Never before have the security and economic fate of the African continent been so intertwined with our own, and President Obama’s current trip offers an opportunity to highlight why U.S. global development and diplomacy efforts are more important than ever. How we choose to engage with the world in the 21st century has enormous implications not just for the health and welfare of millions of children, women and men across the African continent, but for all of us at home, too.
We’re not just talking altruism. We’re talking sound, smart business. The developing world is already the destination for more than half of all American exports, and these countries represent some of the best potential growth areas for American entrepreneurs and innovations. It’s also an opportunity to do good by doing well, and today U.S. businesses and nongovernmental organizations are working with our government in unique public-private partnerships to harness the power of each of their strengths.
When we assist developing nations, we not only help improve the lives of their own citizens, but also the business environments for private-sector global investment. Our smart investments spur economic reform, advance the rule of law and improve governance to give our businesses the solid footing needed to move into Africa and grow.
While Hollywood and the media focus on scenes of hardship and conflict in Africa, there also is another storyline. Consider that 17 sub-Saharan countries have maintained annual economic growth rates of 5 percent to 7 percent for the past decade. Seven of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa, and overall, African economies are expected to nearly double in size to $2.6 trillion by 2020. That’s very good for the African people, and with proper infrastructure development, it’s also very good for American businesses and investors.
Many African governments still lack the institutions, infrastructure and standards of living needed for American companies to invest safely and sell their products and services. To rectify this, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, for example, provides grants to countries only if they demonstrate a commitment to democratic governance and economic freedom. The U.S. Agency for International Development supports programs that help countries improve their business regulatory environments and open their economies to foreign competition. These programs can help move developing countries toward competition and open markets, creating opportunities.
Mr. Obama’s visit can also highlight Africa’s importance for America’s security. Al Qaeda affiliates are seeking a presence in regions of northern and eastern Africa, aided by the lack of adequate governance, security capacity and economic opportunity in these often-lawless and impoverished areas. If allowed to take root, extremists groups thriving on chaos and deprivation could ultimately threaten Americans here at home. These threats call for a coordinated “smart power” approach by the U.S. government, using all of our tools for foreign policy.
Finally, humanitarian assistance and development programs in Africa and elsewhere embody the fundamental decency and generosity of our country, and real results can be seen in the lives saved and changed. For decades, Ethiopia suffered periodically from calamitous famines causing widespread starvation, most vividly brought to the world’s attention during the mid-1980s. As a result of U.S. agricultural and global health development programs that empowered local farmers and villagers, the numbers of people at risk of famine have dropped by about 70 percent. A strengthened Ethiopia is now a valuable ally of the United States in our efforts to counter the influence of violent extremists groups in the Horn of Africa.
Too much is at stake to diminish U.S. global leadership and competitiveness in a world that is only growing more interconnected and interdependent — as well as more turbulent — every day. Mr. Obama’s visit to Africa demonstrates that U.S. engagement in all dimensions — development and diplomacy alongside defense — is needed as never before. With smart power and smart investments, our public and private sectors together can help the people and nations of Africa, while also advancing our national security, expanding our own economy and building a better, safer world.
Howard Berman is a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California and served as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Connie Morella is a former Republican member of the House from Maryland and served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Both are advisers to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.