At the U.S.-Africa Summit, Leaders Need to Signal Change

Washington is usually quiet in August, but an event next week has the potential to shake things up for business and foreign policy.

More than 200 U.S. and African CEOs, including the heads of General Electric, Walmart, Blackstone, Google, and Coca-Cola, will gather on August 5 to attend the first ever U.S.-Africa Business Forum. Convened by the White House, the forum is the centerpiece of a three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which aims to strengthen ties and will bring together business leaders and more than 40 African heads of state – an unprecedented number in Washington at one time.

It’s clear why the White House has called for this business-oriented summit. Africa’s growth has been well chronicled in Harvard Business Review. More recent articles in the Wall Street Journal andNew York Times summarize the case for U.S. commercial engagement in Africa.

How the U.S. government will succeed is less clear. There are a myriad of African business conferences, but even the largest of these pales in comparison to the scope and visibility of this event. Given the rise of Chinese influence in Africa, some in Washington have suggested the U.S. match the pageant of Chinese summits, with deal announcements and photo opportunities. Others have said that the U.S. must adhere to its history of pressing U.S. values at the expense of business opportunities.

Any of the successful CEOs attending would balk at these ideas. They would tell you that following your competitor’s strategy is a recipe for coming in second, and replicating what you’ve done before is a recipe for coming in last.

To succeed in this most unusual summit, U.S. officials must do the opposite: signal a break with patterns that hold the relationship back, and present an attractive alternative to the patterns of our competitors.

Can the summit mark a change in how the U.S. interacts with Africa? “I wake up every morning and wonder how I can help Africa.” That is how a senior U.S. official guiding Africa policy recently described his job motivation. Respectfully, that’s misguided. The U.S. taxpayer deserves a public servant who wakes up every morning thinking about U.S. interests. African business leaders, whom I know, understand that and expect it. The Summit will be filled with successful Africans building a continent and ready to meet us as equals. Look to see if our officials and executives are prepared for that.

Can the summit demonstrate a new orientation to the opportunities in Africa? Three-quarters of Africa’s growth in recent years has been outside of natural resources. Yet most U.S. investment in Africa is in natural resources. And contrary to what is widely asserted, the U.S. invests less in Africa’s manufacturing than Africa’s newer trading partners, including China. Can the U.S.-Africa summit signal a shift from that historic mismatch, and show the U.S. on a path of investing in what is above Africa’s ground, as well as what’s beneath it?

Can the U.S. disrupt our competitors’ models? In the race for opportunity and influence in Africa, no competitor looms larger than China, which has increased its total trade with Africa twenty-fold since 2001. The Chinese model of state capitalism has unique strengths that the U.S. will not match, such as subsidized financing at scale and freedom from the pressure to show positive quarterly results. As a result, China has contributed significantly to the continent’s development.

The Chinese are also more capable of closing summits with multibillion-dollar deal announcements. That’s a superficial manifestation of a very deep difference. The Chinese government commands its largest businesses. The U.S. government does not. And in that distinction lies the opportunity for the U.S. to overtake its competitors. The private capital model of the U.S. has the potential to create more skill, technology, and innovation in Africa than a Statist partner could. Intel’s African software developer platform and Microsoft’s continent-wide investment in entrepreneurship are the kinds of ventures we have not yet seen from China’s state-owned enterprises. Watch to see if the U.S. effectively highlights the differentiating advantages of U.S.-African collaboration.

Making these distinctions clear is at the core of winning opportunities and influence next week. The U.S. and Africa share a broad set of opportunities and values. It can be the role of this summit to clear preexisting patterns obscuring that reality.

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