- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2001

President Bush said yesterday that the United States will convene a meeting with 35 African countries this fall in a bid to boost economic ties with the 800 million people living south of the Sahara Desert.

The October gathering of trade, finance and foreign ministers in Washington will mark a further step in efforts, started by the Clinton administration, to encourage sound economic policies in Africa with the prospect of greater access to the large U.S. market.

"We Americans want to be more than spectators of Africa's progress," Mr. Bush said in a Rose Garden event that included congressmen, business leaders and basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, a native of Nigeria.

Highlighting the attention the Bush administration is paying to Africa, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell departs Tuesday for a six-day tour through Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

The White House announcement coincided with the one-year anniversary of President Clinton's signature of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which called for establishing a "Trade and Investment Forum" between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa.

The law allows the 35 nations in that region to ship many products, especially clothing, into the United States duty-free.

The law, which won support from an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus and free-market Republicans, has won widespread praise for giving African nations the opportunity to build up their economies through trade with the United States.

U.S.-African trade appears to have improved in some cases.

Madagascar's exports to the United States, for example, have jumped 121 percent in the last year.

At the White House, Mamadou Seck, Senegal's ambassador to the United States and the head of the African diplomatic corps, endorsed the administration's proposal to expand the law to include duty-free access for other products besides textiles and apparel.

Mr. Seck expressed hope that in the long term, the law would create a richer market for U.S. products in Africa. The U.S. share of imports from African countries worth $7 billion per year stands at 7 percent, far behind the 40 percent enjoyed by the European Union.

But the slow implementation of the law, especially under the Clinton administration, has prompted criticism that bureaucratic requirements are curtailing free trade.

"We have fallen far short," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the New York Democrat who spearheaded the legislation's passage, though he praised Mr. Bush for lending his prestige to Africa-trade issues.

The chief problem with the law has been the slow pace of approvals by the U.S. Customs Service for countries to receive trade benefits, industry officials said. Only five of the 35 eligible nations can currently participate in the program.

Part of the problem is in Africa, where countries must set up often-complex customs procedures. But fault also lies with the Clinton administration, which waited until days before its end to give the green light to Kenya and Mauritius to take advantage of the new law.

"On their way out the door, they finally approved the first two countries," said Julie Hughes, president of International Development Systems, a trade consulting firm. "They should have done it much earlier."

The Bush administration has pushed through three approvals for Lesotho, Madagascar and South Africa in its short time in office. Four other approvals are in the pipeline.

The existence of the law has also given foreign apparel manufacturers the confidence to invest in African countries not yet participating in the program, such as Nigeria and Malawi, industry official said.

On the positive side, American companies that had bought clothing mainly in the Far East, the Caribbean and Mexico are now turning to Africa, industry officials said.

"There was no advantage to sourcing from Africa before this bill," said Frank Kelley, a vice president at Liz Claiborne.

The North Bergen, N.J., retailer gets the vast majority of its products from overseas, and is currently looking at ordering shirts, pants, blouses and skirts from South Africa, and possibly Madagascar.

Other major U.S. retailers, including the Limited and Gap, are also selling products made in Africa.

An increasing number of sweaters sold in the United States are likely to come from the region, because African women have strong knitting skills, one industry official said.


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