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American perceptions of Africa have long been swayed by the noisiest US constituencies with a vested interest in the continent.
More often than not, these have been the faith-based groups and non-governmental organisations – notably the human rights lobby. They played a central role for example in focusing Washington’s attention on the plight of the Southern Sudanese during Sudan’s civil war.
The effect, though, has been to distort the complex mix of realities in Africa’s 55 states – seen, as these have often been, through the lens of activists with a narrow agenda – and also to divert resources.
By their own admission, US envoys to Africa have tended to spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with flashpoints such as South Sudan, and more recently on the emerging threat of terrorism coming from countries such as Somalia. They have spent less time attending to the commercial opportunities that have emerged as African economies have grown and a new class of business people and consumers has sprung up.
For a few days this week in Washington, that changed.
The first US-Africa summit, attended by nearly 50 African heads of state, took on issues from corruption to Islamist extremism. But the dominant theme was Africa’s potential as an additional motor for global growth, and the role that US companies could play in mobilising the necessary capital and in creating jobs.
It may not quite qualify for what US secretary of state John Kerry called a “pivotal moment in history”. As one delegate quipped, that would be August 4 1914, when the first world war began, not August 4 2014.
But there was a shift away from Washington’s habitually paternalistic tone, heralding what President Barack Obama termed a “partnership of equals that focuses on African capacity to solve problems, and on Africa’s capacity to grow”.
Responding to strong competition from emerging countries the White House is seeking to build economic links with one of the world’s fastest growing regions
Unlike many other regional summits dominated by politicians and bureaucrats, this was an eclectic carnival of players. Thousands of Africans flew in and dozens of meetings were going on at any given time across the US capital on the sidelines of the main events.
For the US business community this provided something of an eye opener. You do not always have to know the president of a given country these days to get things done. There is a dynamic array of other African interlocutors and potential partners, most of them in the private sector.
Indeed, the loudest noise this time was coming from business.
Top African officials suffer from summit fatigue, noted one African minister, courted as they are now by many global powers and dragged around an unending circuit of conferences. Few of them came with a clearly focused narrative to match America’s rising interest.
“It was not a political meeting. It was not even a catch-up meeting,” said Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank, commenting on the widely held belief that Washington is waking up to Africa’s commercial potential only because China is so far ahead. “It was business people leading the way.”
He noted the role that companies such as General Electric, JPMorgan, Coca-Cola, and IBM have begun to play in shifting the official agenda on Africa towards a more healthy mix that places facilitation of trade and investment higher up the agenda.
Others also commended how Power Africa, an initiative launched by Mr Obama last year to bring US expertise to bolster electricity generation, is targeting attention on a critical shortfall. It also proves Washington’s ability to mobilise billions of dollars in investment.
Little reminder was needed of the flip side of the transformation the continent is undergoing. The focus by TV networks on the spread of the Ebola virus in west Africa, and the inadequacy of the public health response, did that.
But, if the goal was to shift US perceptions of Africa as simply a repository of war, poverty and disease, a place in need of handouts, then the US-Africa summit made a healthy start.
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