While the nation has been transfixed by the confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the Supreme Court, Congress passed significant legislation on Africa that has attracted virtually no attention.
On October 3, the Senate passed the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development Act, better known as the BUILD Act. President Trump is expected to sign the legislation in the next several days. The BUILD Act could be the most significant U.S. initiative toward Africa in the Trump era.
For one, the legislation will transform the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) into the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC) with a budget of $60 billion, twice the size of OPIC's current budget. Most importantly, the USIDFC will take equity positions in investments, something that OPIC never had authority to do. Equity investments have been essential to the support that Chinese and European development finance funds have provided to companies from their respective countries.
The new agency is a much needed instrument of commercial diplomacy that the U.S. has been sorely lacking. Not only will it lead to more U.S. investment in Africa, which will be a stimulus to economic development across the continent, but it makes U.S. companies more competitive and reduces the risk in a growing market that is not well understood by American business.
While the Trump administration has yet to formulate a policy toward the region, Congress has stepped up in a strong bipartisan manner to play a pivotal role in promoting U.S. interests in Africa, especially as it concerns women, the private sector, and economic development more generally.
Six days prior to the passage of the BUILD Act, Congress reauthorized the Global Food Security Act, first passed in 2016. This landmark legislation, which supports the Obama-era Feed the Future program, is a government-wide strategy to combat hunger and malnutrition in developing countries.
As the Alliance to End Hunger notes, the program focuses on increasing sustainable agricultural development, especially in the vital first 1,000 days between a woman's pregnancy and her child's second birthday. Since 2011, an estimated 5.2 million families no longer experience hunger and 3.4 million children are living free from stunting as a result of Feed the Future's work.
In the next several weeks, Congress is expected to pass a third piece of legislation, the Women's Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act. This bill would expand the authority of United States Agency for International Development's microenterprise development program to include small and medium businesses owned, managed, and controlled by women. It would also work to reduce gender disparities related to economic opportunity, support women's property rights, and eliminate gender-based violence.
This legislation has passed the House and is actively supported by CARE, the global anti-poverty organization, and President Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump. It has strong bipartisan support in the Senate and 11 cosponsors.
Africa will lose two of its strongest congressional champions, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce and Senate Subcommittee on Africa Chairman Jeff Flake, when both retire at the end of the year. It is worth noting, however, that the BUILD Act passed the Senate by a 93-6 vote and garnered similarly strong support in the House. While the Trump administration has yet to formulate a policy toward the region, Congress has stepped up in a strong bipartisan manner to play a pivotal role in promoting U.S. interests in Africa, especially as it concerns women, the private sector, and economic development more generally.
Witney Schneidman is a senior international advisor for Africa at Covington & Burling LLP.