Obama’s Africa Trip and the New “Normal”

Obama’s Africa Trip and the New “Normal”

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Malia and Sasha, participate in a departure ceremony at Accra airport in Ghana, July 11, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

When President Obama arrives in Kenya on Friday morning, he will take another important step in an evolution of U.S. policy toward the African continent.

Aid has for too long been the center of American foreign policy toward Africa and, as the challenges and opportunities on the continent change, so must the United States’ policies and perspectives.

While traditional development assistance must remain a significant part of America’s engagement with African countries, it can’t be the only part of that engagement. President Obama’s most lasting Africa policy legacy should be a new focus on partnership — economic, security, and developmental — more reflective of modern Africa.

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In 2006, before he was President, Mr. Obama visited Kenya and is seen here with Kenya’s Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

The White House is trying to cast this visit in that way, rather than as a moment of cultural exploration around the return of the President to his father’s country. Will this approach be the new ‘normal?’

That depends. Much coverage of the President’s trip will properly focus on Ethiopia’s politics and its restrictions on civil society, individuals and the media. We’ll hear plenty, too, about Kenya’s long battle with corruption. In both cases, the President is expected to address the issues directly in his meetings with leaders. But just as important is the message President Obama sends back to Americans about the importance of Africa to the future of the United States.

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Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa (with 9.5 percent GDP growth, Ethiopia is actually the fastest). The continent’s energy and mineral resources are vast and play a significant role in global markets. Threats against the United States, its allies, and its interests have also given it a stake in the security challenges posed by Boko Haram, al Shabaab, and other radical groups. Half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old, forcing a host of questions about their economic future and what role American businesses will play in it.

These realities have meant that the Obama Administration has had to take a more sophisticated approach to America’s policy toward Africa, focusing the sources of challenges rather than just the symptoms.

It’s not an accident that the centerpiece of President Obama’s time in Kenya will be the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, an annual event he founded six years ago to drive economic innovation and harness the incredible entrepreneurial spirit of this tech-savvy generation of Africans. His Young African Leaders Initiative is working directly with the most promising of those young people to empower them to strengthen their communities and countries.

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People taking part in the Young African Leaders Inititiave town hall raise their hands in agreement. Photo: White House

President Obama supported a 10-year reauthorization of AGOA, the U.S. trade preference program with sub-Saharan Africa, to continue trying to accelerate the development of middle classes in African countries.

His Power Africa initiative ambitiously aims to get electricity to millions of people on the continent for the first time – a resource that impacts nearly every other area of human development, from education and health, to jobs and growth.

NASA Image of the African continent at night to show how little electrification there is.

NASA Image of the African continent at night showing how little electrification there is.

He has publicly addressed corruption and the lack of transparency with African leaders, and helped push important legislation requiring transparency in the extractive sector.

President Obama has continued and expanded President Bush’s signature initiatives on health. Today, nearly 11 million Africans have access to life-saving AIDS treatment and eight African countries have cut malaria by 75 percent or more, thanks in large part to U.S. support for PEPFAR, the Global Fund, and the President’s Malaria Initiative. With bipartisan support, the U.S. has dramatically expanded its investments in childhood vaccines through Gavi, and U.S. leadership in response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak has been pivotal in mobilizing a meaningful global response.

President Obama has put food security on the global agenda, from a standing start in 2009. Globally, assistance for agricultural development had declined from a peak of $10 billion in 1988 to about $4 billion in the early 2000’s. President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative pushed agricultural development and food security back onto the global agenda and contributed to a decrease of 167 million people suffering from chronic hunger.

These are all elements of the kind of targeted approach that must govern U.S. policy toward Africa. Instead of only providing the water to put out fires, the U.S. must also work with African leaders to prevent fires from starting in the first place.

Partnership is the future of the U.S. relationship with the African continent. The unglamorous, in-the-weeds agenda for President Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia this week is a good sign that such a change is already under way.

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Closing ceremony of a successful collaborative capacity building program between the US and Ghana.

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