Imagine you're standing on the side of a river, watching a man drown. He's not very far offshore, and he's pleading with you to help him. There's a rope lying on the ground next to you. What do you do?
The answer is simple – you throw the man a line.
Unfortunately for the African apparel industry, the answer to this question has been elusive within the halls of the US Congress. As I write this, over two hundred thousand (yes, 200,000) jobs are sinking into oblivion, all for the want of a very simple, uncontroversial piece of trade legislation.
The so-called "Third Country Fabric Provision" of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has built a thriving apparel sector across Sub-Saharan Africa. In a nutshell, it allows African countries to import raw fabric from other regions in the world, assemble them into garments with African workers, and export them into the US duty-free. It sounds simple, but this single provision has done arguably more for job growth in Sub-Saharan Africa than any foreign aid program in history. Moreover, it has done so at miniscule cost to the US taxpayer.
The broader AGOA legislation dates back to 2000, and has consistently maintained strong bipartisan Congressional and public support for the same reasons – because it is cost-effective and makes good policy sense. It is trade, not aid, that Africa needs the most, and they've proven that they can do it well – and as a result, the US apparel buyer enjoys cheaper goods. At the same time, it has built massive political goodwill towards the US across sub-Saharan Africa.
Unfortunately, the Third Country Fabric Provision's window closes on September 30 of this year. If it is allowed to expire, hundreds of thousands of African workers (on average 70-80% women) will be left to fend for themselves. Even now, factories across Africa are shedding jobs left and right, because US retailers place their orders months in advance and there is grave concern over Congress' ability to get its act together and renew the provision. If the situation continues, virtually all apparel trade with Africa will grind to a halt even before September passes, and the US stands to lose significant credibility as a reliable partner in the eyes of Africa's leaders. I have no doubt they will continue to look elsewhere in the world to find one.
All of this begs the question: Why isn't renewing the Third Country Fabric Provision a higher priority for the US Congress? Not a single constituent group from the US private sector or civil society opposes this provision – to the contrary, the US Chamber of Commerce and numerous domestic industry groups have already written countless letters to Congress urging this provision's immediate renewal. Nor is it a matter of international competitive pressure – compared to the national exports of Vietnam, Bangladesh, or Cambodia, the sum of all of sub-Saharan Africa's exports is a mere drop in the bucket.
The answer, it seems, is maddeningly simple: "benign neglect". The only consistent theme on Capitol Hill today is acrimony and gridlock. Even though the Third Country Fabric Provision's renewal has broad, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, it is simply getting lost in the cracks amid squabbles over who makes the first move, and whether the measure will become a "pile on" for other, completely unrelated measures.
Two hundred thousand African jobs, it seems, are being held hostage by procedural dysfunction.
The man in the river is drowning, and our lawmakers are checking their blackberries to see if someone else will throw the line first.
Let this be a wakeup call.
Melvin P. Foote is the Founder, President and CEO of the Constituency for Africa (CFA), a Washington, DC based education and policy advocacy organization in support of Africa's development. Mr. Foote has more than 35 years continuous high level engagement on Africa and African Diaspora development issues in the United States and in Africa.