With less than seven weeks to go until the US elections, questions are starting to be asked about whether a Trump or Biden administration would be better for Africa. We contextualise US policy towards the continent over the past three decades and compare the outlook for both contenders.
Which US presidential candidate would be better for Africa? Is it the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump, or the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden? And what would a better policy towards Africa entail? Should it focus on trade and investment, particularly as the continent is expected to enter a recession for the first time in 25 years as a result of COVID-19? Should it prioritise peace and security, given that international militancy and terrorism is increasingly concentrated in African conflict zones? What about development programmes that have all been set back this year because of the pandemic?
Our latest briefing places these questions in context by reviewing both Republican and Democratic policies towards Africa after over the past three decades before providing an outlook for the continent under both a Trump and Biden presidency.
Contextualising US policy towards Africa
There is a widely held assumption that Democratic presidents in the US are more responsive to the needs and interests of the African continent compared to Republican leaders. However, despite the prevalence of these views, they do not hold that much weight as by and large there has been much policy continuity (and some inconsistency) between US administrations since the 1980s.
On the one hand, since President Ronald Raegan (1981-89), each US leader has developed a signature programme focused on the continent, whether from a security, business, health, or developmental perspective with many having been carried forward by successive presidents. These have included:
- President Bill Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to foster trade and investment;
- President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and other developmental initiatives;
- President Barrack Obama’s Power Africa programme, Feed the Future and other social programmes, and;
- President Donald Trump’s Prosper Africa programme focused on business ties.
On the other hand, both administrations have had successes and failures when it comes to these initiatives. Looking at business for example, FDI to the continent has ebbed and flowed under both parties. For example, while US FDI to Africa grew significantly under the Bush and Obama administrations, there has been a significant decline in such investments since 2014, which aligns with both Obama and Trump.
Trade has been equally inconsistent and has followed global financial trends. While combined two-way trade between the US and AGOA-eligible Sub-Saharan African countries doubled between 2001 and 2014 – with peak trade flows recorded in 2008 valued at almost USD 100 billion – flows have declined or remained muted since 2011. Nevertheless, African exports to the US have consistently exceeded imports resulting in a significant trade surplus in favour of African countries overall.
Accusations of neglect or misaligned policy towards Africa can equally be directed at Democratic and Republican leaders over the years as well. The Rwandan genocide occurred under President Clinton, for example, whilst President Obama has been criticised for having an overly militarised policy towards the continent. Nevertheless, because the majority of African-Americans in the US support the Democratic Party in US elections, Africans have generally tended to sympathise and support Democratic presidential candidates themselves.
Reviewing and forecasting Trump’s Africa policy
Current President Trump’s foreign policy in general has been characterised by an “America First” approach. However, it is worth noting that while Trump has shown little interest in Africa, his administration has largely carried on with many of the policies of its predecessors (PEPFAR, Feed the Future, Power Africa etc) whilst developing its own approach to US-African affairs. As with other presidencies, there have been successes and failures in this regard.
In late 2018, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, launched the current administration’s signature initiative for the continent, known as ‘Prosper Africa’, designed to double two-way trade and investment between the US and Africa. While the policy was only launched two years into Trump’s presidency, it was well-received and generated much hope – particularly as trade and investment has been falling in recent years.
To achieve its objectives, the policy is supported by the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which established the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to replace and augment the capabilities of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Among other things, BUILD doubled the limit on investments from USD 29 billion under OPIC to USD 60 billion under DFC. While not specific to any region, Africa was set to significantly benefit from this change. Moreover, as of early 2020, a “deal team” within each US embassy in Africa had been established to help link US firms to trade and investment opportunities in Africa.
However, while promising pledges were made at the start of the programme, implementation has been slow. Indeed, it has been suggested that this strategy has been ignored and become irrelevant since the removal of Bolton in 2019, the only senior administration official to outline a grand policy statement on Africa.
Various commentators have indicated that for the most part Prosper Africa remains a static web page hosted on the US Commerce Department. In fact, very little is known about the initiative and its developments. A quick review of the website shows that there has been no major news regarding the programme since late 2019. Moreover, it is not clear how the 16 US government agencies that make up Prosper Africa work as a unified entity to help US companies compete in Africa, although it is known that USAID houses its secretariat. Nevertheless, there has been some significant activity through the US DFC and the Export-Import Bank lately, which may be linked to Prosper Africa.
A failed lift-off of Trump’s economic vision for the continent has also been accompanied by proposed sharp reductions in US assistance to Africa, in line with proposed cuts to foreign aid globally. US aid programmes typically focus on health, agriculture, peace and security, education access, social service delivery, democracy, human rights, good governance, sustainable natural resource management, and humanitarian needs. Yet, in May 2020, it was recorded that the Trump administration had requested USD 5.1 billion in aid for Africa in 2021: While an increase from USD 5 billion in 2010, this request marks a 28 percent drop from the allocation of USD 7.1 billion in 2019.
Although this drop would not relate to emergency aid or funding to African countries from global accounts and programmes, funding for Africa is expected to fall across a number of initiatives next year, including: health programmes, peace keeping operations, international narcotics control and enforcement, and international military education. Moreover, the Economic Support and Development Fund for Africa is expected to receive a meagre USD 75 million as part of Prosper Africa, potentially taking the wind out of its sails next year as well.
Major partners that are likely to be impacted by this drop off are highlighted below.
Trade and sanctions
The Trump administration has also been marked by ongoing negotiations between Kenya and the US on a landmark free trade deal. The talks promise to establish the first free trade agreement (FTA) between the US and a sub-Saharan African country, following the US FTA with Morocco in North Africa in 2004. The talks, which have been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, could take as long as two years. However, bipartisan support in the US Congress for a trade deal and broad political support in Kenya indicates the negotiations and an eventual trade deal are likely to outlast both current administrations in the US and Kenya. The Kenya deal, which is the first bilateral deal offered to an African country by the Trump administration, is likely to be the model for other African countries (See SPECIAL REPORT: KENYA-US FREE TRADE TALKS MOULD A NEW MODEL FOR AFRICAN TRADE).
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is engaged in ongoing negotiations with Sudan on removing the country from the US state sponsors of terrorism listing, which prevents Sudan from accessing financing from international lenders. Washington imposed sanctions on Sudan over its alleged support for militant groups and the civil war in Darfur. The US government added Sudan to its list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993 over allegations that the former government was supporting armed groups, leaving Sudan ineligible for badly needed debt relief and financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Trade sanctions were lifted in 2017 (See SUDAN: INCHING TOWARDS PEACE WITHOUT ECONOMIC REFORM OR SANCTIONS REPRIEVE).
Forecasting Biden’s policy towards Africa
Having had a look at Trump’s track record in and proposed plans for Africa in 2021, it is worth considering what US policy towards Africa might look like should Democratic nominee, Biden, win the November elections. While Biden has actually made little detailed reference to the continent when speaking about US foreign policy, it is largely assumed that a Biden presidency would be more favourable for Africa, particularly when it comes to US assistance.
Indicative of this, in August, the Biden campaign held a virtual fundraiser to discuss US-Africa policy in what was the first time a presidential campaign had set a pre-election event focused on Africa. The campaign raised more than four times its targeted amount and attendance far exceeded expectations. Biden has also surrounded himself with long-time advocates for Africa from the Obama administration who have indicated that the US must repair and “clean up” relations with the continent.
In terms of policy, a Biden administration is expected to focus more on diplomacy, democracy, and development through various multilateral channels. With a stronger focus on foreign assistance, there is therefore unlikely to be a risk of significant budget cuts. This means a renewed focus on health, economic growth and peace and security with the intention of raising the US’s profile across the continent. However, there remains little clarity on what exactly this would entail and the impact for businesses operating across the continent.
The dynamics over the past 30 years have meant that no one party in the US is particularly beneficial for Africa, as US-Africa policy successes and failures have been evident under both administrations and across all foreign policy concerns, including business, politics, development and security. Whichever administration takes office next year is therefore likely to face similar wins and losses, as priorities shift over the course of the next presidency.
A second term Trump presidency could be beneficial for Africa should renewed energy, focus and importantly funding be placed behind its Prosper Africa initiative. With the dramatic drop off in trade and investment between the US and Africa over the last half decade or so, an initiative to double commercial ties is very promising. However, there is currently little evidence to suggest significant forward momentum for Prosper Africa in the next year, particularly amid US budget cuts. Taken together, several members of Congress have now raised concerns over the potential ramifications of such cuts for US influence and partnerships abroad. In this regard, it may be debated whether next year’s budget does anything to advance the administration’s stated priority of countering the influence of geostrategic competitors in Africa. For instance, officials have described Prosper Africa as partly intended to counter China’s growing influence in the region, yet USD 75 million in proposed funding for the initiative is arguably incommensurate with vastly accelerating two way US-Africa trade and investment and countering China’s financial muscle in the Africa.
While Biden has yet to develop a clear policy on Africa, early indications suggest that he would increase US assistance to the continent under his presidency. He is likely to take a strong interest in developmental programmes as well as boosting security operations across the continent in response to growing security threats in some of the conflict-affected areas and as a counter balance to growing Chinese and Russian influence in Africa. In terms of business, he is likely to build on the successes of the DFC through various developmental projects and revive initiatives from the Obama administration. It is also expected that Biden will focus on youth and women development and employment creation in Africa.
Regardless of who wins the elections in November, a credible US-Africa policy under the next administration needs to take into account the dire economic and social effects of the pandemic. In this regard, the continent is expected to enter a recession for the first time in 25 years this year, with more than 20 million people pushed into poverty as a result. Militancy is also rising in many parts of the continent as opportunistic actors take hold of the security vacuum created by the pandemic.