TRALAC - Trade Law Centre

Predicting Obama’s Africa policy

'History in the making’: a phrase billowed throughout the streets of Washington, D.C. as 2 million visitors descended on the US capitol on 20 January 2009 for the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. As the first African-American elected into the nation’s highest office, President Obama has inspired many, though particularly those within the greater African Diaspora, whose realities are often shadowed by a history of social injustice coupled with lingering political and economic disenfranchisement.

Moreover, President Obama’s African heritage naturally invokes the expectation that an Obama Administration will bring a certain cultural sensitivity and understanding of the challenges that face the African continent, and thus will be likely to address these challenges in a more pro-active manner.

Needless to say, the ‘audacity of hope’ has turned into ‘the pragmatism of governance’. The Obama Administration is now faced with the enormous task of service delivery amidst a deepening domestic and global economic recession. The priorities in the short term are evident: creating new jobs, stabilising credit and housing markets, and building a foundation for renewed economic growth in America. With domestic issues at the forefront, how will this impact President Obama’s foreign policy objectives? Will ‘Africa’s son’¬—an endearing pet-name donned by several African journalists—be forced to do more of the same when it comes to African policy?

Historically, the US policy towards Africa has been reactive at best. But in more recent administrations, starting with former President Clinton who was the first US President to visit the continent, US-Africa relations have changed in nature though not in structure. While the second Bush Administration is rightly lauded for pouring unprecedented amounts of aid into Africa, the nature of US-foreign assistance to Africa has largely been structured in a way that is more palliative than prophylactic.

Now more than ever, African nations are looking to President Obama, as one who understands the continent in a way that no other prior US President has, for a change in US-Africa relations. What will be the outcome? Before predicting the future, let us take a look at President Obama’s past pronouncements and actions with regard to his priorities for US-Africa relations.

As a legislator

As a former member and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then Senator Barack Obama worked to focus America’s attention on Africa’s challenges. His main concerns as a legislator included:

1) Ending the genocide in Darfur;

2) Passing legislation to promote stability and support peaceful elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo;

3) Bringing war criminals in Liberia to justice;

4) Developing a coherent strategy for stabilising Somalia; and

5) Fighting HIV/AIDS in South Africa. (1)

As a political candidate

Based on Obama’s personal and professional credentials, Africa played a key role in his campaign’s foreign policy stance. According to Whitney Schneidmann, Co-Chair of then-Senator Obama’s Africa Advisory Committee, the Obama-Biden Campaign pledged to pursue three fundamental objectives on the continent: 1) accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy; 2) enhance peace and security of African States; and 3) strengthen relationships with governments, institutions, and civil society organisations committed to deepening democracy, accountability, and reducing poverty in Africa. (2)

From these objectives, it appears that the Obama Campaign was indeed on the track of ‘change’ with regard to US-Africa policy in that the first objective would imply more of an emphasis on increasing trade and investment rather than relying on traditional aid mechanisms, which underpin present US-Africa relations.

To accomplish this objective, the new administration hopes to focus on increasing food security and promoting competitiveness within the agriculture industry—an industry that many African economies rely on heavily in terms of job creation and overall well-being. The Campaign website speaks of establishing an Add Value to Agriculture Initiative (AVTA) that is expected to encourage research and innovation to promote higher-yield seeds, better irrigation methods, and safe fertilizers. This initiative also seeks to address and reduce the cost of food in several African countries.

In addition to AVTA, Whitney Schneidmann has spoken about initiatives to strengthen AGOA— a preferential trade policy established as a result of a strong bipartisan effort to improve market access for African producers to the US market. Obama’s willingness to strengthen AGOA sends a clear message to African countries that the US is to be considered a reliable trade partner. In addition to increasing the impact of AGOA, the Obama campaign also pledged to make the Millennium Development Goals ‘America’s’ Goals by doubling US foreign assistance to African from USD 25 million in 2008 to USD 50 million by 2012 in order to help countries accelerate progress towards achieving Millennium Development Goals and thereby cut poverty in half by 2015. Finally, during the campaign, Obama expressed intentions to work with the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation to further develop lending facilities to small and medium businesses.

As President

Less than a month into his new job, the burden of the global economy and rising US unemployment is on President Obama’s shoulders. With Congress having recently passed a USD 787 billion stimulus package, the new administration has its hands full. The bill features a “Buy American” provision, which effectively subsidises American business by narrowing the competition field for American input providers, particularly those within the steel and iron industries, who are competing for government-funded construction and infrastructure projects. The administration predicts that this provision alone will help to create up to 1000 jobs.

Surely, however, this feature of the stimulus package has raised concerns across the globe. Liberal economists warn that this signals ‘protectionist’ measures by the US. President Obama has assured the international community that his intentions are not to ignite any trade wars, but rather to effectively and swiftly stabilise the economic situation in the United States. In addition, the bill stipulates the Buy American provision be “applied in a manner consistent with United States obligations under international agreements.” Furthermore, the trade pact commitment clause says that products from least-developing countries be treated in the same manner as countries with which the US has formal trade commitments. (3) Trade compliance clauses also give members of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s government pact such as the European Union, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan some consolations as they are eligible to provide materials for public works projects funded by the bill. However, countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (also referred to as the “BRIC countries”) are not protected by this clause as they have not signed the 1995 government procurement accord, nor do they have free trade agreements with the United States. Trade expert and economist Jagdish Baghwati charges that Obama will be “mute” on multilateral trade issues, while embracing more bilateral agreements, which would make it easier for his administration to appease ‘free but fair trade lobbies’ in the form of domestic labour unions. (4)

President Obama’s “Africa” Advisory Team

Despite a gloomy economic outlook and the pressures toward protectionism that accompany it, President Obama has signaled to Africa that the intentions he outlined in his campaign are indeed bold and genuine. Thus far, President Obama has mobilised the ‘best and brightest’ to help him formulate and implement an invigorating Africa policy.

First, Susan Rice was appointed the US Ambassador to the United Nations, making her the first African-American female to hold this position. Prior to being confirmed by the US Senate, Ms Rice served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton Administration where she formulated and implemented overall US policy towards forty-eight countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Subsequently she became a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a US foreign policy think tank, where she wrote and lobbied for “drastic action” in Darfur.

In addition to Rice, a known Africanist, Michelle Gavin has joined the administration as the Assistant Director for African Affairs for the National Security Council (NSC). Prior to her position at NSC, Ms Gavin was a fellow at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations—Washington’s premier think tank and membership organisation—where she has written extensively about Zimbabwe. She also served as a US Senate Senior Staff member, with expertise in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Other key advisors that make up Obama’s team with noteworthy résumés and experience in Africa range from Tony Lake— President Clinton’s special envoy for negotiations that ended the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia—to Aaron Williams, who served as the USAID Mission Director in South Africa during the era of Nelson Mandela. These are just a few among several distinguished actors that have been brought on to Obama’s team to help carve out the administration’s policies and stances on Africa and related issues.

Looking ahead…

So what is President Obama’s Africa policy starting to look like? On 9 February 2009, Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Phil Carter, revealed the framework of US policy towards Africa. (5) The policy framework features four priorities that include:

1) Providing security assistance programs that are critical to securing the objective of a peaceful African continent. This includes working with African partners to build capacity at regional (African Union), sub-regional, and state-levels.

2) Promoting democratic systems and practices on the continent. As Phil Carter has stated, “It is not enough to just end wars, but we must move beyond post-conflict transformation to consolidate democracies.”

3) Promoting sustainable and broad-based, market-led growth. Using the Millennium Challenge Account as a foreign aid vehicle, the US hopes to continue to reduce poverty by facilitating sustainable economic growth through sizeable grants—not loans—to countries that practice good governance, seek responsibility in their own development, and are committed to achieving results.

4) Promoting health and social development

Based on these priorities, it appears that the Obama Administration’s policy toward Africa will have similar elements to previous administrations, in particular, evidence of pragmatic leadership. But as they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, while the elements of Obama’s Africa policy look familiar, the mechanisms and manner of implementation will determine the actual impact.


Nikki Duncan is a Staff Consultant with the Economic Growth, Governance, and Reconstruction Division at AECOM International Development in Arlington, Virginia, US. The author would like to thank Mr Mark Yarnell, Obama Campaign volunteer for his insights on the ‘thought leaders’ who have inspired President Obama’s Africa policy today; and Ms Gabriella Mallory-Espin for her research assistance.



2. “Africa: Obama’s Three Objectives for the Continent,” by Whitney W. Schneidmann, 8 September 2008,


4. Ibid.


Published by the ICTSD.

Sourced from