Biden should use this roadmap for America to re-engage with Africa

Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden speaks before signing executive orders on health care, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2021.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Africa should not rely on any foreign power for its political and economic future.
  • The Biden administration should set a target date for ending US foreign aid to Africa.

In recent decades, the United States-Africa relationship has disappointed both sides. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have treated the continent with benign neglect, if not outright contempt. And America has duly fallen behind China, India and France in terms of trade with Africa.

The arrival of President Joe Biden provides an opportunity to rekindle the relationship. Typically, articulating an Africa strategy is not a top priority for new US presidents.

Biden has taken office amid heightened global fears about Covid-19, economic uncertainty and deep geopolitical divisions while Africa suffers its worst economic performance in a generation, setting the stage for persistent misery, social unrest and violent conflict.

Africa — a dynamic region with great resilience, high aspirations, abundant resources, unbounded creativity, and plenty of ideas — should not rely on any foreign power for its political and economic future. The fuse of prosperity and peace must be lit from within.

But since trade is the main engine of growth and socioeconomic development for African economies (all small and open) and the US is the dominant economic player, Africans are looking up to Biden to chart a new course.

The US can reap major political and economic benefits by acting symbolically, strategically and operationally. The Biden administration can set the tone for a new partnership with several costless overtures.

Officially acknowledging Africa’s enormous contribution to human civilisation and the urgent need for it to reclaim a prominent role in world affairs would convey respect and help to change perceptions.

A commitment to support a permanent United Nations Security Council seat for the African Union and co-finance peacekeeping missions in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin would cement this.

At the strategic level, the US should offer a new vision for its approach to the continent, shifting from a focus on geopolitical stakes and countering China. It can lead in ensuring that Covid-19 vaccines quickly reach Africa.

For too long, the US has backed any African dictator who cooperates in the war on terror (or secures access to mineral extraction), ostensibly to prevent chaos, which has failed. It should treat bad African leaders the way it did communist autocrats in Eastern Europe.

Strategies for fiscal policy

Finally, at the operational level, pragmatism toward Africa could deliver wins. First, de-politicise the macroeconomic policies promoted by international institutions and development banks where the US dominates.

African monetary policies should be open to domestic intellectual and policy debates, like elsewhere. Similarly, African strategies for fiscal policy, financing and debt management should reflect current knowledge, not old static accounting orthodoxies.

First, the Biden administration should set a target date for ending US foreign aid to Africa with the goal of replacing the politicised bilateral aid instruments with new trade finance and facilitation programmes.

Second, America could  recognise that its distortionary agricultural subsidies negatively affect global prices for many commodities, lowering growth rates in Africa. Reforming its own agricultural financing could trigger positive policy changes across OECD countries and encourage African industrialisation.

Third, US engagement with China, the European Union, Japan, India and public and private financiers would help to de-risk investment in Africa and facilitate financing for productive infrastructure.

By targeting sectors where African countries have a comparative advantage and supporting special economic zones and industrial parks, it can stimulate global demand, generate growth and create employment in Africa and elsewhere.

Finally, collaborating with private investors to build first-rate educational and cultural institutions in Africa would strengthen America’s soft power there. The best response to China’s export of Confucius Institutes is not Sinophobic rhetoric but concrete action to foster learning and knowledge accumulation in Africa.

The Biden administration can’t rely on symbolism alone. Strategically and operationally, too, a new relationship with Africa requires a cooperative framework that embodies the principles of dignity and mutual respect.

Mr Monga, former Unido MD and senior economic adviser at the World Bank, is visiting professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, editor and author. © Project Syndicate

Coconut weaved mats and other local products on display at KICC, Nairobi, during an Agoa conference in 2009.