What Obama Needs To Do To Effectively Engage With Africa

January 6, 2011  |  

By Brittany Hutson

As his duties as president got underway, Obama had an agenda to connect with Africa but in lieu of pressing domestic and other foreign policy issues, he had to move Africa further down on his to-do list. But now time is extremely precious being that he is in the third year of his term and his fourth year will be dedicated to campaigning; hence, making it crucial that Obama marks Africa as a high priority task on his list for 2011.

All eyes are especially on him since he has a unique personal connection to the continent via his father and other family members who know first hand about the corruption that many countries there face. Also, he has some big shoes to fill thanks to his predecessors.

It starts with former president Clinton who put the spotlight on U.S. and African relations on his 1998 tour—the first major visit by a U.S. president in 20 years—during which he made an array of pledges that included aid for African schools, a contribution to the Rwanda’s genocide survivors fund and a donation to build roads, airports and other infrastructure on the continent. But it was former president Bush who set the bar high for future presidents since he was heavily engaged with Africa throughout all eight years of his term, pledging assistance to Ghana in fighting malaria, establishing the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the millennium challenge account.

Even more so, the U.S. as a whole has an important stake in Africa. With a continent of 53 countries that make up more than one-quarter of the membership of the United Nations and has voting power in other international forums, it’s best for the U.S. to maintain a healthy rapport for when a vote needed. Among other things that are of interest to the U.S., Africa is the source for about 20 percent of American oil imports and is potentially a significant market for American exports.

“The U.S. would not want to lose its global influence by ignoring Africa, especially now that you have new players on the rise like China, India [and] Brazil, all [of which] are looking to Africa and making strategic inroads onto the continent,” says Jendayi Frazer, a distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

In support of Obama making a lasting and effective connection with the African continent, experts offer the following suggestions on how he can do it successfully:

1. More Interaction: “High level visits are one of the most effective ways to connect with Africa,” says David Shinn, an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. This means a visit longer than the one day Obama spent in Ghana. Obama should also reach out to leaders more and extend invitations to them to visit Washington.

2. More Action, Less Talk: If democracy is indeed a top priority of the Obama administration as it relates to Africa, then we need to start seeing some type of policies, initiatives, or programs around it, offers Frazer. “The Agriculture development and food security initiative that was announced in 2009 was warmly received but we haven’t yet seen what the program actually consists of,” she says.

3. Be Less Preachy: “While it’s important that the United States give priority to those African countries that are working hard to democratize and improve human rights, the United States should not give the impression that it is preaching to governments whose reputations on these issues are less than what the international community expects,” says Shinn.

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