In the weeks before President Obama’s July trip to Ghana lies an extraordinary opportunity to set the tone for the U.S. approach to Africa in this administration.  Doing so can take advantage of the enormous amount of experience, expertise and plain-old goodwill that exists in an area that doesn’t often make the front page. 

The U.S. can put its relatively good reputation in Africa to work.

Obama inherits an American legacy in Africa that is actually quite strong.  The initiative to fight HIV/AIDS generated positive responses in many corners of the continent.  Signed into law in May 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) provided a valuable framework for integrating U.S. economic engagement with Africa.  These programs and others – ongoing USAID and Peace Corps work, for example – are the foundation, but much more can be done, even when substantial amounts of new funding are unlikely in the current financial climate.  It is precisely this requirement – to do better with limited resources – that will drive U.S. policy in Africa.

One of the key components of U.S. Government policy should be African input, and that includes taking into account the many “Africas.”  By listening to the interests and concerns of our African partners, the president and others can hone our policy to meet their real needs.  AFRICOM Commander General Ward has made this his mission over the past year.  Ambassadors and others working in every African country do this all the time.  The trick is to plug meaningful input and feedback into the Washington policy process to differentiate among countries and regions and allocate resources, including human resources, as best possible.  Emerging leaders, such as Liberia’s Ellen Shirleaf Johnson or Ghana’s John Mills Atta, can provide insight into issues that are important to Africa.

Not only should we listen to Africans country by country, but more active interaction with developing regional organizations will improve security, stability and economic opportunities.  The U.S. Mission to the African Union in Addis Ababa attempts to do just that as the AU begins to play a more pro-active role in disputes on the continent.  It’s a work in progress, to be sure, but one that deserves our attention.  The regional economic development organizations – ECOWAS in the west and SADC in the south being the strongest – can help focus efforts that will attract international investment.

We can engage more cooperatively with our European partners.  The UK, France, Germany, Portugal, and others have long-standing relations with African countries and continue to work closely with them.  By upgrading our conversation with Europe about Africa we can share best practices, coordinate where possible, and avoid duplication of efforts.  This coordination happens on the ground and in specific programs (such as European officers involved in the U.S. Navy’s African Partnership Station), but we should expand the dialogue.  The Atlantic Council’s soon-to-be-launched Center for Atlantic-African Partnership is headed in this direction.

How can the U.S. (read “Washington”) organize itself to work in Africa to allow for the best of America to be effective there?  AFRICOM, with all that went wrong when it was announced and all that people accuse it of being, is an attempt to do the right thing in Africa.  By integrating various other agencies into the Command, it is better informed about where and when the Defense Department’s resources can best be used.  It’s a work in progress, too.  Although State, USAID and others are scheduled to get more staff and more funding over the next couple years, we need to strategize as an interagency team to carry out USG goals.  AFRICOM does not solve every problem, but it can serve as a model as it evolves.

Washington needs to clearly define its foreign assistance goals and policies.  The effort currently underway is long overdue.  By using the breadth of experience that we and others have from over 50 years of African nations’ independence, we can do better.  Debates about the effectiveness of assistance, such as Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid or Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda’s argument against more aid, can inform our actions toward creating self-reliance and interdependence, rather than more dependence.

Business and non-governmental organizations working in Africa are willing and able to contribute to policy development.  The Corporate Council on Africa and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’ new Africa Business Initiative have already done the studies and written the reports on the prospects and problems of doing business in African countries.  They can be part of the solution.  Investment interests are clear, especially when the Gulf of Guinea is projected to supply 25 percent of U.S. oil and gas imports by 2015.  The hurdles erected by corruption, poor infrastructure, and uneducated workers, to name a few, require international attention.  Consulting with Africans can focus our energy on these key components.

The continent is diverse, and working in Africa is a long-term endeavor.  Piracy, poverty, disease and destruction, complicated by Muslim extremism and terrorism, will continue to bring Africa and Africans to the media’s attention.  We don’t need new institutions to create a more effective strategy for working with Africa.  We can use the experience of those who have worked in Africa and make sure we’re all talking to each other.  It’s in our interest that African nations enjoy security and stability, along with sustainable growth and development.  The opportunity is there.

Lynn Roche is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.