On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken introduced the Biden administration’s much-awaited strategy for Africa. Speaking in South Africa, during his second trip to the continent in less than a year, Blinken outlined the policy against a backdrop of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and a global economic slowdown. Although somewhat comparable to recently launched initiatives for Latin America and the Indo-Pacific, the Africa strategy stands out as an uniquely elaborate effort at a moment when the administration is working to revamp U.S. relations across the globe.
At its core, the strategy articulates a vision for a twenty-first century U.S.-African partnership motivated by discernible global shifts. One motivation is the realization of Africa’s importance to U.S. global priorities, such as the continent’s rapidly growing population, one of the world’s largest trading blocs, significant natural resources endowments, and a sizable voting bloc in the United Nations. Another rationale is U.S. positioning for the great power competition with China and Russia for influence in Africa. The document often cites Chinese “harmful activities” side-by-side with Russia’s use of “disinformation . . . to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine,” in reference to the nonaligned stance by some African countries at the UN. These activities are contrasted with the promise of “high standards, values-driven and transparent” initiatives by the United States and allies.
The proposal outlines four strategic objectives, including climate adaptation and post-pandemic economic recovery efforts alongside long-standing goals of transparent governance, democracy, and security priorities. To achieve these objectives, the partnership will focus on expanded efforts and new instruments to reset the U.S.-Africa relationship by engaging and bolstering civil society and America’s African diaspora, as well as leveraging the private sector and rebalancing toward urban hubs.
A New Approach
The document does deliver with new approaches in four promising ways.
First, the framing of the strategy as a “U.S.-African partnership” is new language that marks a departure from initiatives by previous U.S. administrations. The conspicuous emphasis on “listening” and African agency is a testament to the extensive consultations that preceded Blinken’s announcement. This commitment should address the recurring accusation that U.S. foreign policy officials rarely empathize with Africans policymakers’ legitimate economic, political, and security concerns.
The strategy also commits to working more closely with African partners, especially the African Union, to address lingering challenges and “will direct unilateral capability only where lawful and where the threat is acute.” One example where this could play out is the conflict in Ethiopia, especially as it relates to sanctions, suspension of trade privileges under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and how closely Washington works with conflict resolution mechanisms at the African Union and elsewhere.
The most exciting aspect of the strategy, by far, is its articulation of Africa’s climate challenge in a way that acknowledges the continent’s concerns and realities. The strategy recognizes that Africa is responsible for a tiny fraction of global emissions, and it aims to balance climate and development goals by promising to work closely with African countries to determine how best to meet their specific energy needs through various technologies including “renewable energy as well as gas-to-power infrastructure.” This policy will be well received by African gas producers in Nigeria, Tanzania, Mozambique, and elsewhere that have protested restrictions on the financing of their projects by the World Bank and others—restrictions that were pushed by European shareholders, even as the EU has designated gas as a “green” fuel and continues to source both natural gas and coal from African countries. One marker of success for this policy will be the extent to which the United States influences European allies in these multilateral institutions to be more empathetic to African realities.
Another discernible policy shift is the promise of economic partnerships in areas that speak to both African economic priorities and U.S. strengths. It aims to support an equitable post-pandemic recovery in the short term and to build more stable and inclusive economies through increased trade, investment, and job creation. African countries will naturally rally around an agenda that creates economic opportunity, as the continent grapples with how to create meaningful jobs for the 11 million young people joining the labor market each year. The ambition to deploy American financial power to strengthen supply chains for critical minerals such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium, and to build core capacities of health systems to manufacture and deliver vaccines and other treatments seems responsive to African priorities on mineral-based industrialization and building a new public health order.
Finally, the strategy hints at dynamic ways the United States can mobilize private capital. It cites the example of how the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System approved a $100 million investment into power projects in Africa and other emerging markets in 2017. Such innovation could be a model for tapping into new sources of financing for infrastructure projects. Africa needs at least $100 billion per annum to plug its infrastructure finance deficit and another $50 billion to invest in climate adaptation, according to estimates by the African Development Bank.
Elements of the Status Quo
But the continuities of decades of U.S. policy on Africa are conspicuous in the strategy. The document states as much: that it “recasts traditional U.S. priorities” in a way that reiterates existing approaches to promoting transparent governance and human rights, addressing democratic backsliding, and maintaining security. However, the strategy has at least three areas where it should have gone further than the status quo.
First, it could have led the way in casting aside a perplexing demarcation that many Africans themselves do not subscribe to. It is surprising that a strategy that emphasizes its newness continues with the perplexing use of “sub-Saharan” and “North” Africa, dividing the fifty-five nation-states of the African continent into two groups. Though the strategy’s framing reflects a U.S. government bureaucracy that largely divides Africa in this way, in so doing, it replicates the myriad problems with this delineation: Why lump both Mauritania and Botswana in “sub-Sahara” when the former has more sociocultural similarities with Algeria and Morocco than with any country in southern Africa? Where does Djibouti belong? The strategy could have pushed the United States toward taking a more dynamic geographical treatment of Africa by employing a continentwide lens on trade, a sub-regional lens—central, east, north, west—on intra-African migration and transport infrastructure, and a country-level focus on elections and energy projects.
This approach would demonstrate that the United States is listening to and working with African countries’ articulated vision of continental integration within the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), as well as bring the usage in line with institutions like the African Union and the African Development Bank. There are parallels with the European Union—the twenty-seven members all identify as European and are in a single trading bloc, despite their sociocultural, linguistic, and economic differentiations.
Second, the strategy could have laid out a way for the United States to push beyond its traditional emphasis in “civil society” partners: beyond well-credentialed activists and journalists to include other influential nongovernmental actors typically overlooked by U.S. foreign policy programming. For example, African small and medium-sized business associations—especially manufacturers associations, transport unions, market women associations, tech startups, and others—have thousands, if not millions, of members. A game-changing approach to bolstering civil society on the continent would employ a more expanded definition to include these membership organizations that are politically influential, as well as academics in universities and research organizations who play a role in policy debates.
Finally, the strategy’s commitment to “revamp” public diplomacy efforts is conspicuously silent on addressing the increasingly convoluted nonimmigrant U.S. visa regime. Processing times for nonimmigrant visas for students, visitors, tourists, and small businesses—the very targets of U.S. public diplomacy efforts—face massive backlogs due to changing domestic politics, the coronavirus pandemic, and bureaucratic inertia. In U.S. embassies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, the wait times to secure an appointment for a visitor visa—used by the very civil society organizations the United States seeks to bolster—can exceed two years. Stories of U.S.-based academic, policy, and business conferences on Africa lacking any African participants because attendees could not secure U.S. visas are now commonplace. Not a few conference organizers are seriously considering convening these sessions in countries like the UAE, where visitor visas are less difficult to obtain. Making meaningful headway on revamping U.S. public diplomacy without addressing the uncertainty about the visa process for credible visitors will be difficult, especially when one of the strategy’s own stated objectives is to foster openness.
Now that the strategy is out, African countries, U.S. allies and development partners, and other stakeholders will be on the lookout for how this vision will be implemented. Achieving intergovernmental coherence among initiatives such as Prosper Africa and Power Africa across the U.S. government will be a crucial indicator of success. How the implementation of the strategy intersects with U.S. congressional initiatives on Africa, including existing legislation such as AGOA and the Electrify Africa Act, will help address questions that African partners may have on U.S. policy continuity. And most importantly, how much funding the Biden administration allocates to the strategy’s implementation will be the main determinant of success. The Biden administration has several opportunities to score quick wins over the next few months, such as clearing nonimmigrant visa backlogs and rallying European allies toward more equitable global climate policies for Africa at the upcoming COP27 summit in Egypt. These changes in areas that matter to African countries will be the surest way to build the foundation for a twenty-first century partnership.