Can Changing the Story on Africa be Obama’s Legacy?

August 7, 2014 By John Glenn

ALeqM5hfNqKjgO1OP0pDFDGfnhw4bR6LTw-compressorPerusing the front pages of the national newspapers outside the Newseum before the ONE Campaign’s party for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, I was struck by how the stories were focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, while the people inside were telling a different story about Africa, one about its fast growing economies, young entrepreneurs, and partnerships with the United States.

This week, the Administration convened a historic meeting of nearly 50 African heads of state and government in Washington, first announced during President Obama’s trip to Africa last summer. While African musicians kept the energy high at the Newseum, civil society and political leaders met with their counterparts and CEOs from American companies like Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, Wal-Mart, General Electric, and IBM.

Senior Administration policymakers joined the Summit conversations. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared at nearly as many summit events as countries where he’s been trying to broker peace. Mike Froman, Dana Hyde, Jack Lew, Elizabeth Littlefield, Penny Pritzker, Susan Rice, Tom Vilsack and Raj Shah all talked about the Summit in the lead-up and during the sessions

A Partnership That Creates Jobs

During the U.S.-Africa Business Forum, President Obama talked at length about “the kind of partnership America offers” in trade, governance, and security cooperation, saying, “We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth; we want to build genuine partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for all our peoples and that unleash the next era of African growth.“

Partnership in Africa is often a story of innovation driven by the changing world of global development, where official development assistance is an ever smaller amount of all capital flows. Businesses, governments, and NGOs are developing new partnerships to leverage their respective expertise and resources and tackle some of the world’s most enduring challenges.

Land O’Lakes and USAID are partnering to help women farmers fight food insecurity, a major threat in Africa and around the world. Along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they are working with African women to devise low-tech agricultural innovations using readily available local materials that will reduce women’s labor burden in agriculture. These efforts will directly impact at least 8,500 Tanzanians.

Catching Up To Do

Competition from China was the subtext of much of the Summit, as China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. While Secretary Kerry and Treasury Secretary Lew highlighted opportunities for American businesses, former-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned, “We have some catching up to do.”

There were steps in the right direction, as new commitments were made throughout the Summit. The President announced that American businesses will invest over $14 billion in Africa for construction, clean energy, banking, and information technology. The United States and Ghana signed the largest commitment of the President’s Power Africa initiative, a nearly $500 million five-year Millennium Challenge Corporation compact to support the transformation of Ghana’s electricity sector and stimulate private investment.

A Legacy for Obama?

The question in my mind is whether the story of partnership with Africa and especially the Power Africa initiative can become the cornerstone of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, as PEPFAR is for President Bush?

Regrettably, the President did not have an opportunity to showcase the bipartisan support in Congress. The House passed a bill codifying and expanding Power Africa, co-sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Engel (D-NY), but its companion bill, co-sponsored by Senator Foreign Affairs Chairman Menendez (D-FL) and Ranking Member Corker (R-TN), still waits to be taken up by the full Senate.

This was unfortunate, as it could have signaled to Africa and the rest of the world that the United States can come together around global leadership and building a safer, more prosperous world. One can only hope that an opportunity will come for the signing of a Power Africa bill later this year that takes the energy and enthusiasm of the three days of the Summit and turns them into promises for the future.