Howard French
Howard French

US president Obama took along a larger number of business people on his trip to Africa, in an effort to outbid the Chinese success in the continent. Former China and Africa correspondent Howard French sees a positive sign as the US wants to do ready with Africa, but wonders in an interview with Valley Public Radio whether the US are ready for a different Africa.


FRENCH: I think it’s possible for the U.S. to catch up. I’m not sure that Washington and our media cultures are yet seized, in fact, with the dimensions of what’s taking place in Africa and with the need to break with kind of old mindsets that relegate Africa to a sort of secondary status, an afterthought status is the best way to put it. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take consistent engagement. It’s going to take multiple, repeated high-level visits. But we have to change the way we engage with Africa.

And the past patterns have been perceived, for a long time, as very patronizing and sort of slighting by Africans. The typical thing is, you invite a few African leaders to Washington and bring them into the White House for a photo op, you know, three, four, five of them at a time, as if, you know, the premise there is that no African country, perhaps save South Africa, is worth a one-on-one discussion with the president in the White House. Africans are not going to give you their time of day if that’s the way you treat them nowadays. And this is really the moment to reconsider how we engage with the continent and to reinvest ourselves if we want to be part of the scene there.

MARTIN: What do you most hope will come out of this visit on both sides? I mean, recognizing that the United States is one country and that Africa is, you know, more than 50, but – what do you hope will come out of this visit?

FRENCH: Well, so one thing that is happening on this trip is that Obama has taken – and I give great credit to the administration for organizing it – apparently has taken a great many businesspeople with him on this trip. And, you know, I just completed a book which is due out next year about China’s relationship with Africa, and one of the things that I was struck by and even shocked by was to notice that through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was created by George Bush, as you said, the United States gives guaranteed loans for development projects of various kinds all over the place in Africa.

And as I went from country to country researching this book, I discovered that a great many of these contracts are never bid for by American companies, despite having guaranteed funding by the United States government. We’re talking $50, $75, $200 million contracts that, because the image of Africa has been so persistently negative in this country, because there is such an absolute absence of – or near absolute absence of business coverage of Africa in United States, because there’s such an ignorance of the fact that Africa is growing and growing fast, and urbanizing and urbanizing faster than any other part of the world, you know, American companies don’t even, it doesn’t enter their minds to think that maybe there’s some opportunity to do business in Africa that could be very lucrative for them.

And so Obama taking, I don’t know, a couple of hundred or however many businesspeople with him to Africa, I think is a very welcome gesture and marks what I think of as really just the beginning of the sort of thing that needs to be done if we’re going to engage effectively.

More in KVPR.

Howard French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form

China Weekly Hangout

One of the issues between China and Africa is the growing number of Chinese workers going to Africa. In the China Weekly Hangout of June 13, Eric Olander of the China Africa project discusses the arrest of Chinese gold miners in Ghana, and the position of Chinese labor in Africa. Questions are asked by Fons Tuinstra of the China Speakers Bureau and Swiss lawyer Nathan Kaiser.


On July 1 Hong Kong will see the annual march against Beijing rule. The +China Weekly Hangout will examine on Thursday July 4 the turnout, and how the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing has developed, since China took over the former British enclave. You can read our announcement here, or join the debate at our event page here.

Confirmed guests: Paul Fox, Dee Lee and Brian Ho.

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