The Whitaker Group (Washington, DC)

6 November 2012

Africa: Hidden in Plain Sight - A Bipartisan Trade Strategy that Works

guest column

It's Election Day and we are still being bombarded as usual by diverging claims on how to consolidate and strengthen America as a global economic power.

Yet, beyond the rhetoric on proposed remedies for America's trade and foreign policy, there is a way forward that has consistently garnered bipartisan support and which has already led to US job growth, bolstered national security, and helped maintain US economic leadership globally.   That strategy rests on aggressively increasing America's trade, business and investment ties with sub-Saharan Africa.   Africa is home to six of the world's fastest growing economies, a consumer middle class that has expanded by 60% since 2000, and markets that have delivered more than 17% average annual return over the past decade.

Yet this strategy remains hidden in plain sight as economic engagement with sub-Saharan Africa has been largely absent in the high-level debates on US foreign policy this campaign season.   Ignoring Africa's extraordinary potential to help boost the US economy, this election cycle has (perhaps necessarily) focused on more immediate crises facing US interests abroad.

A casual observer of the presidential election could easily assume that Democrats' and Republicans' proposed foreign policies diverge on nearly every issue, yet the record shows that this is definitely not the case with regard to US policy towards Africa.   As recently as this past August, members of the infamously gridlocked 112th Congress came together to extend the critical Third Country Fabric provision of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), thereby saving nearly half a million jobs in Africa and allowing US retailers to pay lower prices for imported garments. Even more tellingly, this was the fourth time since it's initial passage in 2000 that a bipartisan consensus was reached to enhance and extend AGOA which redefined America's economic and diplomatic relationship with Africa.   Clearly, increased US-Africa engagement is something that both sides agree on.

Following passage of the extension, Rep. David Camp (R-MI), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, cogently expressed why it was in America's interest to continue to support AGOA: "This important legislation will strengthen US global competitiveness and trade leadership. Today's vote to extend certain AGOA provisions…demonstrates the bipartisan dedication of this Congress to sub-Saharan Africa and reaffirms the success of the AGOA program. [It] encourages deeper integration within the region, promotes US exports, and supports US jobs."   To their credit, Representative Camp and House Republicans worked side-by-side with Democrats to ensure that America and Africa's interests were protected.

Yet, in spite of Africa's demonstrated importance to America's economic future, stewardship of AGOA remains the task of a small group of legislators and advocates from both sides of the aisle. In a divided Congress with Africa relegated to a backburner in an election year, renewal of the Third Country Fabric provision was achieved perilously close to the wire. It took the concerted efforts of AGOA's backers – often behind the scenes within their own party caucuses – to push the legislation through at the eleventh hour. The delay caused Africa's apparel manufacturers to lose orders as US buyers, uncertain that their African suppliers would retain their AGOA eligibility, took their business elsewhere.

As the law stands now, AGOA will expire in just three years, at the end of 2015. All of its backers should learn from this year's experience. The success of AGOA depends on the consistent engagement of diverse advocates in the US and African countries.   There is a precedent for this, after all – AGOA was originally scheduled to expire in 2008, but in 2004 that expiration date was extended with bipartisan support to 2015, a full four years before it was due to expire. We must get started on AGOA's full extension now.

More than that, we need to continue to press Congress and the winner of today's presidential election to accord US-Africa trade policy the importance it merits. One piece of proposed legislation that will likely die in the lame duck session – but which should engage the active support of the incoming Administration – is the Increasing US Jobs Through Greater Exports to Africa Act.   Sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), this bipartisan bill seeks to position the US to take advantage of the rich opportunities for domestic economic growth presented by Africa's rapidly growing purchasing power, projected to expand to more than $1.4 trillion over the next decade.   Again, Africa – more than any other region of the world – consistently elicits bipartisan support.

Whoever wins the White House needs to take notice. Given the rapidly changing dynamics driving global economic integration, the US cannot afford to drag its feet any longer in prioritizing its economic relationship with Africa. Brazil, Russia, India, and especially China are all vigorously pursuing partnerships in Africa that will define the global economy for decades to come. Many of these strategies are already bearing fruit:   In 2009 China surpassed the US to become Africa's largest trading partner and African enterprises are beginning to invest in China. By the end of 2009, Brookings reports, Africa's total direct investment in China equaled roughly $10 billion and drew from a wide range of industries, from petrochemical engineering to telecommunications, textiles and real estate.

It's clear that neither Presidential candidate will be elected with a vast majority of support from Americans. Unifying the nation and reaching across the political aisle will be vital.   AGOA, in its own way has demonstrated that this it possible.   It is a cogent example of America at its best.   For our economic sake as well as Africa's, we need to build on what's working, and recognize and encourage the bipartisan spirit that can drive US-Africa engagement in a new Administration.   It is my great hope that this bipartisanship can be something that our next president can lead and count on.

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