Shealah Craighead/The Bush Center
World News /30 Jul 2019
07.30.19

More than Just Investment: Why America Was Once So Popular in Africa

After two nefarious scrambles for Africa during the colonialism of the nineteenth-century and the Cold War in the twentieth century, another surge in foreign activity—another scramble—has affected Africa. With its exponential population and economic potential, governments and corporations from outside Africa have strengthened their relationships on the continent. According to a cover story from the Economist this year, more than 320 embassies were opened in Africa from 2010 to 2016. China and Russia have jumped in the fray by building infrastructure and selling truckloads of military arms to African states. Amidst this rapid activity, the United States, always lethargic when it comes to African affairs, has finally decided to partake in this 21st-century scramble.

On June 19 of this year, the Trump administration unveiled a new plan, known as “Prosper Africa,” to engage and invigorate the oft-forgotten continent. At the 2019 U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique, American leaders and allies heralded the $60 billion investment plan as a “once-in-a-generational opportunity” for Africa. But the U.S. government is not strengthening greater commercial and trade connections between U.S. companies and Africa’s ICT sector out of the kindness of its own heart. Both publicly and privately the deal has been construed as a way to “provide financially sound alternatives to state-led initiatives from countries like China” and to prevent countries from falling into “opaque and unsustainable debt traps being laid by Beijing throughout the developing world.” At face value, the White House is working to promote a prosperous Africa by focusing on multilateral investment and trade. Yet the altruism of such an approach is undermined when administration officials, like national security advisor John Bolton, suggest that the new strategy predominantly serves as a counterweight to Chinese and Russian “predatory practices.”

Countering Chinese and Russian influence in Africa remains a top priority for the U.S., but the most prudent way to win over African leaders and citizens is by demonstrating that American officials truly care about Africa’s well-being. China has built useful connections and alliances on the continent because it acts as though its efforts directly benefit Africa more than themselves. China’s powerful hold on the continent through its dominant commercial presence and debt diplomacy schemes were further developed when Xi Jinping invited dozens of African foreign dignitaries to Beijing and then pledged $60 billion in financial aid for the continent. Xi has also visited Africa on numerous occasions, hob-knobbing with leaders, boosting China’s public relations, and enlisting nations to join the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Even Russian President Vladimir Putin will host 50 African leaders in Sochi for the first Russian-African Summit in October.

African leaders have taken notice of Chinese and Russian overtures. Eric Olander, the managing editor of the China Africa Project explained, “Say what you want about what the Chinese are doing in Africa, but their leaders do make the effort to go there and build personal relationships.” The same cannot be said about the Trump administration. Trump has never visited the continent. Even when his administration unveiled Prosper Africa in Mozambique, no cabinet-level official was sent. Todd Moss, who served as a diplomat in Africa under Bush, noted that over the “optics battle” between the U.S. and China in Africa, the U.S. is losing.

It shouldn’t be. For the majority of the twenty-first century, the U.S. was popular in Africa thanks to a certain president. As David Pilling wisely noted two weeks ago in his Financial Times column, the “most popular living U.S. president in Africa is not Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 prompted Kenya…to declare a national holiday.” Nor is it Bill Clinton who held strong ties with the African-American community. Instead, the most respected U.S. president in Africa is George W. Bush.

Back in the early 2000s, the AIDS epidemic was debilitating Africa, with roughly 20 million people infected. While about 10,000 of those infected had received antiretroviral drugs that significantly improved their health, these drugs cost around $20,000 a year. With treatment too expensive for most HIV victims, death seemed imminent. When Bush learned “that a single dose of a drug called Nevirapine could prevent mother-to-child transmission through breast-feeding” he created the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (commonly known as PEPFAR) in 2003. The plan has cost $80 billion so far. It has been worth every penny. PEPFAR has saved an estimated 13 million people who were diagnosed with HIV and AIDS since the program’s creation. It has prevented 2.2 million children from being infected through mother-child transmission. Within PEPFAR’s first five years in existence, African adults were “16 percent less likely to die if they lived in one of the PEPFAR-targeted nations.”

PEPFAR’s impact goes beyond public health. The program has helped spread prosperity, security, and responsibility throughout Africa. A diminishing HIV rate in African nations has yielded a surge in life expectancy, as well as economic growth. (A study in the NBER Macroeconomics Annual found that an extra year of life expectancy raises a country’s GDP per capita by about 4 percent.) According to data from the World Bank, PEPFAR countries in the sub-Saharan region of Africa have reduced political instability by 40 percent compared with the 3 percent reduction among non-PEPFAR nations.

Perhaps most importantly for U.S. foreign policy officials, PEPFAR bolstered U.S. popularity in Africa. A 2007 Gallup poll found that of the 11 countries with the highest approval ratings of the U.S., six were beneficiaries of PEPFAR. The U.S. amassed such goodwill not because PEPFAR was built to counter some disreputable foreign influence but because, as Bush himself once explained, the program was the moral thing to do.

If the Trump administration wishes to engage African leaders and dissuade them from partnerships with the Chinese and the Russians by teaming up with U.S. companies, it must develop a strategy that goes far beyond an anachronistic amalgam of trade and investment. The U.S. must first build off of the goodwill and trust it fostered with PEPFAR by not only continuing to fund PEPFAR (which has been nominated for the chopping block since the Obama days) but also other programs that can improve Africa’s standard of living, whether that be through strategic health diplomacy or the vast array of other issues their civilians must endure on a daily basis.

President Kennedy always had a special interest in Africa that predated his own time in the White House. In the 1960 campaign, he lambasted Eisenhower for not exerting enough effort or attention on the continent as it underwent decolonization. During one campaign speech, Kennedy told his audience, “We have neglected and ignored the needs and aspirations of the African people. The word is out – and spreading like wildfire…that it is no longer necessary to remain poor or forever in bondage.” The U.S. should heed Kennedy’s words and work toward improving Africa with the Africans. By caring about the continent’s welfare, Chinese and Russian influence will soon dwindle.

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