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Is the U.S. Comparative Advantage in Engaging with Africa Enough for U.S.-Africa Relations?

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in the US-Africa Leaders Summit closing session on "Promoting Food Security and Food Systems Resilience." at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on December 15, 2022. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

By Oyintarelado Moses

The U.S. showed off its comparative advantage in engaging with Africa during the Africa and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum at last week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. While sitting in the audience, I observed as the first African American Vice President Kamala Harris opened the Summit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture while speaking to an audience of young Africans and Diaspora leaders from the Continent and around the world. The symbolism of the moment made a statement about the strength of U.S. soft power within the U.S.-Africa relationship. 

There was an obvious heritage link between some African countries and most of the U.S. senior leaders that spoke at the Forum. The Forum did not shy away from talking about the brutal impacts of slavery that brought many Black Africans to the United States by force, not by choice. Several speakers including President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone highlighted this tragedy and the vast contributions African Americans made through unpaid labor in the first industrial revolution. Congressman Gregory Meeks, Chairman of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke about how he, a descendant of slaves, discovered his Sierra Leonian heritage. Representative Ilhan Omar, the first African-born person to serve in the United States Congress, and U.S. Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo spoke of their Somalian and Nigerian origins respectively, and their first-generation American experiences.

These leaders exemplified the African Diaspora, which the African Union sees as the sixth region that will contribute to building and developing Africa. They include descendants of enslaved African peoples, African immigrants, and African migrants all over the world.

The linkage between the U.S. African Diaspora and Africa within US-African relations was low-hanging fruit that past U.S. senior government officials have largely ignored, downplayed, or omitted from conversations before and after President Barack Obama. The Biden-Harris administration’s ability to handle this direct heritage link on such a large scale is a natural extension of the existing representation of African-heritage individuals and African experts at high levels in the current U.S. government. It is also a reflection of the insurmountable contributions African Americans and African immigrants have made to American society, culture, and ambition. Some of these societal impacts have simultaneously traveled across the ocean to African countries and specifically influenced African youth. The cycle of reciprocal influence between Africa and the U.S. has continued throughout U.S. history. Just ask any Calendly users, Amapiano listeners, and Giannis Antetokounmpo fans, to name a few modern-day examples.

The African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum at the Summit was an attempt to establish a clear link between the U.S. and Africa’s past, acknowledge the present ambition to strengthen the relationship, and invest in Africa’s vast population of young people. It was a genuine and authentic representation of U.S. soft power. But was it enough to reinvigorate the U.S.-Africa relationship?

Not necessarily, because the U.S. heritage link to Africa had to be substantiated with real and consistent investment. Africa has an infrastructure finance gap of $68 billion to $108 billion a year, specifically only attracting less than 5% of global energy investment. China has contributed to financing some of those gaps, accompanied by both benefits and risks. The U.S. appeared aware of the importance of delivering tangible offers considering these statistics. U.S. senior leaders announced $15 billion in private sectorrelated investments within an overall $55 billion package in support of African countries over the next three years.

The finance deals themselves showed off the U.S. approach to financing, wherein the private sector and support to multilateral institutions took prominent roles while public finance institutions played smaller supporting roles. Despite such large numbers, the importance of following through on these announcements is consequential to the maintenance of the relationship. Notably, the $1 billion worth of Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) between the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the African Export-Import Bank, Africa Finance Corporation, and Africa50 have not confirmed loan commitments. In public finance, MOUs are documents that express an intent to pursue a financing agreement but do not represent legally binding agreements yet. The U.S. must follow through on such partnerships in the coming months to continue to show its commitment to the relationship.

Pairing a consistent stream of U.S.-Africa financial partnerships with the U.S. comparative advantage of including African Diaspora and Young people in the relationship positions the U.S. as a strong partner to Africa’s development. However, financing from one country alone cannot fully contribute to closing Africa’s infrastructure gaps. Pursuing cooperation at best or tolerating parallel and complementary efforts with other international partners, including China, are crucial next steps to engaging with the region.

Oyintarelado Moses is the Data Analyst and Database Manager

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