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How US can help Africa meet its potential

There have been few more powerful symbols of the changing African narrative than this week’s staging of the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. The White House sees this event as a chance to strengthen ties with a dynamic part of the world that is an increasing contributor to global prosperity. With seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies on the continent, and a rapidly rising middle class, the emphasis of U.S. relations with Africa has shifted decisively to investment opportunities and partnership.

The United States, of course, enjoys a special place in the imaginations of Africans — something that was reinforced by the election of President Barack Obama. Young people continue, as I did when I came to study here many years ago, to look to the United States for inspiration, viewing this country as a place of economic opportunity built on a platform of democracy, human rights and religious tolerance.

America’s achievements resonate across all of Africa, where people also seek ways to improve life for their families. They aspire to choose — and reject — their leaders at the ballot box, to create courts that deliver impartial justice, to speak their minds without fear and to enjoy a free press that helps hold governments to account. But for many of them, these goals remain out of reach.

Beyond the continent, a peaceful and economically strong Africa can be a major part of the solution to many of the world’s great challenges. It can help drive global growth, reduce poverty and inequality, improve health and counter the threats of terrorism and climate change.

So what can the United States do to help Africa to achieve this potential?

First, it is important that the cultivation of stronger links with African countries not become a reason to downplay democracy and human rights. The United States must, of course, work with today’s African leaders, but ignoring political reality is not in the interests of Africa or America. After two decades of democratic progress, there are worrying signs of backsliding from leaders reluctant to step down or genuinely test their popularity at the polls. In the long run, Africans will remember who supported their democratic aspirations. The United States should throw its weight behind the continent’s own efforts to improve standards, such as through the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Second, U.S. security assistance must be focused on those who respect democratic norms. The wars on terror and drugs should not be conflated nor used as a justification for providing military assistance to regimes that abuse or neglect their people. Such aid can backfire, as we have seen in Mali.

Third, the summit offers the perfect opportunity for the United States to show leadership on the critical issue of transparency of payments to governments by the oil, gas and mining industries. The Dodd-Frank Act included a landmark requirement that publicly traded U.S. companies disclose all such payments, but the Securities and Exchange Commission has not begun enforcing the provision, which is crucial to reducing corruption in Africa. The United States must also continue to promote the global standards needed to prevent tax evasion on the continent. Africa loses twice as much in illicit financial outflows as it receives in international aid. Public disclosure of company ownership is essential to combating this problem.

Fourth, Africa needs wider investment, as well as more trade and greater access to markets, to help expand prosperity. Agriculture, which still employs two-thirds of Africa’s workforce and makes up a third of its gross domestic product, must be a priority. Africa remains the only continent that cannot feed itself — a deeply worrying fact given that its population is projected to double by 2050 and that climate change is forecast to hit Africa hard. U.S. investment and technical know-how to support sustainable farming techniques is vital. A green revolution has the potential to enable Africa not just to feed its own people but also to export food to the rest of the world.

Fifth, U.S. aid to Africa should not be diminished. While investment and trade may be the most important drivers of growth, development assistance still has a significant role to play, even if that role must evolve. The impact of U.S. assistance to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa shows what can be achieved. The recently launched Power Africa initiative, sponsored by USAID, can show how public-private partnerships can make a difference in providing energy. We need a similarly imaginative effort to improve the continent’s poor transportation links.

Finally, through its membership in international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank, the United States must encourage practices that put people at the center of economic policy-making. This includes the steps needed to meet the U.N.’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Many of these goals remain out of reach for a number of African countries. As the international community considers the post-2015 agenda, the United States can help ensure that the new goals reflect the complexity and diversity of the development challenges on the continent and commit sufficient resources to help meet the targets.

Africa will only become a stable and vibrant partner for the United States, and the world, if it provides opportunities for all its people. This requires peaceful, stable and democratic government.

My experience has taught me that there can be no long-term development without security and no long-term security without development. Nor will any society remain prosperous for long without the rule of law and respect for human rights. That is the enduring lesson of the American experience that Africa should aim to emulate and that the United States should seek to encourage.

Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, is chairman of the Kofi Annan Foundation and the Africa Progress Panel. This column first appeared in The Washington Post.

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