U.S. President Donald Trump at a working lunch with African leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. Photo by: Shealah Craighead / The White House

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s Africa policy has had fits and starts, and while there are some promising developments, several experts told Devex that the framing of Africa policy as part of a U.S. competition with China and others is not winning it friends on the continent.

The United States may have provided billions of dollars over the years to the continent — particularly through programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has saved billions of lives — and may be the “single most important development partner,” but it seems clear that Africa just doesn’t rank that high in U.S. priorities when compared to other regions, Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and former Liberian minister of public works, told Devex.

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President Donald Trump has met with just two African presidents in the Oval Office in his first term — fewer than any of his predecessors — has made racist statements, and has strained relations by rolling out limitations on immigration for African countries.

It is also not lost on African leaders that Trump has repeatedly proposed deep cuts to foreign aid programs, which are critical on the continent, a move that they see as a demonstration of U.S. priorities, Moore said.

While the administration was slow to develop a policy, it released its Africa strategy in late 2018, when then national security adviser John Bolton gave a speech outlining priorities. He launched the Prosper Africa initiative, aimed at doubling trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa, saying that would be a key focus for the administration. But the speech was full of references to China and Africa and great power competition.

“There is an enormous problem with how this administration framed Africa policy vis-a-vis China. They framed Africa as a pawn in a great game, as if it’s something to be lost or won, that Africans don’t have agency, and there is no intrinsic value otherwise to strong relations with African states or engaging Africa as an important region of increasing political and economic weight globally,” Grant Harris, who served as a senior policy adviser to former President Barack Obama on Africa, told Devex.

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It’s increasingly clear as well that this framing isn’t well received on the African continent, with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta speaking out at an event in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, saying that Western countries and their counterparts in Asia and the Middle East are acting like Africa is for the taking. “I want to tell you it is not,” he said.

The administration sees Africa as important, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior State Department officials visiting the continent earlier this year to “signal Africa matters,” said Tibor Nagy, the U.S assistant secretary of state for African affairs, at an event in Washington earlier this year.

“We continue to look for every opportunity to strengthen and expand U.S. partnership with the continent,” he said. “Let’s continue to look at Africa through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”

U.S. engagement in Africa is focused in five key areas, according to Nagy: harnessing the potential of African youth; creating a level playing field for U.S. companies and encouraging U.S. business to go to the continent; helping improve governance; countering China’s narrative; and increasing engagement with diaspora communities.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s priorities are similar: focusing on building trade and commercial ties; protecting the U.S. from security and health threats; and helping African states progress toward stability and self-reliance, Christopher Maloney, USAID’s acting assistant administrator for the Bureau of African Affairs, told Devex.

U.S. policies seem focused inwardly and on global power competition, some experts said. While there are some positive steps, and a focus on boosting trade and investment could help emerging African economies grow sustainably, it must be done strategically and in concert with other policies, the experts said. There needs to be more action and more clarity around policies and proposals, they said.

“What the U.S. has struggled with, especially in this administration, around overarching Africa policy is that it’s very clear what we’re against — the Chinese model — but we don’t always make it extremely clear what we’re for,” said Aubrey Hruby, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “We still have that need to be clear about what our story is in terms of what is the American offer and vision for Africa policy.”

Countering China

Framing Africa policy in the context of its competition with China is problematic, because African leaders reject it and because it can be counterproductive to U.S. priorities in the region, Moore said.

“There is an enormous problem with how this administration framed Africa policy vis-a-vis China.”

— Grant Harris, former senior policy adviser on Africa to President Barack Obama

African leaders don’t want to be stuck in the middle of international competition with countries acting like Africa is for the taking. They want to be able to work with a number of partners, rather than be forced to choose one over the other, Kenyatta said at that event.

But Nagy said the U.S. did not want to create another era where Africa is “played a kind of political chessboard.” 

The U.S. has been “late in realizing what is going on” and China has been there, Nagy said. What the U.S. needs to do is get more American companies engaged on the continent and offer alternatives to the Chinese approach, he added.

“We don’t ruin the environment, we respect rule of law, we do tech transfer and create jobs,” but American companies need to show up, Nagy said.

The choice is for Africans on the ground to make but the U.S. needs to talk about the advantages American companies bring, and talk about the funding that the U.S. contributes to global health for example, in the same way that China might tout a new stadium, he said.

Maloney said African leaders recognize the benefits of a partnership with the U.S. and the U.S. wants to be the “partner of choice.”

“We're not offering vulnerability to strategic dependence, we really want to make sure that we're walking with the country along its own unique journey to self-reliance,” he said.  

The U.S. insistence that African leaders “beware of the Chinese” and efforts to define themselves as the “partner of choice” doesn’t sit well, Moore said. “African leaders seek as many partners as possible and China certainly has unique competencies that the U.S., regardless of intentions, won’t provide” he said, pointing to the fact that the U.S. doesn’t give loans directly to governments.

With this framing, it is difficult for U.S. concerns to be taken seriously, particularly on issues of debt, where U.S. advice to countries “doesn’t carry the weight it would have if it was not seen as biased,” Moore said.

While there are valid criticisms of some Chinese investments and a lack of transparency in particular, those can be levied without making a “blanket condemnation of Chinese engagement on the continent,” he said.

Trade and investment

A key part of the administration’s stated focus on the continent has been building trade and investment, with Prosper Africa launched as the flagship initiative in that effort. The initiative, while broadly supported in theory, has struggled in its early years and has not yet delivered much on its promises.

Information about the initiative has been sparse and released in bits and pieces since its 2018 launch and has “lost a lot of its momentum because of this very slow roll out,” said Judd Devermont, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

There is still little known about the initiative. USAID houses its secretariat and it aims to  mobilize U.S. capacity to facilitate transactions and foster better policy environments for trade and investment in Africa, Maloney said.

The U.S. government is building a one-stop shop for its more than 60 trade investment support services as part of Prosper Africa. USAID is working with Prosper Africa teams to help identify potential deals with its networks and provide technical assistance in some cases.

“Prosper Africa had kind of a slow and stuttering start,” Hruby said. “I think African leaders fully support the premise of doubling trade and investment, their concern is how this is aligned with that vision and what is being done.”

Some significant activity is beginning through the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Export-Import Bank, and if that is happening under the Prosper Africa coordination mechanism “that’s a good thing,” she said.

“I think that it’s at a good turning point now where it is developing more substance in and of itself,” Hruby said. Power Africa, an Obama administration initiative aimed at boosting access to power on the continent, also had hiccups in its early days. But Obama talked about the initiative and there was more of a public light on it, she said.

For Prosper Africa to succeed, it needs high-level engagement, resources, and sustained initiative, Harris said, adding that right now it is “heavy on rhetoric and light on impact.”

The initiative must do a better job communicating what tools are available to encourage and incentivize American investment in Africa, and Africans need to work to lower barriers to engagement and address both the real and perceived risks in investing in their countries, Devermont said.

The U.S. should look to build initiatives in areas where it can differentiate itself, like in the creative sector, in sports, in venture capital, in higher education, Hruby said. The U.S. won’t compete with China on building bridges, roads or rail, she said.

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The African Growth and Opportunity Act, part of the U.S. trade toolkit on the continent, just marked its 20th anniversary. But it hasn’t performed to the level that its crafters had hoped and there are both policy and structural issues that prevent many African countries from fully using the trade preferences, Harris said.

There is a need to shift to a more reciprocal trade relationship and the Trump administration said it is exploring a free trade agreement with Kenya, which is a potential positive step, he added.

But it’s not necessarily easy to figure out what comes next —- the U.S. doesn’t have the capacity to negotiate many bilateral free-trade agreements at a time, and any new agreements would have to work with the African continental free-trade agreement and AGOA, Devermont said.

A bright spot

While there may be questions about the administration’s policies in several areas, experts agreed that the creation of DFC has the potential to be a very positive development for Africa.

“Let’s continue to look at Africa through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.”

— Tibor Nagy, the U.S assistant secretary of state for African affairs

DFC invests globally but has the potential to do a lot in Africa, particularly since the legislation creating the new agency mandated that it focus on low- and lower-middle income countries. DFC has set a goal of having 60% of its investments in those and fragile countries.

Serge Mombouli, the ambassador of the Republic of Congo to the U.S. and the dean of the African Diplomatic Corps, called for DFC to earmark a certain percentage of its funding to Africa, though he didn’t specify how much.

“We know the U.S. private sector has immense advantages,” he said at a recent online event adding that he’d like to see another African leaders economic summit like the one held in 2014.

The agency has a spending cap of $60 billion, more than double its predecessor, but it also has important new authorities that may have a particular impact on the continent. DFC’s equity authority, and the lack of a requirement of a U.S. nexus in projects it invests in, along with the doubling of resources could be “transformational in the way we do development financing,” Devermont said.

Its predecessor had ramped up investment on the continent, but with DFC only six months old it remains to be seen how much of its portfolio will be invested in Africa.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.