By the time he was finished with his question – more of a free-flowing comment really - both Frank and I knew what our respective responses to the man were going to be. In fact, although this was our first time meeting and sharing a panel, it was obvious that we’d each been confronted by many a passionate individual beseeching us to do something about the famine, the hunger, the pain, the poverty and whatever else ailed Africa.
Frank’s response to the underlying query about what the United States ought to do about Africa was fair: If Africa wants to get more action from America, it needs to emulate what Korea did back in the day when it was in the same situation. Put pressure on the elected officials in Congress. That’s how you get America to do more for Africa.
Brilliant response, I thought. But by then, I was much too despondent to be as disarming, and my rejoinder was that Africa must do so much more to help itself. After all, I argued, the United States had, just only this late June 2015, re-guaranteed that much of sub Saharan Africa could continue to have free and almost unfettered access to the world’s largest singular consumer market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Simply: African countries can sell almost anything they produce to the world’s richest customers - in whatever amounts they want - without paying a single tax. While this might not seem like an enormous deal, countries like Vietnam, Turkey and Australia would literally kill to have this sort of privilege or benefit.
Of course, the reality is this: Ever since AGOA was made available to Africa in 2000, most African countries have not taken advantage of this access. And the ones who’ve garnered billions of dollars from AGOA have only done this by selling crude oil to the United States. Some African countries have sold textiles – and there’s a feel good success story here. However, what about the small and medium sized enterprises? What about the poor people the Passionate Man was referring to? What about the subsistence farmers who make up the majority of Africa’s producers? Where was their AGOA prize?
Right there is the issue: Until the day African countries can spur their people into action, only a privileged few will take advantage of AGOA. 15 years later, people still do not know that AGOA is more than oil or textiles. They do not realize that both Mercedes and BMW have invested in South Africa so that South Africa can export those vehicles to the United States under AGOA. Many still think AGOA is a grant – some sort of moneybag the Americans have set aside for Africa. They do not realize that achieving anything under AGOA is much like the parable of the farmer who told his son that the pot of gold was in the ground. In other words, if you are going to achieve anything under AGOA, you must get your collective house in order, work your fingers till the bone – and that is just the beginning.
The other circumstance is this: This huge colossus called The United States of America STILL does not understand Africa. Many do not realize that Africa is 55 countries and that it is, perhaps, four times the size of their country. Perhaps, if you tell them that Kenya is about the size of Texas, and that Algeria is bigger than Alaska – they might have an idea about the landmass we’re talking about.
Seminally, all this does not respond to the Passionate Man’s underlying query: What can the U.S. do for Africa? Well, nothing, per se. The United States has its own interests. The United States is keen on negotiating free trade agreements with those countries that are ready to do business as equal partners. So, until Africa does something about its current infrastructure and energy problems – until the governments set about providing their people with the kind of security they require - there’s not a darn thing the United States can do to cure Africa of all that ails her.