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Bass: U.S. Needs to Strengthen Trade Ties With Africa

Chinese President Xi Jinping begins an African tour this week where he will seek to bolster economic ties between China and the continent. In visiting so soon after taking the reins of power, Xi is sending a strong signal about the importance of maintaining a strategic relationship with Africa.

No doubt the Chinese president sought to tamp down concerns that China may be exploiting the continent’s vast resources to drive economic growth back home without making real investments that can improve African lives as well.

His visit sends another strong signal that the United States must remain deeply engaged with Africa, as doing so is both in our economic and national security interests. More and more it is becoming clear that Africa is ready for a deeper strategic partnership with the United States — a partnership that not only keeps America safe but creates the stability for Africa to reach its full economic potential.

That was the message given to a bipartisan congressional delegation which recently visited five African nations, including Senegal, Mali, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Morocco. We came face to face with some of the continent’s most profound tragedies. Yet despite witnessing the toll war and violence exact on communities, we were constantly reminded that Africa is not seeking handouts but rather new and strengthened partnerships with the United States and other nations.

With a young population approaching 1 billion people, Africa boasts a strong and growing middle class. According to the International Monetary Fund, the last decade has seen six of the world’s fastest-growing economies come from within sub-Saharan Africa. The potential of this marketplace cannot be realized until our engagement grows to match that of China, India or Brazil, nations that have significantly increased their investments across the continent. China in particular casts a long shadow that can no longer be ignored — as is evidenced by President Xi’s visit this week.

It’s important we send the signal that the United States wants to match words with deeds when we speak about investing in Africa and building a partnership based on shared responsibility and mutual respect. We must show Africa that when America speaks about investment, we come prepared to do so in a way that helps Africans to help themselves by building strong business models that help the bottom lines of companies while strengthening the local African workforce.

Developments from the White House and American business leaders provide hope that momentum is building for such a strategic partnership.

GE Africa Executives Jay Ireland and Lazarus A. Angbazohave described the continent as being central to the overall global strategy the company has in place. Through partnerships with African governments, GE is matching its technological capabilities with the entrepreneurship of local African companies.

In 2008, GE had $3.5 billion in revenues and over 1,500 employees in Africa. Their model shows that in Africa, a marketplace exists to earn profits ethically and in a way that benefits the United States, African economies and the African workforce.

Congress has an opportunity as well to get into the mix by working in a bipartisan fashion to extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act before it expires in 2015. AGOA is the largest and most important trade arrangement between the United States and Africa, and is credited with increasing African exports to America. Work must begin now to review more than a decade of AGOA’s history and to find meaningful ways to strengthen this trade policy to ensure it benefits Africa as well as American businesses.

These developments are not to say America shouldn’t continue playing a humanitarian role where needed in Africa, particularly as it relates to simmering conflicts in Mali and the Congo or helping to facilitate the delivery of lifesaving drugs to slow the rate of HIV infections.

But more than simply throwing aid at Africa’s problems, the United States and Africa would be best served by a continued focus on democracy and governance, institution building, and women empowerment while broadening opportunities for American businesses to invest in Africa’s future through infrastructure development, agriculture, skills building and training that builds up the local African workforce.

Should President Barack Obama visit Africa in his second term, I suspect these are the themes he will build upon in expressing American values to the continent. Our leadership can serve as a counterbalance in the region and a positive force for helping Africa to truly reach its full economic potential.

Democratic Rep. Karen Bass represents California’s 37th District. She currently serves as ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

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