A new National Security Strategy (NSS) for the United States released in February of 2015 includes many references to trade being vital to U.S. security interests. That is why Congress must renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) without further delay.
"The United States is safer and stronger when fewer people face destitution, when our trading partners are flourishing and when societies are free," reads one reference in the NSS. Given this truth, it is incumbent that the U.S. Congress act swiftly to insure that trade facilitation is a priority, particularly as it pertains to the continent of Africa.
The African continent is fast evolving and widely considered to be the next frontier for economic growth. In many sub-Saharan countries, GDP is expected to rise above five percent in 2015. As Africa flexes its muscle in the global market and demands more equitable business deals, as its population exceeds well over a billion people, and as the oil flows and untapped resources remain, its trading partners are becoming more diverse than ever in its history.
But old and new challenges remain in the face of progress. High levels of poverty combined with a burgeoning youth population, high rates of unemployment, weak infrastructure and health care systems, and a growing terrorist threat are issues knocking at the doors of African leaders.
These are also issues that, if not addressed, can have serious security, political and economic implications for the United States.
Investing in Africa is not a new idea. AGOA, the first trade measure linking the United States and Africa, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, with amendments by President George W. Bush in 2002 and 2004.
AGOA, which now provides duty-free access to 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa for 6,400 products, has historically benefited from bipartisan support . In addition to strengthening U.S. relations with African nations, it has fostered vital economic growth both here and on the continent.
Yet, AGOA is set to expire on September 30, and thousands of jobs are being lost in countries like Lesotho, primarily by women, due to the uncertainty of the reauthorization. Not only does this measure have to be reauthorized in order for African economies to benefit fully and for both imports and exports to grow significantly, a strong and stable foundation also has to be built which requires another 10-15 years.
AGOA is not the only instrumentality implemented for strengthening U.S. economic ties with Africa. Successive administrations have added their signature programs. The Millennium Challenge Corporation initiated under President George W. Bush, which benefits those African nations that qualify, resulted in a new compact for development assistance with accountability for both rich and poor countries which requires elected countries to identify their priorities for achieving economic growth and poverty reduction.
The Obama administration has introduced Trade Africa, Power Africa, and in 2014 convened the first-ever U.S. Summit for African Heads of State and Government for more than 50 African leaders in Washington, DC. According to the Doing Business in Africa (DBIA) Campaign, business commitments resulting from this three-day Summit amounted to more than $33 billion, supporting future economic growth across Africa and tens of thousands of U.S. jobs.
All of these initiatives have either rendered successful outcomes, or stand to strengthen our partnerships with African nations in the future. Now is not the time for retrenchment by the United States, nor is it the time for vacillating on passing legislation that will continue these measures, such as the reauthorization of AGOA.
Our National Security Strategy states that "We will work to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression. This means supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth."
Certainly extremism is a reality on the continent with Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the engagement by ISIS in Egypt and Libya. The cost of continuing and enhancing our trade agreements and encouraging investment in Africa is far less than propping up weak governments with failing economics by providing military assistance and weaponry, or dealing with the ramifications of failed states that devolve into chaos.
Just as the United States recognized that the spread of Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea not only put those countries and their citizens at risk, but also put this country and the international community at risk, the spread of terrorism in Africa impacts not only the security of African nations but also U.S. national security and global security.
It is also in the best interest of America to be more proactive in promoting its business interests on the continent and safeguarding our trade relationships.
According to the U.S. Commerce International Trade Administration, "While U.S. exports to the world grew by 2.8 percent, U.S. exports to sub-Saharan Africa (mostly composed of machinery and aircraft) increased by six percent, reaching $25.4 billion." We cannot accede these gains to China, Japan, the European Union, India, Brazil and other countries that are taking full advantage of doing business in Africa and reaping the benefits.
Finally, having allies in the United Nations and in multilateral fora is paramount to U.S. national security interests. African countries constitute a substantial voting block that will only continue to amass power in the future. No longer can the continent of Africa be viewed through the prism of one or two global players. For the U.S., maintaining the goodwill of these African governments is very important.
Partisan politics has not impinged significantly on U.S. national security interests in the past, nor has partisan politics impeded trade relationships or thwarted American business interests. In fact, bipartisanship has been the rule of thumb with respect to the empowerment of African nations.
Now is the time to demonstrate that these past practices remain true in 2015.
Bernadette Paolo is President and CEO of The Africa Society of The National Summit on Africa.