Obama launches delayed attempt at partnerships with African economies

Ariel Cohen Contributor
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President Barack Obama has embarked on his first trip to Africa in a delayed effort to strengthen relationships with the rapidly developing global markets of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. But the outreach is coming six years too late, some observers say.

This visit has the potential to define Obama’s legacy regarding African foreign policy and development.

“This is a part of the world that’s seeing substantial economic growth, where there are substantial opportunities, and substantial national-security and other national interests for the United States and our allies,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said during a press briefing last week.

This is the president’s first extended visit to the continent. Now, six years after taking office, Obama faces the challenge of proving to the African public that the United States has a vital and relevant interest in the African economy.

“Africans … expected deeper engagement [from Obama] than in the past, both in regard to policy and also in terms of actual visits to the continent given the president’s African heritage,” director of Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative, Mwangi S. Kimenyi said. “On the policy side, Africans have been gradually disappointed, especially when they look at the focus on Africa by previous presidents, in particular President Clinton and President George W. Bush, who did quite a bit there.”

Over the past few years, major global economies such as China, Brazil, India and Turkey have become major investors in Africa. Yet the United States has failed to jump on the bandwagon into the new global economic future.

“It would not be in our interest for the United States to pull back at precisely the time when we see other nations stepping into Africa and increasing their own investments,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said.

“We, frankly, have heard a high demand signal from the U.S. private sector for us to play an active role in deepening our trade and investment partnerships in Africa,” Rhodes said during a press call last week.

“It was important for us … to travel to West, South and East Africa,” he said. Indeed, the president’s travel destinations of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania are not random.

Obama’s first stop, Dakar, Senegal, is the capital city of the United States’ most stable democratic ally in West Africa. Additionally, the 94-percent Muslim country is our greatest French-speaking ally in Africa.

During Obama’s first term, Senegal received a U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $540 million to reduce poverty. Since then, the country has continued to promote democratic elections and grown in infrastructure.

Obama’s most high profile stop, South Africa, will provide an opportunity to focus on trade and investment, development democracies and security partnerships, according to the White House. South Africa is also a nation bursting of entrepreneurship, with half its population under the age of 25.

Finally, the president will stop in one of East Africa’s poorest countries, Tanzania. The developing country is rapidly growing due to gold production and tourism, and Obama plans to meet with African business leaders.

“The point is Africa doesn’t need handouts,” Rhodes said. “Africa needs trade [and] economic growth.”

Obama hopes to build business alliances on the African continent and create mutually beneficial relationships with the rapidly developing nations.

“I think this trip has the potential for laying the groundwork for a pivot to Africa,” Brookings non-resident fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative, Witney Schneidman said. “Whether that pivot is realized remains to be seen over the next several years, but I think that a number of things are in place that augur for a more dynamic U.S. policy.”

The trip is expected to cost about $100 million. Many liberals and conservatives alike have criticized his decision to spend this much on a trip overseas in the midst of recent budget cuts.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited African countries during their presidencies, but this is Obama’s first trip after six years in office.