- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

In late December, Washington witnessed an historic event that launched a fresh start between the Bush administration and people of African descent. I'm referring not to the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott as the Republican Senate leader, but instead to public hearings that were held regarding a first-ever proposed trade agreement with nations in Africa. President Bush has taken the bold (and correct) step of initiating negotiations on a free-trade agreement with Botswana Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland, which collectively comprise the Southern African Customs Union (SACU). Individually and collectively these countries have demonstrated their readiness to be free-trade partners.
Moreover, the United States will benefit from formalizing trade with SACU. The SACU represents the largest U.S. export market in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year sales topped more than $3 billion, and each country is a member of the World Trade Organization.
Yet, this proposed trade agreement is only the first step towards building SACU's capacity for improving its members' economic health. A major challenge confronting SACU countries is that, although they are richly endowed with natural resources, their citizens don't benefit economically. As Nahas Angula, Namibia's Minister of Higher Education, Training and Employment Creation observed: "African countries can only take advantage of this proposed Free Trade Agreement and similar initiatives if they have the knowledge and skills to produce what they can export." Minister Angula is a living example of the benefits of international education programs, as he received his master's degree from Teacher's College at Columbia University in New York City through a program administered by the Africa-America Institute and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. For African nations to truly benefit from trade, they must be prepared to derive the benefits from their own economies. Africans must have a stake in each stage of the economic process, from production to processing to exporting to investment. Without accomplishing these goals, African nations cannot maximize their own potential.
So in addition to pursuing free trade, the United States must take further initiative to expand opportunities for Africans to acquire needed skills. Additional investments in education and training generate high rates of return by multiplying the impact of development achievements across sectors of importance to the United States and its aid partners. Education and skills development are critical components in spreading democratization, strengthening civil society, improving child and family health, lowering population rates, protecting the environment, and building new trading relationships. Relevant education and training is arguably the single most important investment in leading developing countries toward self-reliance.
Currently, Africa's working- age population is growing at a faster rate than the number of jobs, and the lack of employment opportunities is forcing many who can to leave the continent in search of suitable work. Along with market-relevant education and training, providing incentives and opportunities for already skilled African workers at home and abroad is essential for building a highly skilled workforce and for sustaining the mutual benefits of trade.
The evidence around the world is that educated people are able to use capital more efficiently and productively. Moreover, the increasing technological demands of today's global economy demand a higher-skilled workforce to be competitive. The proposed SACU Free Trade Agreement is a positive first step, but further U.S. investment will enable the benefits of the trade agreement to flourish for all countries involved. By putting education initiatives at the top of his agenda when he reschedules his Africa trip later this year, President Bush can take the next positive step towards creating strong alliances with African nations that bolster the security of U.S. citizens, Africans and members of the larger global community.

Mora McLean is president of the Africa-America Institute, a non-profit organization.

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