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Summit Not Enough to Quell Obama’s Africa Policy Critics

Summit Not Enough to Quell Obama’s Africa Policy Critics

The White House wrapped up the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Wednesday hoping to have proved its commitment to Africa and put China on notice that the United States is not ceding the continent to Beijing. Whether the administration succeeded is very much up for debate.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5, President Barack Obama announced that American companies will invest $14 billion in key economic sectors in Africa, from energy to banking to information technology. He also told nearly 45 African presidents and prime ministers that the United States, the World Bank, and private businesses committed $33 billion to be spent across the continent.

Critics are skeptical whether the United States can catch up to China, which invests 3.4 percent of its foreign direct investment in Africa, compared with less than 1 percent from the United States. China is building infrastructure around the continent, from a railroad in Nigeria to skyscrapers in Kenya. It has an enormous head start.

It also has developed better diplomatic relationships, economically speaking. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said it’s no secret that many African countries enjoy closer ties to China than the United States. African leaders "see America as very far," he said. "They see more of the Chinese."

Mezouar, who attended the three-day summit in Washington, said a key goal of the confab was to chip away at that "influence gap" and strengthen ties between the United States’ private sector and the economies of Africa.

Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Program, said that gap is a bit artificial and that Africa did not have to be a stage for American and Chinese competition.

"Africa is big enough for everyone. It’s a diverse continent, and the opportunities are big," Downie said. "China has done a good service in general … by getting involved in Africa by doing important work on infrastructure that has paved the way for other external partners to come in."

Lost in all the talk about China’s influence in Africa is a dramatic change in how the White House is approaching development in Africa. One of the highlights of President George W. Bush’s tenure was his commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa by tripling development money for public health programs to stop the disease’s spread.

As the Obama administration made clear during the summit, the president is taking a different approach. He is betting that building African economies through private-sector investment is a better solution that investing federal dollars in traditional development programs.

That shift didn’t start with the summit. Obama launched three initiatives for assisting Africa last year — Power Africa, Trade Africa, and the Young African Leaders Initiative. All deal with improving the continent’s capacity to grow economically. Power Africa aims to improve the continent’s electric grid; Trade Africa focuses on economic development in East Africa; and the Young African Leaders Initiative provides young Africans internships at companies and public institutions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also changing its approach. The agency announced that much of the $14 billion promised by American business will funnel through Power Africa, not traditional aid programs.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah hinted at the shift before the summit began: "We will make big announcements that demonstrate these are big ambitions we can take on with our African partners and the private sector."

The private sector has started funding traditional development programs as well. For example, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition got a $7 billion infusion from businesses, including $5 billion from Coca-Cola.

These changes are unlikely to silence the president’s critics, especially in Africa. Many think that Obama has not shown enough commitment, causing the first African-American president to lose influence in Africa, according to William Gumede, an associate professor in public health at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He blasted the president in a commentary titled "Obama Has Let Africa Down," which argues that the president is focusing on the wrong issues.

"[T]he greatest damage done by Obama is his continuation of the ‘war on terror’ policy, which has destabilised Africa, led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism and undermined economic growth," Gumede wrote. "Many African despots have used the pretext of the war on terror to crush legitimate opposition groups, and this war has also given many African extremist groups a cause to fight for."

Human Rights Watch piled on, saying the administration’s tact dismisses repressive behavior.

"The Leaders Summit seems to have dispatched Africa’s serious human rights problems to a sideshow, but the summit’s development and security goals hinge on addressing repression, corruption, and the rule of law," said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch’s Africa director, in a statement. "President Obama should put human rights squarely on his list of issues to discuss with African leaders."

David Francis is a freelance journalist covering international affairs, conflict, and the global economy, among other topics. He has reported from around the world, most recently as the Richard Holbrooke journalist in residence at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

John Hudson contributed to this report.