In a Trump world, can Africa be great again?

Africa was a policy priority for previous three administrations—Clinton, Bush and Obama. But can US contribute to Africa’s growth story once Trump pushes ‘America First’ agenda?

By Subhojit Goswami
Last Updated: Thursday 22 December 2016 | 10:06:10 AM
Credit: Ted Eytan/ Flicker
Credit: Ted Eytan/ Flicker Credit: Ted Eytan/ Flicker

Trump's agenda

Africa was equally astonished as everybody else at Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The news confirming his entry into the White House sent a ripple of apprehensions across the continent as he is widely believed to be “oblivious and ignorant about Africa.”

While the US policy towards Africa in the last three US presidential administrations has revolved around peace, security, governance and promotion of opportunity and development, Trump has promised to shift US foreign policy priorities and reshape America’s system of alliances.

So, will Trump allow the US agencies such as USAID to operate with considerable autonomy? Will human rights suffer a setback or will the US be able to steer social and political change in Africa?

Too many questions cloud optimism.

However, the question as to what would Trump mean for Africa gains relevance more because the continent has some serious challenges to confront.

Economic growth in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has declined sharply since 2012 and currently, about 80 per cent of the LDCs are African. For an emerging market like Africa, which is heavily dependent on commodity exports, the threat of Brexit also came at a least opportune time when intense droughts, population growth, lack of sustainable land and water management practices and conflicts have led to massive population displacements across Africa. It has more countries affected by displacement than any other continent or region.

Continuing drought has not only led to growing water scarcity, but it also has threatened food security Credit: CIAT/ Flicker

On top of that, there’s a fear of global warming and drought stress shortening production time of maize—a staple crop. It will lead to a very short growing season that won’t allow maize plants to fully mature. Be it socio-economic transformation or environmental sustainability, Africa cannot pull itself out of the conundrum on its own, at least with its current capabilities.

When President Obama visited Ghana in June 2009, he had affirmed, “We believe in Africa's potential and promise. We remain committed to Africa's future. We will be strong partners with the African people.” But, Africa is unlikely to be on top of the Trump administration’s policy agenda.

Fragile economy

Trump is not going to accept any expansion or extension of agreements that give Africa greater leeway than the US Credit: Gage Skidmore/ FlickerThe African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives sub-Saharan African countries a duty-free market access to the US, is at a risk of being annulled. Thanks to the AGOA, non-oil exports from Africa to the US witnessed a four-fold increase from US$1.4 billion in 2001 to $4.1 billion in 2015. But Trump is not in favour of giving tax-free access to the US markets. His dogged insistence that he will re-negotiate trade deals could impact AGOA and other long-standing deals with African nations.

A continent that’s witnessing a slump in economic growth, was betting high on Hillary to win and carry forward Obama’s commitments. Trump’s election might mean less investment in Africa and a significant cut in aid since he had already indicated that the US may rethink its foreign aid and foreign deployments. There’s a possibility that important infrastructure and healthcare programmes across Africa may suffer.

Geographical distance and a dominant narrative of epidemics and conflict peddled by media prevent the US investors from understanding African markets and investment prospects. Investing in Africa and trading with the continent is an opportunity for the US to target the rising consumer class and realise the potential of economic sectors.

If only Trump introspects

The US support will be a decisive step towards curbing mass migration from Africa that has overwhelmed American cities and Europe since 2015. While many Africans flee their native countries to escape conflict and natural disasters, countless others move out in search of economic opportunities.

Trump is a protectionist and he is building a ‘cabinet of billionaires’ that’s more interested “at cutting a deal”. He is not going to accept any expansion or extension of agreements that give Africa greater leeway than the US. In its bid to readjust free-trade policies that have, apparently, increased America’s trade deficits, lowered wages and siphoned off manufacturing jobs, Trump-led US should not overlook the business opportunities in Africa where consumers are expected to contribute to over $400 billion in consumption growth in the next 10 years and the workforce is predominantly young.

All hope is not lost for Africa as some US-based global companies are building a strong case in favour of investing in Africa, which will help build the infrastructure needed for expanding American markets into Africa. Trump's pro-business approach may convince him that continuing to provide aid will yield bigger returns in future.

The US provided approximately $7 billion in economic aid to Africa in fiscal year 2014. Credit: Defence Images / Flicker

Africa can also pin hope on the possibility of Trump taking up the Chinese challenge of becoming a dominant foreign player in Africa. If he chooses to weaken China’s clout in the continent, he might focus on increasing American exports, creating new jobs and fostering development-oriented investment in the continent.

Environmental challenges

Africa is least responsible for climate change but it is a continent most affected by it. In its entirety, the continent contributes only 3.8 per cent of total gas emissions, much less than the US and the European Union. Hence, it is understandable when the continent demands international effort to mitigate the consequences of climate change.

Extreme weather changes triggered by climate change are having a debilitating effect on Africa’s agriculture sector, which provides up to 60 per cent of all jobs in the continent. As Obama's presidential tenure comes to an end in January 2017, fear of Trump forsaking US support for Paris Agreement is lurking around the corner. Many have already started drawing an analogy between Trump’s regime and Ronald Reagan’s presidency during which Jimmy Carter's early attempts at promoting clean energy and other environmental reforms were overturned. That will be catastrophic for Africa, which is already witnessing increased famine and food insecurity.

Trump is building a ‘cabinet of billionaires’ that’s more interested “at cutting a deal” . Credit: Gage Skidmore/ Flicker

Obama was convinced that an increase in natural disasters will cause more humanitarian crises and political instability in Africa and thus, aggravating the migration crisis. One of his attempts at tackling the challenges was the introduction of Climate Services for Resilient Development. The objective of the $34-million project was to train local communities in countries such as Ethiopia on how to mitigate climate-related risks. Through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Obama government invested millions of dollars in infrastructure, health services, agricultural systems and urban planning to help African countries adapt to climate change and mitigate carbon emissions.

The $7-billion Power Africa project initiated by Obama was aimed at providing electricity and creating 60 million new connections in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. Thanks to this project, Ethiopia’s first private-sector-sponsored geothermal project and Senegal’s first wind power project could kick off. It now supports development projects in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Trump’s plan to cut federal climate change programmes and double down on fossil fuels will further hasten the impacts of climate change, especially in Africa. At the same time, it might derail global efforts to help the poorest countries deal with environmental challenges.

Choice of cabinet members

While the environmental damage by the US and other oil companies in the Niger Delta continues to bring hardship, Trump goes ahead appointing proponents of fossil fuels to his team. Scott Pruitt has been asked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the same agency he sued repeatedly as Oklahoma attorney general. A greater irony lies in the case of former Texas governor, Rick Perry. He has been appointed as secretary of the energy department, which he had proposed to eliminate in his 2012 presidential bid.

There will be more clarity on Trump’s policy towards Africa in the coming days but his entry into the White House may seem like a wake-up call for Africa to reduce reliance on foreign aid and look for solutions from within the continent.

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