The US needs a coherent policy on Africa

The US needs a coherent policy on Africa

Washington can do better than China bashing and travel bans

Much of the infrastructure that has made Ethiopia’s economic success possible was built and financed by China © Luis Tato/Bloomberg

(ft)—On the third leg of Mike Pompeo’s recent Africa tour, which concluded last week in Ethiopia after stops in Senegal and Angola, the US secretary of state chose Addis Ababa to berate Beijing. “Countries should be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises,” he told his audience in remarks clearly referring to China. “They breed corruption, dependency, they don’t hire the local people, they don’t train, they don’t lead them.” The message — which echoes a policy laid out by former national security adviser John Bolton, who accused Beijing of using Africa “to pursue global dominance” — was tone deaf.

It reinforces the view, wholly offensive to most people on the continent, that the Trump administration sees Africa as little more than an arena of great power rivalry. That Mr Pompeo chose to make his remarks in Ethiopia, a country that for all its problems has one of Africa’s most successful economies partly thanks to close ties with Beijing was particularly bemusing. Ethiopia is the second-biggest destination of Chinese investment in Africa. It has grown at near double-digit rates for 15 years. Much of the infrastructure that has made this possible was built and financed by China. The US, as laid out explicitly by Mr Bolton, sees a dastardly Beijing plot to ensnare African governments in debt and to exploit their workers.

US companies are portrayed, by contrast, as benevolent entities interested only in furthering African opportunity. These caricatures do not wash. Certainly, China can be guilty of cozying up to dictatorships and turning a blind eye to corruption and the pillage of resources. Its finance is rarely concessional. Some of its infrastructure is shoddy. But the US, especially under Donald Trump, hardly stands out as a champion of democracy and environmental protection.

Its companies build comparatively little in Africa. Contrary to the cliché that China ships in all its own workers, a recent study of foreign investors in Angola and Ethiopia found that Chinese companies’ employment policies were broadly similar to western counterparts. Even if US criticisms contain some truth, it is not clear what Washington is offering instead. Exhortations to stop using Huawei for telecoms infrastructure, for example, puzzle governments that see no obvious alternatives. Rather than bringing rival proposals, Mr Pompeo’s visit came after his government had extended a travel ban on Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and threatened to slash aid. It is also considering withdrawing troops from the Sahel where a dangerous jihadi insurgency is brewing. This does not mean the US has nothing to offer.

The President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, initiated by former president George W Bush, has saved millions of lives and has won the US much goodwill. China gives nothing comparable. Mr Trump rightly abandoned a plan to scrap the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, instead doubling its budget to $60bn, even if few big investments have materialised. Yet, with government encouragement, the US private sector ought — as Turkish, Indian and Brazilian companies have done — be able to do good business on a continent with seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies. US venture capitalists could also do more to fund the inventive start-up culture sprouting up all over Africa. Sadly, this has not been Washington’s emphasis. Instead, the US has fallen behind. Chinese trade with Africa, at $185bn in 2018, dwarfs that of the US, which was $41bn in the same year. Washington’s policy must go beyond China-bashing. Without a change, its influence in Africa will wane further.