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Gwen’s Take: The U.S.-Africa Summit: Of opportunities and setbacks

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  August 8, 2014 at 8:58 AM EST
African and American leaders prepare for the third and final plenary meeting of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington August 6.  Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

African and American leaders prepare for the third and final plenary meeting of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington August 6. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

They arrived on jet planes. They clogged downtown Washington, D.C. streets with sleek, black motorcades. And they partied late into the night at the city’s finest hotels and event spaces.

But the representatives of nearly 50 African countries who streamed into the nation’s capital this week had deadly serious things on their minds.

They were here to do business with General Electric and Coca Cola and dozens of the largest companies in the U.S. More important, they were here to redefine Africa in the popular mind from a collection of problems to a collection of opportunities.

“We have a lot of expectations,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete told PBS’ Charlie Rose in one forum. “Because we want to move…our relationship not only between aid donor and aid recipient, but we want to move to the next level now, of investments and trade.”

The three days of meetings were crammed end-to-end with sober roundtables about infrastructure, civil society, and energy.

“You must be tired by now,” Vice President Joe Biden joked as he began his remarks Tuesday. “I’m probably your 412th speaker.”

In the end, the White House left $300 million on the table, and U.S. companies ponied up billions more.

“I think it is important for people to look at Africa and see that Africa is changing,” South African President Jacob Zuma said. “There’s a good story that is coming out of the continent of Africa.”

Unfortunately, the news cycle did not cooperate.

At session after session, leaders from South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria—countries with booming economies– grew defensive when they were forced to talk about the negative: terrorism, kidnapping, inequality, corruption and the still unfolding Ebola health crisis.

Even President Obama was forced to rain on the good-news parade — just a little bit — when he raised the specter of government corruption at his news conference this week.

“Some African nations are making impressive progress,” he said. “But we see troubling restrictions on universal rights…and I made the point during our discussion that nations that uphold these rights and principles will ultimately be more prosperous and more economically successful.”

When pressed on that point by a Kenyan journalist, the president explained the balance he is attempting to strike.

“We find that in some cases engaging a country that generally is a good partner but is not performing optimally when it comes to all of the various categories of human rights, that we can be effective by working with them on certain areas,” Mr. Obama said, “and criticizing them and trying to elicit improvements in other areas.”

Shorter answer: Africa presents too much of an economic opportunity to ignore. Plus, big investors like China, which has fewer qualms about human rights issues, have already beat the U.S. to the punch, building highways and mining the continent’s rich resources.

So businessmen like former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, one of the summit organizers, exhibit little patience when pressed about the downsides of American involvement.

Focus on the future, he told my colleague Judy Woodruff, not the past. “The nice thing about business, you measure success by commerce. There are real numerics. This is not just touchy-feely, I feel things are better.”

By the time the African delegations left Washington this week – sidestepping questions about deadly viruses, kidnapped school girls and despotic leaders — the goal was for everyone else to feel better too.