Author Howard French, of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa explains in Foreign Policy what President Obama did not mention in his Nairobi speech. Obama did not really get the fast development of Africa, and has ignored the continent.
The continent has famously seen a huge boom in the presence of Chinese people and business interests — both trade and investment — in the last decade or so. Less well-publicized, but just as real, many African countries are drawing interest from a wide variety of other foreign governments and business people, including nontraditional partners like Turkey, Vietnam, Russia, Malaysia, and Brazil. During this same period, the American presence on the continent has flagged, and numbers measuring U.S. economic engagement have stagnated. Obama himself spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term, and put off what will likely be regarded as his most important visit to the continent until late in his second term.By contrast, China’s top leaders – either its president or prime minister — have been visiting Africa on a near-annual basis.
The relative newcomers to the African economic scene are drawn by a sense of great opportunity. For starters, economic growth in Africa as a region is roughly on parwith Asia’s, and perhaps even a tad faster. The continent’s population is booming in ways that suggest even greater strengthening of these trends ahead. Over the next few decades, for example, no other part of the world will have as many people of prime working age. Already, no other part of the world is urbanizing faster. Contrary to widespread perception, Africa’s recent economic growth is increasinglydriven by services and, to a lesser but still important degree, by manufacturing. This translates into less dependence on the traditional pillar of natural resources, which have a poor record of driving development and generating widely shared wealth.
By sticking so closely to an old-fashioned script, Obama squandered a unique chance to explain the changing realities of the continent to the American public. Over the short term this probably entails less American investment, which is, to be sure, a loss for Africa. It also means that fewer American business people will think of Africa as a place for trade and investment, which represents a continued loss of markets for the U.S. economy.
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