17 July 2014

Africa: How Obama Can Get the U.S.-Africa Summit Right

Photo: The White House
Barack Obama (file photo).

guest column

Washington, DC — Washington in early August is known for inactivity. During these long and hot 'Dog Days', Congress departs for its annual recess. Families, including the First one, pack up for an annual vacation.

But this year, the President will host the biggest group of country leaders to ever visit our Capitol for a summit, all at once. This one-of-a-kind event, featuring three days of official meetings, will include participation by leaders from nearly 50 African countries.

Better late than never, one might say. As we all have heard, seven of the 10 fastest growing countries in the world are African. But, in recent years, the United States has had to get in line to engage with Africa. Roads, dams and airports are being built. So are hotels and office building skyscrapers. And pipelines and power plants.

More often than not, it's the Chinese who are doing the building. If not them, it's the Brazilians or Turks or Indians. Even Malaysia, Norway, and Russia are kicking our butt.

The line is getting longer and the competition stronger. Now African countries investing across Africa are making us look bad. After South Africa, Morocco is the second largest investor in Sub-Saharan Africa among nations on the continent.

Maybe this Obama summit will begin to change all that. But these are not your grandfather's African leaders. This generation is, by and large, better educated, more accomplished in fields other than politics, more likely to have been elected in free and fair contests, and more likely to embrace the rule of law than their predecessors.

The leaders do not come begging. They do not come to lobby our President for a new aid package. They are more interested in partnerships than handouts. They are the ones being courted now - by dozens of global companies but, usually, not ours.

We've both been in waiting rooms outside the offices of important ministers in many African countries. We've both noted the high-level business delegations from those other countries march in and out, often departing with major contracts. We've rarely seen American executives there.

This summit won't significantly make up that deficit. But it can provide a solid roadmap for U.S. relations with these countries in the years ahead and a platform for mutual commercial prosperity.

But only if the President and his team pay attentions to these 'dos' and 'don'ts':

The Don'ts

1. Don't preach and patronize. Most political leaders don't enjoy listening to their counterparts talk at them - diplomacy by nature is about dialogue. And in this case, the danger is even greater; most African leaders think the United States is, at best, hesitant on Africa and, at worst ignorant and condescending.

2. Don't treat this as a Lions Club convention. Heads of countries don't do strategic meetings en masse or sit through 'break-out' sessions.

3. Don't raise expectations too high, desperately seeking concrete results from the summit. You've won points just by creating the event. Don't try to overreach with vague and/or warmed-over initiatives. If you try to feature 'accomplishments' that are mostly borrowing on existing programs and already-approved funding, these leaders will see through it.

The Dos

1. Do create important audiences for what these leaders have to say. Most U.S.-based global companies are late to the game (you know who you are!). Insist that CEOs come to DC to listen to these leaders. It's likely they'll be impressed with what they hear. Follow up is everything and the White House must continue to encourage and support U.S. firms as they launch business development efforts in the region so to effectively speed up market success. Do the same with a group of university and college presidents who will be educating the next generation of U.S. and African leaders.

2. Do provide some focus. Talk to these leaders about how to make the Obama "Power Africa" initiative more relevant and effective. Include CEOs of both fossil and renewable-based companies in the discussion. Africa's energy future is diversified and to overlook resources is to slow poverty alleviation and job creation.

3. Do spend time on partnerships to address terrorism, not only its ugly threat but also its origins. Countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia and the countries of the Sahel need some reassurances here.

4. Do use social media to launch a massive discussion between the young people of America and their counterparts in these African countries. Half the people on the world's second most populous continent are under 15 and 70% are under 30. People-to-people diplomacy helped to bring down the Berlin Wall and can be effectively wielded to forge lasting and meaningful ties between the U.S. and Africa. Remember, President Obama captured the hearts and minds of young Americans in his campaigns. He can do it again across borders.

Approaching the summit in this fashion can have very positive effects. Africa is now becoming a recognized part of the global fabric. Multibillion dollar deals are getting done, an African won an Oscar, m-commerce is taking off, there will be an African tech IPO - pretty soon Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela will not be the only African names that Americans know.

'Dogs Days' or not, some great things can happen in DC this year.

Toby Moffett is a former member of Congress from Connecticut and a senior advisor at Mayer Brown, LLP. He has represented African countries, companies and NGOs for more than twenty years. Aubrey Hruby is a Visiting Fellow at the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council and is a consultant helping countries do business across African markets.

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