BlogBy Stephen Hayes
Washington, DC — Before yesterday, most African leaders and those companies and organizations actively engaged with Africa had to wonder if the Obama administration was that concerned about the continent. After all, President Barack Obama had announced an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific, and until a month ago, no secretary of commerce had visited Africa for a dozen years.
Further, the administration announced a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that, well, wasn't your normal kind of summit. It was, in the view of many, very high risk. There would be no meetings between individual heads of state and Obama, and those leaders that did come would be expected to meet with civil society groups, attend a day-long meeting with business executives and then have a day-long summit with the president. Africa is a protocol-conscious continent, and with protocol one knows what to expect. More were curious than knowledgeable of the events to come.
However, the administration left little doubt these past few days about its intentions, and at last night's U.S.-CEO forum conducted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Department of Commerce, the administration pulled out all the stops and displayed a sense of power that has not been seen in some time, with the vice president, secretary of state and, finally, Obama himself making both brilliant and powerful remarks. The administration left absolutely no doubt that it understands the importance of Africa and that it has a plan for the continent to which it is committed. It is difficult to imagine what can be said in the closed meeting of heads of states today that will be different from the message delivered by the administration at the forum.
The forum, attended by approximately 200 business executives and Africa's leaders, heard Treasury Secretary Jack Lew present a speech designed to underline why the U.S. economy remains strong. As such speeches tend to be, it was inevitably the driest set of remarks given. Wisely, the speech was brief, and probably effective in underlining our economic self-confidence .
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was effective in his opening, hitting on all the reasons why Africa is economically important to America, and how we are missing out on one of the biggest economic opportunities this nation has. The self-promotion of the Bloomberg Philanthropic Foundation was evident and perhaps inevitable, but it never overwhelmed the message from the administration. Co-host Penny Pritzker, the secretary of commerce, was upbeat and announced a badly needed increase of commercial officers on the ground in Africa.
But it was the heavy artillery of national security adviser Susan Rice, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama that sent the message that the U.S. is serious about Africa, and committed to addressing the issues that are preventing more open societies. They left no doubt the U.S. is prepared to work with Africa, and is committed to far greater economic engagement, but that there needs to be change on both sides, beginning with governance and more open societies.
The presence of more than 100 top U.S. CEOs also sent a very strong message, though it was clear from the remarks of some that their understanding of Africa is incomplete. But, then again, that is why the administration wanted the top CEOs to attend. They make the decisions on where investments go, and they needed exposure to Africa.
In this regards, the American CEOs, no matter how underexposed to Africa they might have been, could not have been anything but impressed with the quality of African CEOs, many of whom are quite capable of major investments in American corporations, if they were so inclined. Right now they are the best bet for the future of Africa.
Spinning through all the meetings this week is the theme of the future, and the administration made clear that it is committed to working with young emerging leaders throughout Africa. The administration has selected 500 young Africans this year as part of its Young African Leaders Initiative, and will be bringing another 1,000 next year for internships with institutions and corporations. The president ended the program by being interviewed on the stage by one of the young leaders, emphasizing his backing of the program.
In the end, the administration sent a message of hope, but also explained that business as usual in Africa will not be accepted. African leaders can either promote change and more open societies and have very active support from the U.S., or they can remain as they are and fail their peoples.
Much will depend on what comes next. Will the administration have the staying power to work with Africa, and can the momentum built over the next two years be such that it carries over into the next administration? We shall see.