa—simply builds on old programs such as the US International Development Finance Corporation’s Connect Africa and the US Trade and Development Agency’s Access Africa (among others with overlapping mandates). In its new form, the initiative intends to invest $350 million in the digital sector, but it will require congressional support.

Big ideas for US-Africa policy

The Biden administration’s summit could have been a launch pad for big, bold ideas, but here it fell short. Instead of repackaging existing programs, the Biden administration, working with Congress, should champion new initiatives that match US competitiveness with African opportunity while deepening US-Africa relations. Here are three ideas:

  • Create a US Commercial Corps as a corollary to the US Peace Corps that would send recent graduates or retired volunteers to emerging markets to work alongside Prosper Africa embassy deal teams on commercially related engagements. The potential benefits of such a program are numerous, including advancing people-to-people diplomacy, supporting US government personnel across the continent with business acumen and commercial expertise, and creating a cadre of US business professionals with working experience in emerging markets who will enhance long-term US competitiveness on the international stage. Six decades of the Peace Corps has yielded CEOs, members of Congress, and community leaders with lasting ties and relationships across the Atlantic. A Commercial Corps could do the same for US-Africa commercial relations.
  • Prioritize partnerships in the creative industries by establishing an advisory council modeled on the Presidential Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa and the newly minted President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement. This new council would link company executives from the music, film, and fashion industries in the United States and across Africa with financiers and key US government stakeholders to drive investment into Africa’s creative industries. Building on the work of the Africa Center’s Task Force and efforts being made by Afreximbank, the council could focus on creating the linkages needed–particularly around financing growth in the sector.
  • Support sustained capacity-building in climate finance. The Atlantic Council’s Millennium Leadership program runs an accelerator for climate finance leaders, for example. Additionally, the International Finance Corporation and Milken Institute are now in their seventh year of a unique training program that brings mid-career professionals from finance ministries, central banks, and stock exchanges to the United States to deepen their experience with capital markets. Since 2016, 160 professionals have participated in the program from nearly fifty countries, the majority in Africa, and strong working relationships have been created that deepen regional integration. The Biden administration could partner with them to expand the effort to focus on climate finance or bring others to the table such as Bloomberg Green, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and leading US and European universities to design a best-in-class program. African countries are home to some of the world’s most important natural assets, including the Congo Basin, and they need to ensure that their finance executives—both in the public and private sectors—have access to the best thinking and skills when it comes to ensuring sustainable growth.

The Biden administration’s return to summit diplomacy is a welcome development, and the commitment to consistent, high-level engagement with African leaders is being demonstrated month by month. Still, given the potential of the world’s youngest continent and the growing role African nations will play in global affairs in the coming decades, the United States needs to be bolder and more creative with initiatives that create lasting structural change in US-Africa relations.

A summary of key summit takeaways–some old, some new, some questions remain

The chart below is a first effort by the author to track and categorize the summit commitments in order to stimulate further discussion. 

Aubrey Hruby is a co-founder of Tofino Capital, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Further reading

Image: U.S President Joe Biden shakes hands with President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso at a family photo during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, in Washington, DC. December 15, 2022. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno