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Will The United States Re-Engage With Africa?

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Although Donald Trump-led arguably the most Africa-adverse American administration in history, analysts warn not to expect too much from his successor, Democrat Joe Biden. A look at the likely impact of his win on the US-Africa economic dynamics.

HISTORICALLY, IT HAS NOT MATTERED MUCH for Africa whether Democrats or Republicans sit in the White House. This is largely because the United States (US) has never really had a coherent and constructive Africa policy. So, although outgoing Republican president Donald Trump led arguably the most Africa-adverse American administration in history, analysts warn not to expect too much from his successor, Democrat Joe Biden.

Biden was vice-president in the Obama administration that preceded Trump. But whereas Trump once called African countries “shitholes”, Biden at least is promising to “reengage with the world”.

“He will be more engaging with countries, including Africa,” believes Jannie Rossouw, interim head of Wits Business School in Johannesburg. “Trump really isolated the US from many regions, from very many continents, it was bad relationship all over the place.”

Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, agrees.

“I think Biden is going to focus on rebuilding partnerships and that includes at the multilateral level to the state level, to the subnational level,” he says.

“So I think you will first see a refocus on climate change and strengthening international adoptions, which will be of benefit to Africans. It’s clear that Biden is very supportive of the Continental Free Trade Agreement. That is incredibly important. But he has also talked about the importance of subnational governance and particularly urbanization. And so I think we have the potential to see the next administration work with African countries at these multiple levels to unlock their economies.”

Devermont expects the biggest African economies – Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya in particular – to receive significant attention, while the prospects for Ethiopia also look promising.

But Biden has his work cut out for him. Domestic challenges like tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic recession and reckoning with racism are likely to keep him busy during his first few months in office. When his attention finally shifts to international affairs, climate change and trade wars with China can expect to dominate the agenda.

But instead of disparaging Beijing at every turn, like Trump did, Devermont expects there will be a focus on “transparency around norms, around standards, ensuring that African economies are open to US investors. And the more negative elements of a Chinese engagement will be blunted or curbed through shared partnerships with Africans around how foreign countries should invest in their countries, how to form partnerships in their countries.”  

Another expectation is that American legislation allowing sub-Saharan African countries preferential entry into the US market will be extended.

Rossouw believes that “Biden will try to find a call partner in countries in Africa, and that might be beneficial, especially for the bigger economies in Africa, such as South Africa. If Johannesburg was an independent country, it would be the ninth largest economy in Africa. So naturally, the interest will first be in the big economies and then there will be spillover effects to the smaller economies.”

Biden has in the past committed Washington to helping the continent manage the challenges of a burgeoning population. The United Nations’ projection that Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s population by 2050 led him to suggest an urbanization initiative. This would include partnerships between African and American cities planning for growth in critical sectors like energy access, climate change, transportation and water management.

“Urbanization is the key transformation that the continent will undergo in this century and ensuring that African cities, most of whom sit on the coasts, are open for business will be a huge opportunity for US companies,” says Devermont. “I wouldn’t underestimate how important that initiative, depending on what it develops into, can be for the US-Africa economic relationship.”

Equally important is that the Biden administration reach out to companies that remain skeptical or ignorant about opportunities in Africa and address some of the risks and myths they have about investing on the continent.

Trump’s mission was to make America great but his administration largely disengaged with one of the world’s fastest-growing regions. Time will tell whether his successor fares any better. 

-By PAULA SLIER AND ALLISON GOSNEY

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