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'Too little, too late' US tries to catch up'

Updated: 2014-08-15 09:22
By Francis Ikome, in Cameroon (China Daily Africa)

After witnessing Washington's attempt to pull off an extraordinary turnaround in its relations with Africa the US-Africa Leaders Summit, it's time to return to reality.

The summit - organized by the White House against the backdrop of souring US ties with Africa and China's rising influence on the continent - provided African governmental missions with a platform to measure their countries' engagement with US business.

On the sidelines of the summit, delegates from Sub-Saharan Africa seeking to boost trade relations with the US, particularly from Central and West Africa, enjoyed the chance to attend invitation-only forums organized by neighboring countries that already boast robust ties with the US.

African diasporas were also noticeably heavily involved in the events throughout the week, as African leaders showed a surprising interest in better using their diasporas to achieve sustainable economic development. The Cameroonian diaspora, for example, cooperated carefully with their native government to mobilize investments in the US, collectively organizing large-scale forums.

Yet, despite these successes, the discovery of an overwhelming consensus among African leaders that the US should play a greater role in the continent's quest for economic prosperity, and President Barack Obama's promise of $14 billion in corporate investment for Africa, some top African attendees were left wondering if the summit was too little, too late, and whether the US will be able to adapt and become more pragmatic as it aims to increase its engagement on the continent.

Behind closed doors, the outlook of Africa's creme de la creme in Washington was clearly that the US should not seek to force its values on their countries.

'Too little, too late' US tries to catch up'

In fact, it cannot afford to do so if it hopes to compete with a pragmatic China, which is thankful for the Africa opportunity but refrains from making such demands, and offers a faster mechanism of issuing financing than does the US bureaucracy.

Time and again, China's matter-of-fact approach to doing business in Africa has resulted in multibillion-dollar investments in much-needed infrastructure and development projects on the continent even in countries that the US traditionally labels as highly undemocratic, poorly governed, or corrupt. Meanwhile, although the US has established sub-regional trade agreements, they have mostly failed to facilitate its commercial relations with Africa due to substandard implementation.

During the Washington summit, African missions and their associates continually criticized US foreign policy in the region, which has centered on guaranteeing that certain criteria are met before US corporations increase their engagement in Africa. A prime example is the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which signs agreements to develop private-sector projects with "eligible" countries that have persuaded US policymakers of their ability to provide a stable legal and political environment for US companies.

However, this reluctance to enhance economic relations with Africa before the standard US model of governance permeates the continent will only worsen the US position and deepen the resentment that countless African leaders feel for an approach that they view as outdated and condescending. As the world fights for economic influence in Africa, US policymakers should be mindful of the strategies employed in this bout by other leading world economies, including China, the EU, India and Brazil.

Obama declared during the summit that Washington plans to execute a more aggressive agenda on the continent.

If this is true, then there is no better time to start than now, and no better place than with the immediate renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a well-intended yet poorly executed trade development act set to expire next year.

The US role in Africa's future economic development is still unclear, but one thing at least is sure: The world can rest assured that Africa's leaders will not be waiting on Washington with bared breath. Rather, they will be observing with curiosity and interest, with China by their side.

Francis Ikome is the founder and president of the Cameroonian American Chamber of Commerce and a managing partner of the Africa Investment Agency.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/15/2014 page10)

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