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Americans Must Change Our Africa Tunnel Vision | Commentary

In a recent Capitol Hill policy discussion on U.S.-Africa trade, an African ambassador passionately proclaimed that the best thing the United States can do for Africa is to remove the negative stereotype that if one nation has a problem then the continent as a whole is damned.

The point is hard to argue with when all we hear about is Africa’s epidemic diseases, famines and despotic leaders. Too often, Africa’s trade and investment potential for American business is overshadowed by a false notion that the continent is a tinderbox, ready to ignite at any moment.

President Barack Obama’s recent visit to South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania underscores that the time has finally come to dramatically reframe how we think about and how we engage with Africa’s 54 nations. We as Americans must lose our tunnel vision and learn to see Africa as a continent of immense opportunity.

The data speaks for itself.

For more than a decade now, the world’s fastest-growing economies have been in Africa. Countries including Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique have annual gross domestic product growth of 8 percent to 11 percent. With more than a billion people living on the continent and rapidly expanding middle-class and youth populations, opportunities abound to leverage new consumers and engage new leaders to connect with each other and global markets.

In 2012 alone, we saw the transition of power in several African nations to illustrate that peaceful changes in leadership are the norm rather than the exception. In Ethiopia, Malawi and Ghana, three African leaders died in office, and their successors transitioned in without military intervention or major protest.

Frankly, the United States can’t afford to cede Africa’s economic momentum to foreign competitors such as Brazil, Russia, India and China, known as the BRIC nations. While we as a nation continue to tinker with our Africa policies, China’s trade with the continent continues to expand. Last year alone, China’s trade with Africa totaled some $200 billion; we lagged behind at $95 billion.

These numbers are particularly troubling when we consider the reservoir of good will the United States enjoys on the continent, spanning both Democratic and Republican administrations.

One of President Bill Clinton’s signature accomplishments was signing into law the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which eliminates trade tariffs for African goods exported to the United States. And no one can forget the success of President George W. Bush’s efforts to address the HIV and AIDS crisis through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Obama has similarly contributed to these legacies with efforts such as the Global Health Initiative, Feed the Future and the Young African Leaders Initiative. Despite being bogged down with a global recession and wars winding down in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has focused his policy on some of Africa’s most enduring and persistent challenges that have kept Africa from reaching its full potential.

During Obama’s first term, he also launched the Doing Business in Africa program to promote U.S. trade with the continent and announced the first-ever trade mission to Zambia, doubling bilateral trade between the two nations.

The affinity Africans have for the United States, which was significantly strengthened by Obama’s 2008 election, must be leveraged to ensure America holds its seat at the table and doesn’t lose ground to economic competitors.

Africa is ready to leverage trade opportunities over tired, old aid paradigms. Africans en masse say they no longer need only aid to solve their problems. Africans confidently signal that they are ready to engage the United States on trade and investment terms that will be far more transformative than the aid-based solutions of the past.

The next major event on the horizon is the reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunities Act, set to expire in 2015. It’s our nation’s pre-eminent trade arrangement with the continent and has employed hundreds of thousands of Africans, pulled millions of people out of poverty and grown industries where none previously existed.

In sum, Africa’s 54 nations are experiencing something close to a renaissance. The challenge before us is whether America is ready to participate in this new era of engagement or whether we’ll stand on the sidelines and let other nations take the lead.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.

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