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Reflecting on U.S. Presence, Policy and Performance in Africa

June 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the president visits Senegal, Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development and Sarah Pray of the Open Society Foundation join Margaret Warner to grade the Obama administration's track record on Africa, and explore how that continent has fit into American foreign policy.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the president’s visit and his administration’s performance in Africa, we turn to Sarah Pray, senior policy analyst for Africa at The Open Society Foundations, and Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Welcome to you both.

Todd, beginning with you, how do you rate or grade the Obama administration’s track record on Africa so far?

TODD MOSS, Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development: Well, so far, I think it’s been a big disappointment, especially in contrast to Presidents Clinton and Bush that had elevated Africa within the foreign policy hierarchy and really had put their stamp, left a mark on U.S. foreign policy that’s lasted, you know, up until today.

We don’t yet see that kind of legacy coming from President Obama. And I think it’s particularly ironic at this time, as Africa is doing better than ever before, and Africa is more important to the United States than ever before. We’re seeing the White House step back from Africa and playing a much less active role.

MARGARET WARNER: Sarah Pray, do you find it disappointing? And do you hear from the people on the continent that they’re disappointed?

SARAH PRAY, Senior Policy Analyst for Africa, The Open Society Foundations: Well, I think this trip is perhaps past due, but if nothing else, it’s due. It’s time.

And I think the fact that he has devoted such a significant period of time to this trip, visiting three countries and really prioritizing economic growth and democracy as the two pillars of this trip, I think that’s very welcome on the continent. I think you mentioned some of the omissions that — the places he will not visit. That clearly has raised quite a fuss on the continent. But …

MARGARET WARNER: Such as Kenya, which is one of the economic engines of Africa.

SARAH PRAY: Yes.

What I think is important to note is that it was, I think, difficult for the president to choose three countries to visit because he wanted to visit places that were advancing in their path towards democracy and also offered this — economic development opportunities.

And I think that shows the opportunity for President Obama that these twin pillars of economic development and promotion of democracy can be his legacy.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s step back for just a minute, and have you both tell me why this really matters. Why is Africa important? When you think of all the foreign policy issues that the president’s had to deal with, from — you know, from Iran, winding down two wars, we know the litany, why is Africa important to U.S. interests, or how important?

TODD MOSS: Right. Excellent question.

So, in a negative sense, as we have seen al-Qaida central get attacked, it’s spread out into the rest of the world. In particular, we have seen al-Qaida groups in the Sahel across West Africa, and that’s raised new security issues. And it’s raised the necessity of working with African allies to try to contain this problem.

But I think, more positively, Africa is booming economically. I still think a lot of Americans think of Africa as it was maybe 20 years ago. Six out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. If you are a company and you’re thinking about growth markets, you’re not thinking about Europe. You should be thinking about Africa and, of course, Asia.

And so I think that the potential opportunities, the upside in terms of economic partnership on business, is really tremendous. And that is really why the president is starting to talk, finally, about these economic opportunities.

MARGARET WARNER: And that is a big focus, at least according to the White House, of this trip, is economic development, seeing Africa as a big market for the United States.

How is the U.S. doing on that front, especially when you have got some other big competitors for that, certainly China, Brazil, to some degree Turkey?

SARAH PRAY: So the latest figures that I saw for 2012 was that Chinese trade with Africa was about $200 billion dollars, and the U.S., it was about $100 billion dollars, so about half of that.

And what I think is important to underscore when looking at those figures is that U.S. companies want stable operating environments. They want to work with governments that are transparent and accountable to their citizens, because it makes for better business back home and in Africa.

And so I think, again, if President Obama can really hammer home that the U.S. expects the countries in Africa to continue on the road to democracy, to be more transparent and accountability — accountable to their citizens, that that will translate into more investment dollars from U.S. companies.

MARGARET WARNER: But that does raise another difference with China. You look at this itinerary, or going to Ghana three years ago — four years ago now — it is countries not only that have elections, but are trying to make — build institutions to make the governments more accountable. China will do business with everyone.

So, do you agree with Sarah Pray, Todd Moss, that this is the right focus for the Obama administration to take?

TODD MOSS: Well, look, we have many interests everywhere in the world, and we need to balance those interests.

I think that in large part the Chinese involvement in Africa is very positive. Africa has massive infrastructure shortages. China is really good at building infrastructure, and they’re doing a lot of it. But what I think the administration wants to make sure is that American companies aren’t frozen out of these markets and that potential growth opportunities for the United States are not missed out because we’re not paying attention or we think, ah, it’s just Africa.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there more that the U.S. government could be doing to help U.S. business? Aren’t Chinese companies who invest there backed heavily by their government, for example, for the government — by the government in Beijing?

SARAH PRAY: Well, from my perspective, I feel like the U.S. actually does help U.S. businesses.

And, for example, the extractive industries are obviously huge in Africa. That’s the oil, gas, and mining industry. And the U.S. has been a leader in the extractive industry’s transparency initiative, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to make these industries more transparent and more accountable. And that’s good for U.S. business.

That’s good for the U.S. government, and hopefully good for the citizens of these countries.

So, I have seen the U.S. playing a very positive role in that. I think there’s other opportunities to translate that into other industries, not just the extractive.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think there’s more that the U.S. government could do to help?

TODD MOSS: Well, certainly, when other countries’ investors arrive in Africa, they come with the full backing of their government. The U.S. should play that role. We have done some of it. We have done it with one arm tied behind our backs, and we could do it a lot more efficiently.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean tied behind our backs?

TODD MOSS: Well, look, first of all, the U.S. business model is very different than the Chinese model.

The Chinese model is very state-involved. They can come with big packages where they will have a state-run bank giving a loan for a state-owned oil company that will build a state-run power plant. The U.S. is not like that. We have private firms. The firms like to stick to their core business.

But they still — countries are still looking for the U.S. to give signals and the companies are looking for signals that Africa is open for business.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Todd Moss and Sarah Pray, we have to leave it there.

SARAH PRAY: Thank you.

TODD MOSS: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.