The conversations at the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the first day, are very different from discussions about Africa 15, or even 10, years ago.
He’s right — and he should know.
In the early 2000s, then-Senator Kerry (D-Mass.) was one of the leaders in the bipartisan effort to scale up U.S. funding for the HIV/AIDS pandemic through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — just as both programs were gaining their footing in Africa. As recently as 2000, The Economist had featured a notorious cover story calling Africa “the hopeless continent,” and debating its future of war, disease and endless poverty.
The representatives from some 50 African nations who arrived in Washington this weekend, by contrast, brought with them a ringing sense of optimism and hope — to say nothing of style and flair. In this miserable political year, the city could do with all those attributes.
The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa is making headlines, but recent progress on health issues in Africa has been little short of miraculous. As President Barack Obama said to members of the Young African Leaders Initiative last week, “over the last 20 years, HIV occurrence has been cut in half in Africa. …Tuberculosis and malaria deaths have been reduced by 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.” Africa is now home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, a burgeoning middle class and a vibrant technological sector, including mobile banking.
That is why so many of the African leaders attending the summit want to talk about their home not as a continent in crisis but as one of opportunity. They have come to discuss investment, trade — especially the tariff-free provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, due to be renewed by Congress next year — and infrastructure, all vital to the continent’s continued economic development.