One Big Continent, One Big Summit, Three Big Lessons
By Elizabeth Littlefield, OPIC President and CEO
This blog post originally appeared on the U.S. State Department’s DipNote blog
Just last month, President Obama hosted a spectacular and historic summit in Washington of more than 40 heads of state from Sub-Saharan Africa. Never before had there been such an ambitious American outreach to this enormous continent, a fact all the more remarkable because it is home to more than 1 billion people — people who also happen to be current or potential consumers and partners for American businesses. When asked – as political and economic observers do of all international summits — whether the event made any difference, my answer is a resounding “yes.”
From my professional and personal vantage point, I believe it will powerfully redirect and, at long last, reframe America’s engagement with Africa. Why? Because the agenda was not topped by cross-border conflicts, humanitarian disasters, terrorism, or HIV/AIDS, although such issues were not entirely absent. It was topped by the recognition that Africa is on the rise, has risen, and that the continent is brimming with promise, with talent and with opportunity. The dawning awareness that our two continents have bright futures together, focused on investment and trade and mutual prosperity was palpable all three days of the Summit.
The difference in how Africans engaged Americans was striking, too. I have lived and worked in African countries for decades. Over the course of the three-day summit, I met with many African leaders including King Mswati III of Swaziland, Presidents Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, Kagame of Rwanda, and Mutharika of Malawi and Prime Minister Duncan of Cote d’Ivoire.
Gone was the Old Africa of defensiveness or mistrust of the U.S. These leaders underscored their enthusiasm for stronger relations with American in all sectors — business, government, and nongovernmental — and how much they welcomed the opportunity to collaborate in partnerships of equals geared to mutual respect, opportunity and prosperity. Present everywhere were the upbeat and optimistic voices of New Africa, which is home to seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies and some of the most rapidly improving business climates in the world. The voices I heard were proud and confident, justifiably so.
Finally, the summit vividly underscored a new reality that stretches far beyond the Beltway. Investors not only recognize the wide-ranging economic reforms and astounding growth in Africa over the past decade, they are now convinced that Africa’s upward trajectory will be durable. CEOs believe it, shareholders believe it, analysts believe it, and markets believe it.
That is why U.S. businesses were willing and able to announce $14 billion in new, long-term investment in African countries during the summit. OPIC alone was able to seal some $1 billion in commitments under President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to expand electricity access to the 600 million Africans who are still without power.
Over the past three or four years, new research has been published almost daily pointing to Africa’s phenomenal promise. Demographers tell us with a high degree of certainty that in 15 years Africa will have the largest labor force of any region in the world. Economists forecast that Africa could well have the fastest growth rate over the same period. Forecasters show that their number of households with disposable income will double in the next 10 years.
If ever there was a time to reevaluate and reframe America’s relationship with Africa, now is the time. The African Leaders Summit was bold, audacious and it worked.