US-Africa summit: Africa’s Diplomatic coup?

The events at White House dinner
THANKS TO THE DISMAL SCIENCE, the US government has caved in to pressure from its corporate sector that is keen to do business in Africa. The country is now hosting two score plus African heads of state in Washington DC in a history setting US-African leaders’ summit.  And Americans must endure traffic jams for two days because Africa is in town.

 That the Summit is driven by economics is not in doubt. According to Al Jazeera, US$1 billion in business deals is on the table.  Africa itself is not talking about aid. It is talking investment, trade –economics.  It is talking to corporate America and corporate America is listening. This is a diplomatic coup as the government will also have to listen to its citizens.

The west has woken up to the fact that Africa is driving its own agenda. It needs trade, investment and infrastructure development. These three and the rest will fit in place, so goes the Africa script.  The west has finally sat up and taken note:  Africa is the place to be if you want to turn your economic fortunes around. Such American niceties as human rights and Gay rights have taken a back burner in this summit. This is expected, business is about profit not about rights and fantasies. 
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 Why is Africa having its way? A   few statistics show why the world must listen to Africa now. According to Bloomberg 10 of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. The continent itself is in the second decade of robust economic growth, ranking second only to Asia. Its middle class stands at 355 million people, slightly more than a third of its population and still counting. The continent boasts of the youngest population in the world and by 2040, Africa will have the largest labour force in the world.  The bulging middle class is driving the growth of domestic demand and will drive it in the long run.

In effect, Africa is headed to be the economic growth pole. A growth pole is a region whose growth leads to growth in other regions. Other regions,-West, east, Asian Tigers have had their day.  Now, to quote, a song, “it’s time for Africa.” A growth pole does not grow by its own. It needs the backing of others in order to grow sensibly. And that’s why anyone country or continent that wants to grow must pitch a tent in Africa. That is why the adage in the US is: “getting into Africa is not an Option, it is the only choice.”

How did we get there?  Largely by our own bootstraps but with a little support from others: Good house-keeping, an end of wars, expanding domestic demand due to the growth of the middle class were Africa’s own making. Good commodity prices that have fostered African progress were external. But by and large, the causes of the progress are home brewed. Africa has learnt to make the right decisions and implement them.  The results are summarized in the “narrative of Africa rising.”

Owing to robust economic growth the per capita domestic revenue mobilization has risen to U$441 shrinking foreign aid to $41 per capita. The continent is lifting an estimated 15 million people out of poverty a year. This means that so far an estimated 90 million have been lifted out of poverty putting the size of the middle class at 430 million people three years down the road.

So why has Politics been shunned? In 1985, during the Women’ Conference in Nairobi, activists from the West dared say “Africa women are oppressed because they enter into Polygamous marriages.”  The answer did not come from African men. It came from the Women in the conference. A stern “keep off this, you don’t understand it.” They were silenced and the issue is never raised in subsequent conferences. The same goes for political lectures such as the rights of gays and lesbians. Africa’s stand is known and firm. Gays are frowned at. Obama will not risk uproar over such trivia.  Africa is asserting itself and getting its way. Read also

 This is what is at stake: Africa imports US$50 billion worth of US goods which keeps at least 250,000 Americans employed says, Joe Biden, the US Vice President. Further, Africa’s consumption expenditure is US$1.3 trillion a year and is expected to double by 2030. This is a mouthwatering market for many a business executive.

The corporate sector that is driving the agenda for the summit wants the US change attitude in order to open this market for them. Corporate America is keen for a large slice of this market. So irritating non-issues like gay rights should be kept off the summit. Corporate America is engaging with Africa not as a choice, but as a necessity.  No President would put a necessity to risk.

 What could be at risk is the Civil Society in Africa. Since their governments did not take a begging bowl to the US capital, they have effectively sidelined the politicians. Africa is talking about toll roads, new power stations, new seaports, Railway lines, airport, Pipelines…name it. They are talking business and therefore talking to corporate America.  They are talking about where US companies can make profits in Africa and Corporate America is listening. Next- to toe the line will be the government and the civil society will be on its own.

 China, Japan, have regular summits with Africa. Will the US follow suit? The stakes are stacked in favour.  So who is next? Europe?  Africa is the place to be.


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