10 October 2012

Africa's Best Friend in Washington

The second presidential town hall debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the run up to the general election in November. ( Resource: Complete Second Presidential Town Hall Debate 2012: Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney )

The U.S. has lagged behind countries such as Brazil and China in its commercial engagement with Africa, just when American markets need it most.

It is hard to imagine a feat more challenging in Washington, D.C. today than forging bipartisan consensus in the United States Congress. However, over the past twelve months, finding common ground and unity is exactly what a small group of legislators have done for what many Americans might find a surprising issue: increasing America's trade with Africa.

Earlier this year, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) mobilized rare, bipartisan support for the "Increasing American Jobs through Greater Exports to Africa Act," which seeks to triple American exports to the region and is considered by many to be the most significant legislation on Africa in the past ten years. Moreover, when congressional gridlock threatened key provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which enables qualifying African countries to export duty-free up to 6,400 different product lines to the U.S., a dedicated group of legislators, led by Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and John Isakson (R-GA) along with Congresswomen Karen Bass (D-CA) among others, worked tirelessly to save the law from the abyss. Against the odds, the 112th U.S. Congress is making things happen on trade and investment in Africa.

Once synonymous with political strife and corruption, Africa today is home to some of the world's fastest growing economies, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projecting nearly six percent growth throughout Africa in 2012. Emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, and most notably China have shown that investment in today's Africa can substantively boost businesses and create jobs for domestic constituencies. Unfortunately, the U.S. has lagged behind these countries just when American markets need it most.

Expectations many held for a reinvigorated American approach to Africa under President Obama were heightened by the administration's new Strategy on Sub-Saharan Africa, released in June, which included the promise of a "campaign" to enhance U.S. business in Africa. The decision by the U.S. Commerce Department, weeks after the strategy's publication, to reduce its presence to just four Foreign Commercial Service Officers to support American business on the continent sent a contradictory signal, especially when compared to China's estimated 150 commercial attaches and associated staff in its embassies in Africa.

Vanishing budgets, political infighting, and competing priorities are all cited as justification for U.S. government inaction on this issue. In the case of Africa, however, Washington's most common excuse for dysfunction - a do-nothing Congress - can decidedly not be used. The onus is now on the U.S. executive and administrative agencies to take the lead from Congress, overcome persistent obstacles, and work to support U.S. companies through better business with Africa. After all, the current level of American exports to Africa supports more than 100,000 jobs in the U.S. Surely this can be increased given Africa's robust economic growth.

Andrew Westbury is assistant director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Witney Schneidman is a nonresident fellow in the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a senior adviser for Africa at Covington & Burling.

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