More Than a Passing Grade: President Obama Succeeds With US-Africa Summit

On these pages last month, we offered the President and his team some friendly advice and "Dos" and "Don'ts" on the first ever US-Africa Summit. ("How Obama Can Get The Africa Summit Right.") Now, a week after the leaders of 45 African nations and over 100 companies returned to their countries, it's fair to ask just how President Obama did.

Our grade is B+, and from what we heard during the three days of Washington meetings, most of the participants would agree.

The White House avoided the major "don'ts" -- there was little preaching to the Africans; important security meetings were held, and there was enough attention paid to each leader to avoid bruised egos, which is no small feat with over three dozen politicians. And there were some firm financial commitments made by the White House instead of the time-honored trick of merely reprogramming existing funds.

Indeed, there were important moments of focus - with energy company executives and the presidential guests engaging in very specific ideas about how to strengthen and expand Obama's "Power Africa" initiative.

And there was the crisis du jour they could work on together -- how to frame a message for a resistant Congress that the Ex-Im Bank should continue to receive the U.S. government's support. It's perhaps the most important agency assisting US companies investing in emerging markets.

There were actual deals too-- the U.S. committing to train police to fight terrorists in Somalia; US companies signing agreements to develop oil assets in Morocco; USAID putting up additional resources to train young African entrepreneurs and the sale of GE locomotives to Transnet South Africa.

And the dialogue wasn't focused on only the private sector. The Nature Conservancy got to ask the Somali President some key questions about his re-emerging country's commitment to expanding the Northern Rangelands Trust. Refugees International had the chance to describe the global instability from tens of millions of people being "warehoused" in camps.

This summit featured U.S.-African commercial partnerships that represent the changing global realities of business and replaced the aid-only paradigm of the past. Blackstone partnered with Nigeria's richest man, Aliko Dangote, to invest $5 billion in infrastructure and IBM signed a five-year contract with Fidelity Bank in Ghana. In total, $33 billion in deals was announced.

The major negative from this historic week was largely unpreventable -- the horrific Ebola epidemic emerged on the very day most leaders were boarding planes to travel to America. The tragic loss of life in what the WHO has deemed a global health emergency reflects the many challenges in building a global health system that can withstand and contain fast moving viruses in our interconnected world.

What was to be Africa's greatest moment in the US spotlight was somewhat overshadowed by this tragedy and by the predictable, but unfortunate media scrum that produced more "Africa is dangerous" headlines. On the very eve of the Summit, ABC's This Week Sunday program led with the epidemic instead of interviewing one or two leaders of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Sadly in the public psyche -- and among too many producers and editors -- epidemic trumps economic growth.

The epidemic was just another reminder of the difficulty ahead in assuaging fears and dispelling misperceptions about Africa. But the first ever U.S.-Africa Summit was a huge step in the right direction.

It was the most significant US engagement with African nations since their independence in the 1960s . And not so much because of what the politicians said at the official meetings; that was all well and good, but will be quickly forgotten. More vital was the fact that in hotel bars and lobbies and DC's finest restaurants, thousands of Africans, Americans and others talked about the future, got to know each other better and promised to do some good things together. In many ways, it was an enormous "Know your customer" investment that is sure to pay dividends in the coming years.

We hear those who remark that this one should have been President Obama's Second Africa Summit, but, even somewhat late in his tenure, this one was a good one and should be commended.


Toby Moffett is a former member of Congress from Connecticut and a Senior Advisor at Mayer Brown, LLP. He has represented African countries, companies and NGOs for more than twenty years. Aubrey Hruby is a Visiting Fellow at the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council and is a consultant helping companies do business across African markets.