THE PORTRAITS of two American presidents hang at medical facilities throughout Africa: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Obama is admired for being the first African-American president. Bush remains a hero for establishing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Launched in 2003 with about $15 billion, the program has now spent about $60 billion and saved untold lives with antiretroviral treatments, screening, and counseling for AIDS, as well as by fighting deadly outbreaks of malaria.
Now Obama is trying to build on that goodwill as he convenes about 50 of the continent’s leaders at a first-ever White House summit. The current Ebola virus crisis aside, Obama wants to move the US-Africa relationship beyond medical aid to economic trade. It’s a wise move that should pay clear dividends for the United States.
Obama’s initiative comes at a time when China — through its massive oil, mineral, trade, and infrastructure-building surge — is seeking to become the dominant power in a continent with vast economic potential. According to Reuters, trade between the United States and Africa slipped to $60 billion in 2013, a figure dwarfed by the $200 billion for the European Union and the $170 billion for China — which did only $10 billion as recently as 2000. That puts the United States far behind its economic rivals in forging economic links to Africa.
Obama told The Economist that the United States can be a “central” force in Africa’s advancement, based on the idea that “American traditions of transparency, accountability, rule of law, [and] property rights are ingredients that are critical to unlocking Africa’s future.” The Department of Commerce plans to announce nearly $1 billion in new business deals at the summit, and the US Agency for International Development says US companies are promising to devote billions more to Obama’s Power Africa program of electrification. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah told Reuters that these commitments reflect America’s “big ambitions” in Africa.
Nonetheless, Obama is facing resistance from some activist groups, who argue that embracing Africa as a trading partner will ease the pressure on African governments on a range of human-rights abuses, including the repression of women and gays. Human Rights Watch said Monday that the summit appears to have “dispatched Africa’s serious human rights problems to a sideshow.” That’s a misreading of Obama’s initiative. By focusing on economic development, Obama is deepening relationships between the United States and some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Those ties, like the ones already forged through aid programs, will give Americans far more leverage to press for reforms. Obama is hoping that, if the United States helps build Africa, democracy will come. It’s an investment worth making.