In Kenya, Obama’s Africa Policy is Tested

Pan-African trade, the global economic slowdown and good governance as a determinant of U.S. development assistance were among the key issues discussed at the 8th African Growth and Opportunity Act forum this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced her disappointed with the Kenyan government in its handling of post-election violence from 2007.

"Unfortunately, resolving that crisis has not yet translated into the kind of political progress that the Kenyan people deserve," Clinton said at an Aug. 5 press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, after addressing African leaders. "Instead, the absence of strong and effective democratic institutions has permitted ongoing corruption, impunity, politically motivated violence, human rights abuses and a lack of respect for the rule of law."

Nairobi was Clinton's first stop on a seven-nation tour of Africa, which follows a trip President Barack Obama's trip to Ghana last month, during which he lauded the West African country's governance.

The Nairobi forum became a sounding board for the Obama administration's focus on good governance as key to the continent's development and, perhaps, as a condition for closer economic ties with the U.S.

"Africans struggle themselves," noted Raila Odinga, Kenya's prime minister. "It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that this new terminology was created - transparency, accountability and good governance. But this we will introduce not because we want to placate donors, we are doing it because we know this is right for Africa."

"We don't need a lecture on governance but on trade", said Odinga.

The prime minister also challenged forum participants to break down barriers for pan-African trade and start their own agreements.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk led a discussion on the effects of the global economic slowdown on the U.S.-Africa trade pact, and on the promotion of trade between African nations.

In tight economic times, trade is often a hot-button issue for legislatures, which may drift towards greater protectionism. Some are concerned that a hostile trade environment in wealthy countries may undermine agreements like AGOA.

"One of the key problems is that it [AGOA] does not form a permanent and binding trade bloc or customs union at par with something like Comesa or the North American Free Trade Agreement," Kenya's Daily Nation newspaper argued in an unsigned editorial. "It is, instead, a short-term arrangement that needs constant renewal by one side, and is therefore hostage to the foibles of American politics."

U.S. imports under AGOA totaled $66.3 billion in 2008, up 30 percent from 2007. While much of the increase is attributable to oil, non-oil AGOA imports increased by 51 percent to $5.1 billion, according to U.S. government statistics.

Clinton will continue her diplomatic journey with stops in South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cape Verde.

About the author

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    Oliver Subasinghe

    Oliver joined Devex in late 2008 as an international development correspondent and researcher. He previously served as a microfinance fellow for Kiva in Kenya and Uganda. During his tenure, he worked with Kiva’s field partners to improve their operations and governance. Oliver holds a master's in business from the College of William & Mary.