Looking East From Africa


President Obama is hosting 51 current and former African leaders in Washington this week for a grand summit on revitalizing American engagement on the continent. Reviewing Obama’s mixed record on this issue, Jay Newton-Small sees the summit as an attempt to make good on some of the expectations he raised early in his presidency. But like most issues in international politics these days, it’s also about China:

As the U.S. is pivoting to Asia, Asia is pivoting to Africa. China’s investments in Africa surpassed those of the U.S. in 2010 and are now five times as big—$15 billion to U.S.’s $3 billion. China’s investment in the raw-resource laden continent is expected to reach as high as $400 billion over the next half century. While, Obama says “the more the merrier,” as he told The Economist, “my advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port to Shanghai.”

To that end, Obama has a distinctly American message for African leaders. He has seized upon the conference to underline the power of democracy for emerging nations. It is not by accident that he invited so many former African leaders: a message to Africa’s many aging dictators that it’s okay to step aside and give someone else a chance. Obama has proven that he isn’t Africa’s savior, and there’s only so much he can do.

Max Nisen assesses how our aid, trade, and investment in Africa measure up to China’s:

Evaluating just how much China’s businesses and government have invested in Africa is tough, especially given the opacity of Chinese government dealings. Though the US still leads in UNCTAD’s tallies of direct investments in Africa, that’s declining. One study estimated that China invested as much as $75 billion in unrecorded projects alone from 2000 to 2011. That would boost the figures below from China dramatically:

China’s FDI has grown at about 53% a year since 2001, compared to 14% for the US. Less than 1% of US FDI investment goes to Africa, and $14 billion won’t do much to change that. By contrast, China invests 3.4% of its worldwide FDI stock in Africa. Its massive investments in infrastructure dwarf US efforts. Since China surpassed the US in 2009 to become the continent’s biggest trading partner, the gap has only grown. Last year, the US had about $85 billion in bilateral trade with Africa; China reported more than double that with $210 billion.

Stephen Mihm looks to history to explain why the US isn’t as robustly invested in Africa as it is in other parts of the world:

By the early 20th century, the U.S. had managed to get a foothold in places such as South Africa, but in general, its trade paled compared with that of Britain. Moreover, it was lopsided. Americans, in other words, didn’t actually buy a whole lot from Africa. The continent was instead viewed simply as a dumping ground for U.S. products. In 1901, for instance, goods from Africa constituted a mere 1.2 percent of total U.S. imports. That figure barely budged in the succeeding years.

And actual direct investment in Africa was negligible, with the exception of Firestone’s investment in rubber plants in Liberia before the outbreak of World War II. Africa, when it appeared on the radar of U.S. businessmen, was a place to sell, not a place to make long-term investments. That job fell to imperial powers such as Britain, which had little interest in, say, setting up a competing manufacturing power in a colony.

Gordon Adams explores the US-Africa relationship from a security standpoint:

The money, equipment, training, counseling, intelligence, and operating support the United States provides in Africa will only be reinforcing the militaries as institutions in their countries. These militaries already have, at best, a mixed history of corruption, political domination, and seizure of power. And U.S. military investments provide these militaries with additional arms and operational training, making it even more difficult for civilian governments to restrain the military’s assertion of political power.

This deeper issue is a central one in Africa, and the one payoff of all the U.S. investment that we should put above all others — above development, above social services, above stronger security forces — is the issue of “governance.” Governance is what this summit should be about, above all else. Supporting governance in Africa might be discussed this week, but it is a goal only weakly reflected in U.S. assistance programs in Africa.

(Chart via The Economist)