How the Obama Administration Engaged with the African Continent

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United States Agency for International Development, USAID

As Barack Obama wraps up his time as president of the United States, we are looking back at the relations he forged with the African continent and what was achieved during the last eight years.

A few months ago, we looked at what U.S. official trips to Africa can tell us about U.S.-Africa relations, especially during the Obama administration. Official visits made by the president and the secretary of state are a good starting point, but by no means are they the only way to gauge the importance of the African continent to the U.S. government.

 One way the Obama administration reached out to the continent as a whole was to create several social and economic programs that benefited citizens on the continent.  In this post, we’ll take a look at the Power Africa Initiative, the Electrify Africa Act, the Young African Leaders Initiative, the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, as well as the administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis.

The Power Africa Initiative is a five-year-program that President Obama launched in 2013. The program aims to create 60 million new electrical connections and generate 30,000 megawatts of power. By the time it is completed, it will have brought electricity to millions of people in rural areas in Africa and double the current amount of electricity generated by the continent.

The Power Africa program has been criticized for its slow start, however U.S. officials have responded by saying that the program is not an aid program. They say it requires the cooperation of African governments and energy investors, with the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency. In fact, the U.S. government says the project is on course and have expanded it.

Critics further say that, while the project may be on course, it is approaching the issue of electricity in Africa wrong; electricity projects can take up to ten years from implementation to completion. Solar power, they argue, would be much more effective as it would only take a fraction of the time. However, the approach to finding energy investors may be beneficial in the long run, because it shows that Africa is a place worth to invest. Ultimately, the success of the program can only truly be judged when it is completed and the results are available.

Associated with the Power Africa Initiative is the Electrify Africa Act. It was proposed in October 2015, and was passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in February, 2016. The bill encouraged African access to reliable power sources, and aimed to bring electricity to 50 million people by 2020. Signing the bill meant that access to power in Africa is now officially a part of the United States’ foreign policy towards sub-Saharan Africa.

Like electricity, economic prosperity is important to Africans and Americans alike. To this end, Obama announced the Trade Africa Initiative in 2013. This initiative encouraged economic growth in Africa by strengthening economic ties within the continent as well as globally. Initially, Trade Africa worked within the East African Community (EAC), where it has helped expand the East African Trade Hub, which generated $2 billion in exports in 2014.

Exports from the region to the U.S. have increased by 24% since 2013, and the amount of time needed to transport goods in Africa has decreased by up to 30%. In 2015, EAC officials signed an agreement that would implement World Trade Organization’s standards by making trade within the continent easier, improving food safety as well as plant and animal health, and by meeting global trade standards. The Trade Africa Initiative has been successful in the EAC, and is in the process of working with trade partners in other parts of the continent.

Of course, you can pass all kinds of initiatives to improve electricity and the economy, and it will never reach its full potential if the people it is meant to benefit are not empowered. President Obama’s first program in Africa was the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which he launched in 2010. The program, which focused on African youth, encouraged young people to take part in improving the continent’s future.  YALI provides them with a network of other young people throughout the continent. YALI provides also them with leadership programs and opportunities in Africa, as well as discourse on Africa and goals for its future.

The program, while largely ignored in Western media, appears to be very important to Obama . He has a personal investment of significant time and he has hosted a summit for almost every year since its creation. In 2010, he hosted the President’s Forum with Young African Leaders, which brought 115 young Africans from all over the continent to Washington. There, they engaged in a town hall style meeting with the president about where they want to see Africa in the next 50 years.

YALI was followed in 2011 by the First Lady’s Young African Women Leaders Forum, and the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders in 2012. In 2013, the First Lady, accompanied by her daughters, made a trip to Africa to meet with youth and encourage education as part of the initiative. Summits from 2014 onward have hosted 500 African youths, all members of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, that was recently expanded to include 1000 members total.

While YALI has been mostly ignored by the media, there was some coverage over another summit from President Obama: the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. While not a program, this event shared goals similar to the others: to strengthen the United States’ diplomatic and economic ties with Africa to the benefit of all. This event was covered by the media and showed Americans that Africa is not all poverty, death and disease, but a growing power that needs to be taken seriously on the world stage. It was the first time a president held a summit with African leaders and drew attention to African progress. Because of that, it is very important in the history of U.S.-Africa relations. Indeed, we here at Africa Agenda liked the idea so much that we went on to host Denver-Africa summits of our own in 2014, 2015, and one in October 2016.

Many people have criticized Obama’s Africa policy as lacking, comparing and contrasting it to how former president, George W. Bush approached it. Indeed, Bush’s policy in Africa was widely praised, even by his critics. Bush focused primarily on health related issues that the continent faced, including passing initiatives that reduced the spread of diseases such a HIV and malaria. During his presidency, the Bush administration donated $5 billion a year to Africa, and even today he is working to combat disease on the continent.

What critics of Obama’s policy don’t seem to realize is that the two presidents had very different approaches to African policy and very different goals. While Bush focused on providing aid and relief to the poor of the continent, Obama was more concerned with empowerment of the African people and giving them the skills and resources they need to be successful and self-sufficient. Obama touched upon this when he talked about U.S. response to Ebola in West Africa. Both approaches address known problems and both are valid. However, Obama is the first president to treat Africa like a place with potential, not a place that needs rescuing. It will be interesting to see how his successor will approach the continent.

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