By: Noha Bakr
The US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, which meets in Washington from 13-15 December, will be a major test for the US's commitment to the African continent on a range of issues, from human rights to food security and climate action.
The summit is expected to bring together 49 African governments from the 55 members of the African Union, with more attendees from the African Union Commission, civil society, African diaspora communities from across the United States, and the private sector.
The summit aims at seeking a common vision for the future of relations between the United States and Africa.
The first summit was held in 2014 under President Barack Obama and announced private sector commitments to invest in and partner with African countries on initiatives in energy, financial services, climate change, food security and health care, among other areas. Later in the Trump era, relations between the US administration and Africa turned cold.
This year’s summit was preceded by the first China-Arab Summit, which was held successfully on 9 December and was attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping and more than 10 Arab leaders. It aimed to strengthen future economic cooperation and foster a closer China-Arab community with a shared future.
The two summits reflect the importance to major powers of the Arab world and Africa as the fastest growing group of countries in the world.
Africa, with a population that is expected to reach 1.7 billion by 2030, is home to one-fifth of the world's population. The continent is also young, connected and increasingly urban, with mineral and energy resources needed by the rest of the world. Meanwhile, its waterways enhance its importance to supply chains across the world.
The continent has an increasing demand for food, but also has the potential to provide for its own needs and to support worldwide food security. It possesses wealth, fertile land, and human resources that could make it a food basket for a world suffering from tension in food security.
Still, it has an increasing need for health care, which, unless provided, could make it the source for more pandemics that would spread beyond its borders.
Meanwhile, seeing to the continent’s educational needs provides a path for sustainable development that could lead to declining illegal immigration rates, and hinder extremist groups’ recruitment.
This summit comes within the US belief in the importance of US-African relations and the importance of increasing cooperation on common international priorities.
The priorities of the summit, according to the American announcements, are first, economic participation, which is especially important as the United States is trying to find a point of balance towards the Chinese economic penetration in Africa.
Second, strengthening Africa's commitment to democracy and human rights. The African side does not favour this kind of conditionality for cooperation on the basis of cultural relativism. On the other hand, the United States has adopted universalism, which is highly controversial when it comes to such issues as LGBT rights. This is different from Chinese cooperation with African countries, which is purely economic.
Third, the United States is interested in working to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and future epidemics, and to work cooperatively to enhance regional health because of its impact on global health. African nations will surely welcome such efforts, as they will not be conditioned on democracy and human rights.
Fourth, the United States is looking to enhance food security, which is expected to be welcomed by African nations who look forward to receiving the technology and the know-how to build capacity in their young population.
Fifth, the US has stated that it seeks to promote peace and security. Such endeavors can have positive impact on reducing illegal immigration and limiting the spread of terrorism, if well structured. However, to work, it must not involve meddling in the internal affairs of state and must respect state sovereignty.
Six, the US wishes to work on responding to the climate crisis collaboratively. Africa has reserves of rare earth minerals critical for the green energy transition. The US is concerned that China is monopolising the extraction of these resources.
In addition, African countries believe that the continent’s early warning, adaptation and mitigation capabilities against climate change should receive more adequate financial and technological support from developed countries. They believe that this support should also take African development needs into account.
The major remaining question is: what distinguishes US engagement from other global partners such as the European Union, Japan and China, which has already been holding summits every three years and has pumped billions into African energy and infrastructure? Another question is: to what extent will the summit be a dialogue and not a monologue from the US side?
The answer to these questions will affect the narrow trust gap between US-Africa leaders. The fact is that African leaders, youth and civil society will be looking for the US to make major commitments during the summit, to bolster the continent’s economy through private sector investment and trade, through plans of debt alleviation and debt swaps, through transfer of technology and finally treat African nations with full respect.