Investing in Africa is in America’s Best Interest

May 27, 2014 By Zach Silberman

President Obama is expected to lay out his vision for America’s role in the world tomorrow at West Point, and it will surely preview the Administration’s new National Security Strategy.

Lately it’s been striking to hear a chorus of military voices from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey to Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno highlighting the complexity of today’s national security challenges in the face of declining budgets. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Africa, which David Brooks recently called “the test case of 21st-century modernity” — a “place where the pace of modernization is fast, and where the forces that resist modernization are mounting a daring reaction.”

While violence and extremism in Nigeria and Mali and food emergencies in South Sudan and the Central African Republic are what’s in the news, there’s a different story of countries with significant economic and social growth from where they were a decade ago. The evidence is clear: seven of the fastest growing economies in the world were in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2011. In fact, Nigeria’s economy grew by 6.7 percent in 2012, while Mozambique’s grew by 7.4 percent, and Ghana’s grew by 7.9 percent.

America’s engagement is having an impact as trade with Africa has seen a 200 percent bump since 2000. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be one of the fastest growing markets for U.S. agricultural products, reaching nearly $3 billion in U.S. agricultural exports in 2012. In addition, the United States leads the world in export growth to Sub-Saharan Africa and the future is looking even brighter as middle class growth in the region is expected to grow more than 80 percent by 2022. That’s faster than any region in the world other than the Asia Pacific.

Congress recently stepped in with an initiative to remove a major constraint to growth in Africa: access to electricity. The Electrify Africa Act, sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY), passed the House by a vote 297-117. This legislation in many ways codifies the Obama administration’s “Power Africa” initiative, which seeks to promote affordable, reliable electricity in sub-Saharan Africa by engaging the private sector.

While Electrify Africa is one side of the public-private coin to spur growth in Africa, this week’s Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Symposium on Global Food Security highlights the potential for new cooperative solutions to global hunger. Through public-private partnerships like USAID’s Feed the Future initiative, as well as cooperative projects with other development agencies, businesses and NGO’s like Symbion Power, Walmart, Save the Children, and World Vision are having an impact in improving prosperity across the continent and here at home.

There are still complex issues facing African leaders in order for them to do their part to make these dreams into realities. President Obama will be convening a summit in early August of over 40 African leaders to discuss opportunities and challenges for security and trade in the region. Even with the challenges ahead there is hope.

But what will the future of Africa look like if it realizes these goals? On his recent return from Africa, Secretary of State John Kerry noted hopefully in an op-ed, “Africa can be a beacon for the world: Dramatic transformations are possible, prosperity can replace poverty, cooperation can triumph over conflict.”