This week nearly 50 heads of state will attend President Obama’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC to discuss trade and investment, security, democratic development, and how to achieve a better quality of life for all Africans. The summit will bring together government representatives, business people from the U.S. and Africa, and leaders of civil society groups.
In many ways this summit will be the beginning of a hopefully much larger conversation on how the United States and 54 African countries can increase economic ties, strengthen democratic development, and create new economic opportunities and freedoms for Africans.
To help start this conversation, CIPE and Freedom House brought together several U.S. and African thought leaders to offer their insights on how to advance political and economic freedom in Africa at an event August 1. The purpose of the event was to reinforce the case that good governance and democratic values are closely linked to sustained economic growth, and to offer some actionable ideas on how to strengthen the U.S.-Africa partnership.
The panelists included: Kim Davis, Managing Director and Co-Chairman at Charlesbank, Hon. Donald Gips, Co-Chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Africa Business Initiative, Betty Maina, Chief Executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), and Aniket Shah, Global Investment Strategist from Investec.
As Hon. Gips mentioned, many American firms are not even at the “starting line” with regards to expanding their business into Africa. There is no doubt that there are plenty of opportunities and that different countries on the continent are experiencing economic growth and a growing middle class of consumers that offer both African and international companies new opportunities to expand their markets. But for many reasons, few U.S. firms outside of the extractive industries are investing in Africa.
At the same time, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index shows that many African countries are not advancing political and economic freedoms, and in some parts of Africa are reversing previous gains. As Betty Maina from KAM pointed out, after the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a great promise “for a better life and democratic opportunity,” but Africans have not built the underlying institutions necessary for democracy to succeed – instead focusing almost solely on conducting elections.
“There is currently a despair about democracy and the fundamental ingredient to change this is the building of proper institutions,” Maina said. As former Ambassador to South Africa, Hon. Gips, put it: “the hard part is what comes after the elections.”
So what can the business community do about the current state of affairs? Kim Davis emphasized that business has a deep interest in the rule of law. African countries need judiciary systems that work and business climates where contracts can be enforced. Keeping the system accountable requires freedom of the press, and African businesses need to push for greater press freedoms.